Anatomical Analysis Of Yoga Postures

One of the earliest things I was lucky enough to be taught about yoga was to be aware of why I was practising a particular posture rather than just copying postures without understanding why I was doing them. If you can identify what you wish to achieve with the posture then that will inform how you work with it and whether you are achieving that goal. It will also inform ways to progress, regress or add variations to the posture as needed.

A yoga posture is not just a ‘shape’. The posture emerges from the necessary contraction of the correct muscles, to produce the desired joint actions. An understanding of the muscles working or relaxing in a posture and how they affect the movement or stability created will inform your practice.

Without that knowledge of the anatomy and physiology behind the posture you may just be making a ‘shape’ and wasting your precious training time on an activity which is not going to bring you the results you are seeking. Similarly if you are a yoga teacher wanting to teach yoga to athletes, you need to understand the anatomy and physiology of the sport as well as yoga in order to use the right yoga, at the right time, in the right way.

Another very useful thing to keep in mind is that there is no ‘right’ posture. There is a posture and then there is your body. The posture needs to be adapted to suit your body so that you gain the benefit from the practice. You are not wrong for yoga if you don’t achieve the same posture that someone else does. You are simply using the posture in the way that your body can and is.

We are all individual and have different lengths of arms and legs, differing amounts of body fat and muscle mass, have variations of joint shapes and alignment, different levels of connective tissue elasticity. In addition, we have different working lives and medical histories. You may have past injuries to work with that another person doesn’t.

Postures don’t have alignment and form. It is you who has alignment and you can and should modify the posture to your needs. Using the Swim Bike Run Yoga principles will allow you, by understanding the posture, to practice each posture in a way which works for your body and your needs.

Let’s look at a posture in order to begin to understand how to anatomically analyse yoga postures. We’ll start with an anatomically simple pose: Warrior III. This is the pose I chose as my logo and for my book cover.

It looks simple enough. Anatomically, from a standing position it requires little more than flexion at the shoulders and at one hip. I chose this posture as my logo and cover because it is such a profoundly useful posture. It is a posture that is far harder to achieve than it appears.

It looks effortless once you have worked on your weaknesses and restrictions in doing the posture but until then it is an opportunity to learn much about yourself!

Once those weaknesses/restrictions have been worked on it is still a pose which requires whole body involvement and mental concentration. (The pool behind me also reminds me of what my greatest weakness was at the time and became a part of me beginning my journey into triathlon. That’s a story for else where in the book though!)

Try the posture. (If you haven’t done any yoga before this is a good time for me to mention that it is practised without shoes.) Try the posture on both sides. One side is likely be different to the other in subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

What just happened may have looked little like this image and may have involved some falling over, arms (perhaps shoulders too) drooping towards the floor, back leg maybe also hanging down towards the floor, perhaps the back leg turning into a ‘weather vane’ and causing you to twist and lose balance, maybe you really needed to bend that supporting leg or both legs, perhaps your supporting foot was rolling from side to side (or just to one side).

So whilst coming into the posture from a standing position requires little more than flexion at the shoulders and at one hip, you need to be able to do so whilst stabilising the rest of your body as it has to increase its work to maintain alignment as you change your relationship with gravity by moving from a vertical to a horizontal plane. This increases the work postural muscles of the torso need to do to stabilise around your spine as well as keeping the arms in the same position even though gravity would really like to let their weight drop down.

In addition your support from the floor up has changed from being on both sides of the body to just one side of the body doing that work. The supporting foot and leg is working harder and the muscles supporting pelvic stability are working to stop the pelvis dropping down on the unsupported side. Your raised leg is now also a heavy weight which your gluteus Maximus on that side is having to work hard to keep the extension at the hip (AKA keeping the leg raised) and your quadriceps on both legs are having to work to keep your knees extended (in the case of the supporting leg working against the tension of your hamstrings now at their full length to allow the flexion at the hip.

All that and I haven’t even mentioned the huge amount of work going on in the foot and ankle on the supporting side. That gets a whole chapter of my book all to itself.

So what happened for you when you tried the posture? Each of you trying this will have discovered a different weakness in your body which caused the posture to be difficult for you. That is the point of yoga.

The postures are a tool to help you find out what restrictions and limitations your body has in some functions or positions. If a posture is difficult for you, it is potentially also the tool you can use to change what is difficult. I say potentially because there are instances when another posture or movement would be more useful initially and allow you later to return to the original posture. Possibly your return, as well as demonstrating your progress, will be an opportunity to discover your next limiter!

So if you let go of thinking that to do yoga you have to be able to ‘do’ that pose you are in a place of being able to look with interest at what was difficult for you, what happened, and can then start to look at what needs to be strengthened, mobilised, for you.

I have observed people in (and falling out of) this posture over a couple of decades. My own first attempt was in a crowded room of people obviously experienced and accomplished at the posture. I was that ‘weather vane’ oscillating from side to side until I crashed amongst their apparent perfection. The teacher on that day gave no instruction how to improve my practice or any information about what was happening in my body to cause it. I was a strong and regular climber at that time but I didn’t have the awareness of my posture or movements as I do now. The posture for me demonstrated my lack of stability but the lack of teaching points gave me no information about what I needed to change or how. My aim is to give you the anatomical cues you need to create the posture and the information to help you understand how that translates to benefits in triathlon and life.

If you are interested in anatomy and yoga I really recommend Ray Long’s series of books which can be found here.

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