When I start class with a discussion about anatomical position, sometimes I feel like it’s introducing something “harsh” into something that’s known for being “soft.” Not that yoga is “soft,” but sometimes the concepts of anatomy can seem out of place in the quiet, introspective environment of a yoga class.
Now, I don’t really believe this, because I love bringing concepts of anatomy into class and I firmly believe that there is a huge benefit to teaching in this way. I get more comments after classes I teach using anatomical themes than any other; questions that show me that students are really working to apply these physical ideas and techniques in their practice and it’s interesting to them. What better way to create better, healthier posture in our life than to do it on the mat as a start? This is, in my opinion, one of the key reasons to teach with this kind of focus.
I love to use a very basic concept of anatomy, Anatomical Position, as a the basis for a class theme. As you can see in the picture above, “Anatomical Position” is described as standing, facing forward, head level, chest open, shoulders relaxed, palms facing forward, hips level and feet hip width apart. There’s more to it, but these are the basics. This is a “home base” of positions for the body and you can see that in some ways, if you were to be on your back in Shavasana, you’d have many of the same qualities of Anatomical Position. No surprise there!
Anatomical position is the place from which all movements of the body are described. Most people know that “flexing” a muscle means to contract it or shorten it, as when Popeye bends his arm at the elbow in a demonstration of his strength. But how do we know that this action is flexion? It’s through establishing the movement from a commonly accepted position that we know. And, since the beginning of time and documentation about these kinds of things, this position from which all movement is described is known as Anatomical Position.
Whether it’s flexion, extension, internal or external rotation or any other movement of the body, it’s always described as movement from this central place. And, as we look at it further, we can see that there are many qualities of Anatomical Position that we want to see in our yoga poses. As we understand more about the body and it’s internal and external workings, we can see that the more we notice about Anatomical Position, the more we can bring it’s shape and quality into the poses.
The other benefit to knowing more about Anatomical Position is it gives us a place from which we can evaluate a student who has questions about a pose or tightness or discomfort in their body. Even if we didn’t know what particular muscle was involved in an issue for a student, if we look at them in a pose and look for aspects of anatomical position in the posture, we can start to see where poor alignment might be contributing to problems in the body.
Anatomical Position also helps us see the body as a “whole;” versus just a collection of parts. The study of anatomy takes us deep into the body to the level of muscles, bones, joints, tendons and ligaments; Anatomical Position helps us keep the whole in mind.
Let’s look in further detail at some of the qualities of this position:
Head in neutral on top of the body: This one’s easy. You know how your head is positioned when you’re buried in your phone? Don’t do that. Seriously. That’s it. The head in neutral means, not too far forward, not too far back.
Shoulders relaxed: Here’s another easy one. You know how you hunch all day? Guess what? Don’t do that either. In Anatomical Position, the shoulders are relaxed down the back. Not shoved, not pushed, not squared. Just relaxed. I can’t think of any yoga pose where you’d scrunch the shoulders up the back.
Chest broad and open: As we stand in this position and relax the shoulders, the chest naturally broadens. When this happens, we stretch all the muscles in the chest that are shortened as we hunch all day (pectoralis minor, pectoralis major, subscapularis) . We can breathe better. We have more space from which to expand.
Hips level: This one is a little harder to describe as the movements of the pelvis are somewhat complicated but think of it this way: the two pelvic bones join in the front and the back and form a bowl-like shape. If you had a bowl on a table that was level, the bowl would be level too. In Anatomical Position, the pelvis is level. As it turns out, this is a great shape to take if you want to stretch those pesky hip flexors, like the psoas muscle, that’s tired from flexing all day as you sit.
Knees straight ahead: Ever see someone run with knock knees? When the knees move towards the inside, or medially, or more to the outside, or laterally, it can be a strain to the ligaments and also a sign of tight muscles or tendons that insert in that region. In Anatomical Position, the knees are straight ahead (turns out, knowing about Anatomical Position is also great for your running). Once you start thinking in this way as you work on the mat, you’ll be surprised at how often your kneecaps slide around (try it in Triangle Pose).
Feet hip width: There are many poses, of course, like a Wide Straddle Forward Bend, where we take the feet wider than hip width. But there are many poses where hip width is called for and when it’s not used, can create a number of problems. Think of moving into Wheel with feet as wide as the mat; or Bow with knees wider than the hips. These movements put a tremendous amount of strain on the lower back. Keeping hip width decreases this pressure. Also, hip width can be used to create greater stability and is a great modification (think: Prayer Twist with feet hip width versus together).
There’s more to it, but that’s a start. As with all things anatomically related, keeping a balance in your teaching between the fundamentals of anatomy as well as the spirit of yoga (to flow, to breathe, to allow people to just “be”) is critical. Your job is not to drive people nuts, but if you choose to teach in this way, you’ll educate them about some basic facts of the body in the hopes that their movements on the mat are done with greater ease and that their movements off the mat share these qualities as well.