Loosen Up Your Calves
Unless you are a truly dedicated couch potato, your calves get quite a workout as you walk through your daily life. With every step you take, you push off the ball of your foot, and your calf muscles lift your entire body weight. Since they receive so much work, the calves are some of the strongest muscles in your body.
Any muscle, whether big or small, tends to shorten as it gets worked and strengthened. Without regular stretching a powerful muscle group like the calf can become quite short and tight, seriously limiting the range of motion at the ankle, and this can really get in your way in yoga poses.
Tight Calf Blues
The muscle group we think of as the calf is composed primarily of two muscles, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius originates on the lower femur (thighbone), just above the knee, and the soleus originates on the posterior surfaces of the tibia and fibula, the two bones in the lower leg (the tibia is the shinbone). The gastrocnemius lies just under the skin of your calf, and the soleus is underneath the gastrocnemius. The fibers of both muscles run down the calf and attach to the Achilles tendon, which attaches to the calcaneus, the big heel bone at the back of your foot. When the two muscles contract and shorten, they pull up on your heel, lifting it and raising your body up on tiptoe.
Raising the heel is an essential component of many activities, including walking and climbing stairs. The calves are also an important part of forward propulsion in running and cycling, so most aerobically trained athletes have developed strong gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. With regular stretching it's possible to cultivate calves that are both strong and flexible. But if you are at all active and don't stretch, your calves can become very short and tight. Along with interfering with asanas, strong and tight calves can be a danger for athletes, negatively affecting their stride and contributing to potentially devastating ruptures of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon. Some women are especially at risk for such injuries, since the calf muscles can become shortened if you frequently wear heeled shoes, even heels of only one to two inches. I have known elderly women who could no longer walk or stand barefoot because they constantly wore heeled shoes since childhood.
While most yoga students do have enough natural calf flexibility to walk around barefoot, many of us have a degree of calf shortness that affects our poses. You might feel the effect of short calves as difficulty keeping the back heel down in standing poses such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle). Lack of calf flexibility is one reason you may struggle to get your heels down in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Tight calves can also contribute to another common misalignment in Downward Dog—a rounded back. You can see how tight hamstrings on the back of the thighs can cause the back to round in Downward Dog by pulling down on the sitting bones. But how can the calves, despite their distance from the spine and pelvis, cause this? The rounded back occurs when you compensate for tight calves by walking your hands closer to your feet so you can get your heels down to the floor. It is this short stance that usually causes the spine to flex and the front body to compress.
To find a good distance between your hands and feet, start in Plank Pose (the push-up position: body straight, heels extending back, hands under your shoulders) and then push back into Downward Dog. Eventually, as the flexibility of your hamstrings, calves, and shoulders improves, you'll be able to get your heels and your head to the floor. (As your head comes down, be sure to lengthen your spine fully; don't collapse your pose to get your head to the floor.)
A Stretch a Day
Because the calf muscles are so potentially powerful, it takes a frequent, persistent stretching program to improve overall calf flexibility. Since the calf is getting worked every day as you walk, run, and climb stairs, stretching it briefly once or twice a week is not enough to make a significant change. In fact, I recommend that if you really want to open up new territory in flexibility, you should stretch your calves five or six days each week. It is especially helpful to give the muscles a good, long stretch—at least a minute, if not two—after you've worked them. After they have been contracted by work, say after a run or walk, the muscles are warm and fatigued, ideal conditions for stretching. If you wait to stretch muscle tissue until after it's worked and contracted, it can cool off in a shortened position and gradually lose flexibility. So reserve a few minutes after your workout, or at the end of a day if you've been on your feet a lot, to stretch your calves.
When it comes to calf stretching, there are many exercises from which to choose. Downward Dog, of course, is well known as a calf stretch, but if you have really tight calves, you may find it quite difficult to get enough leverage on both calves at the same time to really make them lengthen. You might like to start with stretching just one at a time.
With both feet fully on the floor, step one foot forward, gently bending the knee to come over the heel. Make sure that your back foot points straight ahead; otherwise, you'll get an unbalanced stretch on the calf. (It's helpful to actually look at your back foot: You may feel like it's pointing straight ahead when it's really pointing out to the side.) Then slide that foot back until you have a moderate stretch in the calf, but not so far that the heel comes off the floor. Actively press the heel into the floor to facilitate release and lengthening of the calf muscles. This is a good stretch to help you gain calf flexibility, because you can do it easily and often (it doesn't require props) and you don't have to bother getting down on the ground (you can even do it outside after walking).
Now let's see if you are ready to integrate a good deep calf stretch into your Downward Dog. Sometimes you can get more length in your calves in Downward Dog by initially lifting your heels high off the floor and then consciously releasing the calf contraction and easing your heels back down. This is a version of "contract-relax," a stretching technique that takes advantage of the fact that it's easier to release and stretch a muscle more deeply after contracting it.
You can also get a good, deep calf stretch by moving from Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) to Downward Dog. With your heels well grounded in Uttanasana and your quadriceps (front thigh) muscles contracted to keep your knees straight, walk your hands out a foot or so beyond your toes. Still keeping your heels grounded and your knees straight, press your thighbones back toward the wall behind you. After you take a few breaths in this position, walk your hands out another foot, pausing again to breathe and reinforce the grounding of your heels. After you have repeated this process more than a few times, you'll find a position where you experience an intense calf stretch. Even though you may not have reached your full Downward Dog position, this is still a good place to pause for several breaths and visualize your calf muscles lengthening all the way from the back of your knee through the Achilles tendon to your heel. Eventually you'll be able to walk your hands all the way out to full Downward Dog with your heels on the floor.
You can get a similar but much deeper stretch in Uttanasana if you start out by standing with the balls of your feet on a rolled sticky mat and your heels on the floor. Again bend down into Uttanasana and slowly walk your hands away from your feet until you feel a good calf stretch. Keep your heels on the floor; be careful not to walk your hands out so far that your heels come up. While we are on the subject of calf stretching with your heels lower than the balls of your feet, I want to add a note of caution: Don't ever try to stretch your calves while hanging your heels off a step. This position creates too much leverage to be safe, even for a strong muscle group like the calf; it can cause tearing of the muscle or associated connective tissue. Such a tear can severely limit your activities, including your ability to walk.
The wise yoga student doesn't expect instant calf flexibility but instead works patiently over months, and even years, to slowly lengthen the calves. Besides avoiding injury, this gradual work will teach you patience and heighten your awareness of your connection to the earth through the grounding of your heels, which forms the foundation for your poses to grow up into the heavens.
A licensed physical therapist and certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad runs a private physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon. She regrets that she cannot respond to correspondence or calls requesting personal health advice.