THE ANATOMY OF DIRECTING
Okay, I know we said this would be our last post, but we’ve decided to break up this post into two parts because there is just so much to say about the knee direction and spirals. This post will focus on how it all works, and our next post will provide several exercises to help you experience the knee directions in action. If you enjoyed what you’ve read so far, please let us know what other topics would interest you.
Part of the Da Vinci Project, the Anatomy of Directing series attempts to clarify anatomical points for the purposes of functional mechanics and directing. If you’re new to directing, check out this post, or the book, Neurodynamics: The Art of Mindfulness in Action. Images were sourced from washington.edu. We hope to update them with our own illustrations in the future.
Part 8. The Knee Directions and the Leg Spirals
The directions for the knees to go forward and away seems simple enough, at one level. We tighten in the hips and legs and need to release those muscles to let the knees go away from the body (that’s the “forward”) and away from each other (that’s the “away”). And because we are speaking here about an extremity that is associated with visible and voluntary movement, there is no difficulty in identifying where the knees are and where they need to go.
The tricky part is that most of us are not aware of how much we tighten and shorten in the hips and legs. If we look at the AO joint, for instance, we can clearly see how locating the base of the skull changes how we think about the forward and up direction of the head. Knee direction isn’t as easy because we can’t fully make sense of this direction simply by thinking of our knees or identifying bony landmarks. Knee direction really only makes sense in the context of releasing in the thighs and hips, so we must understand which muscles tighten and how the knee direction relates to this tightening.
One simple way to understand how we tighten in the legs is to look at the two basic actions of the leg in walking–advancing the leg by bending at the knee and straightening the leg at the knee–and how we interfere with these actions. When we advance a leg, the knee hinges forward from the hip and, as it does so, naturally rotates or spirals outward. When we extend the leg and straighten at the knee, the leg rotates or spirals inward. These spirals are subtle but *visible in movement*, and even more visible during child development. Babies crawling and creeping on the floor will extend a knee outward to one side, and then rotate it back inward as they extend the leg to advance the body forward.
*the video link above is of our own Dr. Dimon doing a brief (headless) demo*
When we brace and stiffen our legs–which is the general tendency–we shorten both of these spirals and get stuck in the hips and legs. We shorten the outer spiral because when we stand, we tend to overextend the legs, bracing and stiffening the knees. We see this very clearly in people who, as they get older, get so stiff that they have trouble bending at the knees when they sit. They grip the outside of their thighs, causing them to walk bow-legged and support their weight on the outsides of their feet. You can also see this tendency when in semi-supine; the legs flop outwards because the extensor muscles (quadriceps) are tight, pulling the legs into that outward spiral. This happens because the quadriceps muscles that extend the leg at the knee tend to rotate the leg outward–including rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, sartorius and the iliotibial (IT) band. This spiral can be seen clearly in the line of the muscle itself, and in some of the muscle fibers, such as with vastus lateralis. (We hope to republish this post with better pictures of this angle in the future.) When you begin to restore length in these muscles, the knee tends to lengthen away from the hip–this is the “forward” direction–and spirals inward, toward the other knee, which feels somewhat pigeon-toed for people who have habitually shortened these muscles.
The second big tendency is to shorten the inner thighs. If you look at the muscles of the inner thigh, most of them attach at the shaft of the femur or at the inner knee at the top of the tibia, which is a common insertion point. These include two of the hamstrings and all four adductors. The line of pull of these muscles is very clear: they pull the knee in toward the crotch. These muscles are really crucial because, if they are shortened, we get stuck in our inner spiral, the knees can’t go forward and away in order to advance the leg, and we can’t fully lengthen in stature. The “away” direction clearly relates to the pull of these muscles.
For the knee direction to work, both of these spirals need to release. The inner thighs have to release so that we’re not pulling the knee in; the outer spirals have to release so that we’re not pulling and shortening the knee out. Because most people are chronically shortened in the inner thighs, we have to spend quite a lot of time directing there before these muscles can begin to let go. We call this direction “forward and away” because, while we don’t want to put the knees too far away from each other (which stiffens the outer spiral), it’s particularly critical that we release the meaty inner thighs to let the knees go away from each other. When these spirals begin to release, whole areas that we didn’t think were contracted begin to let go–for instance, we can feel a subtle letting go across the front of the hip joint and in the gluteal region, which gives us a fuller understanding of what the knee direction means and how it can work even when standing. To bring all this about, it’s useful to include both of these spirals in our concept of directing the knees; understanding the anatomy helps.
The next post provides exercises for directing the knees. Check it out here.