The back leg in asymmetrical poses is naturally in a shadowy, hidden location. Since it’s out of our line of vision, it is often difficult to align. Because we can usually see the front leg in an asymmetrical pose, we’ll use our vision to help tune up its alignment, and it is indeed often the first thing we notice in a pose. But here’s the rub: alignment of the front leg is largely dependent upon the back leg’s position and action, which means we’ve got to tend to the back leg first.
What poses am I referring to? All asymmetrical poses follow this pattern, but it’s easiest to understand in standing poses like high lunge, the warrior poses, triangle, et cetera. In forms like this in which the back hip is in extension (versus the hip flexion in the front leg, the thigh (femur) of that back leg will tend to turn out too much, rotating externally, and the top of that thighbone (the femoral head) will tend to move forward in the pelvis.
Those tendencies are common anytime the hip is in extension; consider bridge pose or the deeper
upward facing bow, often called wheel pose. When the hips extend in a backbend shape like that, the femurs tend to overly rotate out, with the femoral head pressing forward in the pelvis. Those same forces will be acting on the back leg in asymmetrical yoga poses.
These actions of the back leg will keep the pose stuck by distorting the pelvis (too much posterior tilt, or tucking under); preventing the hips from squaring; and creating a chain of misalignments in the front leg, including the knee or foot turning in, the front hip falling too wide, the hip flexors (psoas) getting pinched, and compression in the low back.
In this video I demonstrate those two tendencies of the back leg: 1. the leg rotates externally too much, and 2. the thighbone juts forward in the pelvis (read this post for how this thighbone position creates too much posterior tilt in the pelvis, flattening the low back). Those two actions may occur simultaneously, or on their own, and of course it is technically possible to overly rotate the back leg too far internally. But what I usually observe in myself and students is an attempt to align our front legs without first noticing that the back leg’s actions are preventing that.
Here’s what you can do: notice it next time you practice standing poses. If you’re not sure what’s happening in the back leg, turn to look at it. The eyes convey so much information, and likely you’ll see you it needs to turn in more, from the foot all the way up the leg into the pelvis. Find the place that gives you more leverage to square your hips, to align your front leg so your kneecap tracks your toes, and to find a clearer pose.
Then look for these same actions in the hip opener pigeon pose. It’s easy to feel here how the back leg ‘wants to’ turn out too far, dumping the pelvis towards the ground on the front leg side. Apply the same actions from your standing poses, engaging your legs and spinning the back leg internally strongly, so your inner thigh lifts toward the sky and your outer hip wraps more forward. Square your hips more, and use the back leg action to stay square and access a deeper, more integrated stretch in the front outer hip.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes!
Justicia DeClue (E-RYT 500) has been teaching since 2005 and is the owner and director of Maha Yoga in Philadelphia. She is most sought after for her detailed alignment instruction and open-hearted teaching style. She really loves Instagram, and can also be found on Facebook.