How Yogis Do Squat: Malasana

Sculpt strong, lean legs and focus your intention with Malasana.
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Sculpt strong, lean legs and focus your intention with Malasana.
yoga woman in squat malasana pose

Get Grounded
Yoga teaches that each pose has an energetic quality. For instance, some poses are uplifting and energizing, while others are soothing and stabilizing. Malasana has a grounding quality—it taps into a downward-flowing energy known in yoga as apana vayu—and is a good pose to practice whenever you need to bring on calm.

When you travel the streets of India or Indonesia, you'll notice that many people hang out—cooking street food, reading, waiting for the bus—crouched in a squat position. This tradition has incredible benefits. Squatting is one of the most effective ways to tone the entire lower body. It works the quadricep, hamstring, gluteal, and calf muscles of the legs, plus, it strengthens the lower back and core. In everyday life in Western culture, however, we rarely see someone in a full squat outside of the gym.

When Westerners embraced sitting—in cars, at desks, in front of the TV—we started to lose suppleness and strength in the legs and flexibility in the calves, ankles, and outer hips. The abdomen and lower back muscles also suffered when we started sitting on chairs, because backrests allow us to slack off and neglect our core muscles.

But yoga can help restore what we've lost. Malasana, or Garland Pose, is a yogi's squat. In it you utilize the complete range of motion of the legs by bending the knees fully until the pelvis is resting at the back of the heels. Practicing the prep poses here and, eventually, the full expression of Malasana will help you regain this primary and essential movement, and help tone and strengthen the legs. Squatting is also believed to help with digestion: As the pelvis descends, you encourage the downward flowing energy of apana vayu, which, according to some yoga traditions, helps the body eliminate waste and clear the mind.

Many of us experience a less intense version of Malasana in yoga class, in which our feet are hip-distance apart and our spines extend straight up. The challenge of Malasana in its fullest expression is that you have to drop down into a squat while simultaneously bending forward. The two prep poses here can help you achieve the full pose. Practicing the first, a modified squat with the feet together, will help you increase range of motion in the knees, hips, ankles, and calves, and build the stability you'll need when you start to bend forward. And the second prep pose, a variation of Marichyasana I, will help you find the extension in the torso you need for full Malasana.

In the final pose, you are in a squat, feet together and knees apart, with the arms wrapped around the shins and the head lowered to the floor. It is in the final pose that we can imagine a garland, the translation of Malasana. When a garland is placed over someone's head, it hangs from the neck, and flowers adorn and encircle the heart. The act of offering a garland is a sign of reverence, respect, and gratitude. When you practice Malasana, your own arms become the garland, your head bows forward, and your attention is drawn inward. In this shape there is nowhere else to look but inside your own heart. The effect of this squat on the body and mind is both grounding and quieting.

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MODIFIED SQUAT

Set Up
1. Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose).

2. Bend both legs, one at a time, until the knees are pointing to the ceiling and the calves come close to the back of the thighs.

3. Lean forward, and raise your seat.

4. Squat on your feet.

5. If your heels rise up, place a rolled blanket beneath them.

Refine
It is important that the heels are in contact with the floor or blanket in order to create the action of pressing downward, which lengthens the inner thighs and allows for a deeper exhalation. With the feet touching, maintain pressure through the heels, press the thighs and knees together to tone the outer legs, and start to strengthen the abdomen by keeping the torso upright and lifted. Extend your arms to the front. Spread your collarbones to open the chest, and move the back ribs inward in order to keep length in the spine.

Finish
Continuing to press down through your heels will stretch the ankles, outer hips, and gluteal muscles, allowing the weight of the pelvis to fully descend. Inhale and lengthen the spine; exhale to bend deeper at the knee and hip joints.

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MARICHYASANA I, variation

Set Up
1. Sit in Dandasana.

2. Bend one leg, bringing the knee closer to the chest, and the calf to the back of the thigh.

3. Reach forward with the same arm as the bent leg and hold the foot, calf, or thigh. Press the other hand to the floor behind you.

Refine
Hold the foot or leg firmly, and lift the chest. Use the other hand on the floor to extend your torso farther forward. Use a strap if you want to reach the foot but can't do so without rounding the back. Keep the extended leg firmly in Dandasana, pressing down with the heel and keeping the toes flexed. In this pose, the emphasis is on extending the torso forward while maintaining a lift in the chest and length in the spine.

Finish
Aim to get the tricep of your extended upper arm past the knee or shin of your bent leg as you reach forward. This extension will free the arm so that it can entwine the shin in full Malasana. Press the inner thigh and knee against the outer arm or side of your body, wherever it is touching, to compact your outer hips and support the torso with your thigh. Length--en on the inhale, and move deeper into a forward fold on the exhale.

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MALASANA

Set Up
1. Sit in Dandasana.

2. Bend both legs, one at a time, until the knees are pointing to the ceiling and the calves come close to the back of the thighs.

3. Lean forward to raise your seat.

4. Squat on your feet.

5. Use a rolled blanket, as needed, under your heels.

Refine
Extend your arms forward with your palms facing down. Press your heels to the floor, and allow the knees to spread in order to move the torso forward betwe--en the knees. Stretch the spine and arms forward, then wrap the upper arms around the shins. By clasping the ankles with your hands, you will be able to broaden the collarbones, pull the elbows wide apart, and open the chest so that the upper spine can continue to lengthen and extend. On an exhalation, press down through the heels, pull the navel region back, and descend the hips while extending the torso forward.

Finish
Lower the whole torso until the head touches the floor. Use a bolster or blanket to support the head if it does not reach. Keep both the heels and the head in contact with the floor. On your inhalation, hug the torso with your inner thighs, and on your exhalation release the pelvis and head downward. Stay in the position for several even breaths.

Optimize your practice
Adjust Malasana to accommodate your body.

To learn to squat or if you are pregnant:
Separate your feet about 6 to 8 inches, and place a folded blanket under your heels until you are able to lower your pelvis and maintain balance.

To maintain your balance:
Squat in front of a wall or piece of furniture and reach forward to hold it for support.

To take pressure off your knees:
Place a folded blanket behind the back of your knees and then squat.

To ease lower back pain:
Place a thinly folded blanket on the front of your thighs and reach your palms forward while ex--tending the lumbar spine.

Nikki Costello is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher living in New York City.