Anatomy: The Gastrocnemius Muscle
My teacher Theresa once said, “as yogis, we are flexible, and yet can be very tight”. This is certainly very true for me and my calves. I have been looking closely at the anatomy of the lower leg lately, due to a recent knee injury, and my ankles have always been weak, thanks to years of trail running and playing soccer on grass and dirt fields.
As my Physical Therapist measured the range of motion in my legs and ankles, we realized that I have a very limited angle when I bring my toes towards my body, or in dorsiflexion. Basically, I have very tight calves.
The calf is composed of the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles, as you can see here:
To further determine which muscle affects my tightness, we did two tests, one when I tried to dorsiflex with one knee bent, and the other with my knee straight out in front of me in the paschimottanasana position. With my knee bent, I could easily bring my toes inward. With my knee straight, I could hardly do the same. It’s your gastroc, my PT concluded.
The gastrocnemius muscle runs from above the knee to the Archilles tendon, which attaches to the heel bone. Athletes who run or bike a lot can develop very strong calves, and if not stretched, they can become very tight, which is what happened in my case.
If you’ve ever had a cramp in the back of your lower leg, your gastrocnemius muscle may have been responsible by involuntarily contracting. If you’ve ever felt like you have to bend your back leg in Virabhadrasana I, or if your back heel pops up in Parivrtta Trikonasana, the gastroc might be the culprit.
A simple way to stretch this muscle is to stand with both feet facing a wall, bring one foot forward and bend the knee of the forward leg. The back leg goes back until you feel a stretch. keep both heels down, especially press into the back heel. You can do this anywhere, and you don’t even need a wall.