It is inevitable that you will hear in a yoga class some form of ‘grounding’ or ‘rooting’ through the connection points of the foot in order to facilitate greater stability and integrity throughout poses. What does all this grounding really mean in terms of translation throughout the kinetic chain (up to the knees, hips, and spine)? These grounding suggestions can also get confusing and obscure with contradictions from one teacher/style of yoga to another. Therefore, I thought I would discuss some of the debates surrounding foot grounding and knee placement using the classic squat as an example.
First off, the ‘squat’ has received a bad rap with ‘concerns’ about back and knee safety; however, humans are biomechanically designed to perform a full squat. Just look at how many cultures perform deep squats all day as a natural posture. Unfortunately, modernized habitual postures (ie chronic sitting in chairs and vehicles) have generated functional limitations in the kinetic chain of the body. These limitations are commonly seen in the ankles where limited dorsiflexion of the ankle occurs requiring many people needing to lift the heels in order to get down into a proper squat position in the hips in knees. This break in the natural kinetic chain causes improper shifts of one’s center of gravity – this leads to undesirable modifications of knee and spinal placement as well as improper rooting of the feet (tendency to shift the grounding and force loads forward into the toe mounds.
Couple of debates on knee placement and grounding focus in squats:
*Knees tracking over toes and toe mound grounding
Some experts propose that allowing the knees to travel forward towards, over, or past the toes can dramatically increase sheer forces in the knees when the knees undergoing loaded flexion. The energy meant to be contained in the belly of the thigh muscles transmits into the connective tissue of the knees and poses as a risk for chronic injury.
*Moving knees back over the heels and shifting the grounding through the center of the heels
A common cue in the fitness and yoga community for squat-like poses is to protect the knees by keeping the knees back over the heels, shifting weight back, and placing focus on the center heel to ground and press out of. Some kinesiology experts propose that this can generate problematic postural instability issues including the creation of improper kinesthetic development of balance techniques. When we are in a classic squat/chair pose and shift our weight back, it is believed that this is taking our center of gravity out of the natural line of the true biomechanical squat and for some people, can actually disrupt their functional balancing principles (ie they can actually develop patterns of falling back off their heels).
Appreciating that the squat and pretty much all other standing poses require sustaining the functional center of gravity to optimize the most inherently natural, biomechanical position of the body and limbs, where should the knees flow and how should we be grounding the feet? A new approach to the classic squat looks first at where the center of gravity flows. When standing in mountain pose, our center flows down through the tibia bones (shins) and carries through the talus bone (ankle) and ends just forward of the heel. When we squat, we should (ideally) permit the knees to move slightly forward of the heel taking the ankle into dorsiflexion (keeping the heels on the ground). As the knees and hips flex, the spine should remain neutral through core engagement, but lean forward following relatively close to the same angle of tibia (shin) bone.
As we descend into the squat with these general alignment principles, we can expand the feet feeling all corners (toe mounds to heel), but maintain a primary, central focus of grounding pressure just forward of heel where the center of gravity continues to travel into (again, this assumes we are aligning the knees, hips, and spine functionally).
When we develop this simple squat technique and grounding application through the forward edge of the heel (versus through the center of the heel), we can start to integrate this central grounding in other standing poses. The classic squat can be easily seen in other poses like Eagle, Standing Fire Log, and Twisting Chair. Play with knee position, feel the angle connection of the tibia and spine, and explore the central grounding pressure in the forward aspect of the heel. When you work to bring energy into this forward heel line, the knees have a tendency to automatically find their own way into an appropriate alignment to facilitate this grounding. Having the knee track forward in other standing postures (ie Warrior and High Lunges) is not always recommended, but if you are used to positioning your knee back so that the force load and grounding works through the center heel, consider trying a slight modification moving the energy a little bit forward – see how this transmits into the muscle and knee collectively.
Take home message: all postures should function to support the inherent movement patterns designed for our body as well as remain consistent with the gravitational and energetic balancing patterns meant to keep joint integrity as the posture passes through the entire kinetic chain. When we load the joints and take them out of the inherent biomechanical movement patterns, we risk the development of chronic injury. Understanding where force loads and gravitational lines flow throughout all stages of a pose can greater enhance our ability to align, root, and ground in order to optimize the benefits. If we feel that our knee placement is preventing us from applying a proper central rooting, observe how this knee placement could be adversely be affecting the integrity of the knee as well as other parts of the body.