I'm always amazed when I visit India and see people working for hours in a squat on the ground. Unlike sitting in a chair while hunched over a desk, squatting in a pose like Malasana (Garland Pose) can actually improve your posture, stretch your back, elasticize your knees and ankles, and help improve your digestive function.
Malasana is also a forward bend—the back softens and releases from head to tail as the ankles, knees, and hips flex. The heels root the hips back, and the spine lengthens as it rounds. In addition to strengthening and stretching the feet and ankles and increasing mobility in the hips, the pose allows the back muscles to broaden.
As with all yoga poses, there's a rhythm to Malasana and all its actions. Legendary teacher B.K.S. Iyengar says that asanas become rhythmic when the actions lead to an uninterrupted flow of awareness throughout your entire system. When you're able to coordinate the actions so that no individual area of your body is overworking—or being neglected—you can experience an inner rhythm and a sense of wholeness in the pose, as if each part of your body is expressing itself equally.
This includes your heels. Your heels, which press evenly into the floor, act as a counterpoint to your head, keeping you grounded as you extend. If you are tight in your hips, groins, calves, and Achilles tendons, your heels may not reach the floor. So we'll begin with some variations to loosen those regions. If your knees ache in the pose, place a blanket behind them, between your calves and thighs, to help decrease the amount of flexion. (The thicker the blanket, the less your knees will have to bend.) Just be sure to use a blanket behind both knees (even if you feel pressure on only one) so that your weight isn't skewed to one side, putting extra pressure on your other knee.
Get a Hold On
In this variation, hold on to something firm, like a table, to help you find stability while you learn to press your heels down and lengthen your spine. The variation will also help you stretch your calves and ankles so that you can reach your heels to the floor. The object you hold on to should be fixed, secure, and high enough so that your arms can reach upward in the squat. If you don't have a table at the correct height, a doorknob may work, or you can open the door and hold on to the doorknobs on either side. Wall ropes, a countertop, a bed frame, or a banister may also work.
Begin by standing with your feet together. Now hold on to the table or support and step back a couple of feet. Exhale and squat so that your knees are in front of your ankles and your heels under your buttocks. If your buttocks are almost touching the floor, you need to step your feet a little farther back, away from the table. If you moved so far back that your heels are no longer touching the floor, try walking your feet a little closer to the table until you can just barely reach your heels to the floor. This alignment will help you stay balanced when you are no longer using the table for support.
Keep your feet together, press the inner edges of your heels into the floor, and stretch your calf muscles down toward your heels. Lengthen your toes forward on the floor and pull your heels back as if the bottom of your foot were becoming longer. Pull on the table, inhale, and lift the sides of your rib cage and waist. As your torso rises, move your hips and buttocks down. Look up toward your hands and hold this Malasana variation for 20 seconds. To come out of the pose, inhale and pull on the table to stand up and straighten your legs.
In this variation, a wall supports your buttocks, which will help shift some of your weight into your heels while you reach forward. To begin, stand with your feet approximately six inches away from a wall, and your sacrum against it. Bend your knees and slide your buttocks down the wall until you're squatting. If your heels don't reach the floor, step your feet a little farther away from the wall. If you find that your buttocks touch the floor, come a little closer to the wall. As in the previous variation of the pose, your heels should just barely touch the floor so that you can balance the forward extension of your torso and toes with the backward and downward stretch of your heels. Keeping the feet together, spread your knees apart, press your heels down, and stretch them back toward the wall.
With the bottom of your sacrum resting against the wall, extend your arms, side ribs, and waist between your legs and away from the wall. Reach forward from the bottom of your waist to your hands, and extend your arms and chest parallel to the floor. Notice that the more you reach forward with your torso, the more you have to ground your heels back and down. Keep your inner heels down so that the weight doesn't fall onto the outside edge of your foot. For this variation, look down at the floor.
Your knees, of course, separate in a squat, but don't spread your legs so wide that they lose contact with your torso. Move your inner thighs back and down toward your hip sockets while you bring your outer thighs forward and up toward your knees. Lift the front of your shins while you lengthen the back of your calves down. Playing on the edge of sitting and extending, explore the rhythm of balancing the forward stretch of your torso with the rooting of your thighs into your hip sockets as you ground your heels. Similarly, see if you can balance the effort in your inner and outer thighs and the front and back of your lower legs so that you're not working one area more than another.
You can stay here for 30 to 60 seconds before coming out. When you're ready, take your hands to the wall, keep your head down as you lift your hips up toward the ceiling, and straighten your legs to come into ,a href="http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/478"target="_blank">Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Stay there for a few breaths.
Now you're ready to try the final pose. Start in Uttanasana with your feet together and your hands on the floor a few inches in front of your feet; then bend your knees into a squat. If your heels don't reach the floor, place a rolled blanket underneath them so they have something to press into.
With your feet touching and your heels down, spread your knees apart as you reach forward between your legs with your arms. Bring your chest parallel to the floor. Push your inner heels down, lengthen the sides of your waist away from your hips, and pull your chest forward. Move your inner thigh muscles back toward your pelvis. Now see if you can relax the very top inner thighs at your groin to give you the freedom to pull your torso away from your legs. As your hips and inner thighs move back, they'll act as a counterbalance to your torso.
Exhale and bend your elbows with your arms still between your legs and place your palms on the floor. Reach your hands around the outside edges of your ankles and catch hold of your heels. As you do this, don't let the sides of your waist shrink or retract. In this position, with your shoulders underneath your knees, you can see how the pose got its name: The arms are said to resemble a garland hanging around the neck. Now pull on your heels and exhale to take your head toward the floor.
Observe your feet. Is one foot tilting toward its outer edge? Are your feet moving away from each other? Press both inner heels down evenly and stretch your toes forward. Pull the tops of your thighs and hips back, and if your buttocks lift slightly, consciously take your buttocks down as you bring your head a little closer to the floor. If you can, place your forehead on the floor near your toes. If that isn't possible for you, just allow the back of your neck to release down without tightening your throat.
Even though you are drawn into a compact ball in this pose, continue to lengthen your waist and ribs forward as if they are being pulled out of your hips. Take a few smooth breaths to work on the rhythmic balance of rooting and extending, spreading and lengthening. Soften your throat and allow the entire back of your body—from tailbone to head—to release into this full forward bend.
To come out of the pose, release your ankles, place your hands on the floor in front of your toes, inhale, and straighten your legs into Uttanasana. Extend the backs of your legs as you release your head and neck down. If you practice the compact and soothing forward bend of Malasana regularly, you'll learn the art of squatting with ease. It's a skill that you'll find useful throughout your life—whether you are trying to improve your posture, getting close to a heavy object to lift it safely without straining your back, or creating your own restful seat when there are no chairs available.
Marla Apt is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. She teaches and leads teacher trainings in Los Angeles and abroad.