When you teach yoga, you’re cueing people on several of the key anatomical movements they need to do in order to create the shapes that are the yoga poses. For many teachers new to learning anatomy, these cues are tied up in learning and understanding human anatomy, even on a basic level, and this becomes overwhelming. In my latest book, “Structure and Spirit: Moving Smarter Both On and Off the Mat,” I share some of the key actions and principles from yoga practice and break down the anatomy involved. Let me share these concepts with you from a high level:
Foundation: What is at the floor is your foundation. This is true regardless of your relationship to gravity. The most common expression is “standing tall, arms at the side” and of course, refers to the placement of the feet. But it could be the hands and the head (as in headstand), the hands only (as in Crow), one foot and one hand (as in Half Moon), and on and on. The quality of the foundation informs not only the pose itself but also how the practitioner feels in the pose. This is why this anatomical theme also has emotional connotation. Think about it: what are the foundations of your life? Your job, your relationship, your finances? What happens when one of those (or more) is out of whack?
Extension: This word always makes me think of a cat stretching out, lengthening her body as she first wakes up. The funny thing is though, when we think of extension from an anatomical standpoint, some muscles are contracting in order to create extension. Contraction is actually a shortening of muscles but if their action is to create extension or length, then that’s what happens. Think about the contraction of your quadriceps as it causes your knee to straighten, thus lengthening your leg. That’s one example.
Flexion: Oh, that classic image of Popeye flexing his biceps and he downs his hearty spinach! Remember that? (or am I dating myself?) Flexion typically involves bringing the far end (distal) of a limb closer to the proximal end, as in flexing your biceps, but could also involve flexion of the spine, where you fold forward or flexion of the hip, as when your thigh moves closer to your belly.
Rotation: Many actions in yoga strengthen and lengthen the front line of the body, but there are lots of other planes to move through. Rotational movements take place in the transverse plane and are the actions of twisting. These actions are key for keeping the spine healthy but for whatever reason, sometimes are referred to incorrectly in terms of their benefits. Ever hear someone say you are “detoxing” your body when you twist? Stay tuned for more on that in the book.
Contraction: Making a muscle involves, in some scenarios, contracting a muscle. This refers to a shortening of the fibers that make up the muscle itself at the deeper level (not superficial). There are other kinds of contractions and they involve lengthening a muscle (eccentric) and holding a muscle steady (isometric) and in yoga, we do all kinds. Healthy movement in all things depends on not only moving through all planes of the body regularly but also a variety of contractions of muscles.
Lengthening: I know you’re probably thinking, “Hey, you already talked about this in the Extension section!” and to some extent, you’d be right. But this is really more about the concept of “stretching” because it gets a lot of press in yoga circles. As in, “Should we be saying “stretching?” Are muscles “stretching?” Or, are they just “lengthening?” This is where it gets a little more complicated and where you need to look to more recent information out there about anatomy.
Balance: Stand on one leg and what does it take? Focus? Attention? Stabilization of the core? Setting the gaze? Contracting muscles? Yes and more! Balancing is one of the skills we need for healthy movement in all things, not just yoga. And it one of the skills we lose if we don’t practice it. Balancing in yoga gives us a chance to evaluate our normal postural patterns and see where we commonly “sit” in our body when on one leg or one arm, for instance. Balancing is also a great way to hone our ability to focus and build the skill of attention. And, like the concept of Foundation, when we have balance our our mat, does that translate to balance in our life? Not always but it certainly helps.
Leverage: This refers to the biomechanical concept of using a lever to gain a mechanical advantage. One of the most basic examples I heard one was the idea of using the arms in Downward Dog as a way to give the muscle of spinal extension more power so as to help in the extension of the spine itself. This is one way to look at it and certainly there are others. What does it matter? Do want to be talking about biomechanics in yoga? Well, the movement practice that is yoga illustrates the structure and function of the body and how it moves will depend, in some instances, on how we use the limbs as levers. So, yes! It’s certainly helpful to know a bit about this.
These concepts are not exhaustive and there are certainly other factors at work when it comes to understanding the anatomy of the practice. But it’s a great place to start in building your knowledge of yoga anatomy. Join me tomorrow and Wednesday night, at 7 pm EST for a my Virtual Book Parties on Facebook Live. I’ll be sharing more from the book and the Facebook live format is a great one because you can ask questions as I’m presenting. One live viewer (versus via the replay) will get a free book and some viewers (live only) will be eligible to get other book deals on all my books! (“Stretched” and “The Bare Bones Yoga Guide to Anatomy”).
Hope to see you tomorrow and Wednesday! (just visit my Bare Bones Yoga page on Facebook)