The study of the complex and wonderful human body is an ongoing process. For yogis, the key is to hone in on the anatomy that is the most relevant to the practice. That way, you can start applying the information to your practice right away. Everyone comes to yoga with a different sense of coordination and awareness of their body in space.
Whether you are a student or a teacher of yoga, developing a deeper understanding of anatomy will transform your practice.
Regular yoga practice helps cultivate greater body awareness and grace in movement. Keep reading for a refresher on the anatomy guidelines you need for a safe and effective yoga asana practice!
Let’s take a trip down memory lane, back to high school anatomy class for a few minutes, to review the parts of the physical body most relevant to yoga postures.
4 parts of the spine
The spine consists of four areas:
- cervical (neck)
- thoracic (upper back, ribs)
- lumbar (lower back)
- sacral (sacrum and tailbone)
The cervical and lumbar curves in the spine are naturally inward (concave), while the thoracic and sacral curves are outward (convex). Together, the spine, skull, rib cage and sternum (breastbone) form what’s known as the axial skeleton.
Pelvis and sacroiliac joint
The pelvis consists of the sacrum, tailbone and two hip bones. Located at the base of the spine, the sacrum is five fused vertebrae which form a triangular bone. The ilium part of the hip joint connect to each side of the sacrum at the sacroiliac (SI) joints. Yoga teachers often mention the SI joint in yoga classes because the area is often vulnerable to misalignment or injury.
The bones at the bottom and back of the pelvis are called ischium bones. They have protrusions on the underside of the bones that you’ll hear described as the sit bones (some instructors say ‘sits bones’ or ‘sitting bones’).
Hip and leg bones
The head of the femur (the longest bone in the human body) is a sphere at the top of thigh bone that sits in the pelvis and creates the hip joint. The femur runs down to the knee joint and connects with the lower leg bones (the tibia and fibula) at the patella (kneecap).
The shape and position of the hip and leg bones varies from person to person, as does the angle of the head of the femur. This is why some yoga poses may seem easy or impossible to different individuals. Sometimes, it relates the structure of your ball and socket hip joint, not your flexibility.
The shoulder joint contains three parts:
- Scapula – shoulder blade
- Clavicle – collar bone
- Humerus – upper arm bone
The humerus reaches down to the elbow joint, where it connects with the two bones of the forearm (the radius and ulna). Just like with the hips, the structure of the shoulder joint will play a role in how accessible specific yoga poses are for different individuals’ bodies.
Body location terminology
Anterior and Posterior
Anterior refers to the front of the body; posterior is the back of the body. Yoga teachers often use these terms in relation to the pelvis. Anterior pelvic tilt is when the front bony parts of the hips move forward and down, creating a pronounced arch in the lower back, as in cow pose. Posterior pelvic tilt is when the sacrum and tailbone are tucked, as in cat pose.
Medial and Lateral
Medial refers to areas that are close to the vertical centerline (mid-line) of the body that runs from head to feet. Lateral refers to the sides of the body.
Proximal and Distal
Proximal is closer to the torso of the body; distal is further away from the torso. For example, the distal end of the forearm is by the wrist and the proximal end is near the elbow.
Planes of Movement
The three main anatomical planes in the body—sagittal, coronal and transverse—are flat surfaces that divide up the body. Movements can take place in one or more of these planes. While you might not hear them mentioned explicitly in yoga class, they are helpful to keep in mind. It’s important to regularly move in all three planes.
This vertical plane runs down the center of your body, dividing the left half from the right. The term sagittal comes from the Latin word sagitta meaning ‘arrow.’ Humans tend to move mostly in the sagittal plane. Even the rectangular shape of our yoga mats encourages this.
This vertical plane divides the front and back portions of the body. Coronal is from the Latin corona meaning crown or garland. Moving from Warrior II into Triangle pose, for instance, happens on the coronal plane.
This horizontal plane is like a tabletop that divides the upper and lower halves of the body. Twisting poses take place in the transverse plane.
4 Tips for Correcting Your Anatomical Position
1. Apply the basics of mountain pose to every standing pose
When done correctly, Mountain Pose teaches you to sense when your body is in vertical alignment. It takes practice—and some basic anatomical knowledge—to be able to do this on your own. Initially, some people overcompensate by pushing the shoulders too far back and sticking out the chest. Instead, the goal is to find a neutral, symmetrical position.
Stand up straight and tall. Keep your shoulders back, and pull your stomach in. Spread the weight evenly through the soles of the feet, spreading the toes and finding the centerline. Lift the crown of the head toward the sky, and let your arms be relaxed at your sides.
Although the shape of each asana is different, we can look for the alignment qualities of Mountain Pose in each position. Double check that the feet are hip width, the kneecaps are facing forward, the pelvis is level and the shoulders are relaxed. Internal rotation through the legs can be a neutralizing, grounding movement.
2. Avoid rounding the back
Prevent pressure on the discs between the vertebrae of your spine by lengthening rather than rounding the back.
As we bend from the hips and fold forward, the spine typically rounds. Flexible hamstrings can help prevent this to a certain extent. The tighter the hamstrings, the more rounded the forward fold will be. As you stretch in any forward-bending pose, minimize the rounding of the back by bending the knees and simultaneously lifting the sitting bones. Bending the knees allows the pelvis to tilt upward and creates more length in the spine.
The middle of the back is the part with the least movement, whereas the neck and lower back have a great deal more flexibility. As a result, excessive movement can occur in the neck and low back while and rounding will happen in the mid-back. To correct overarching of the neck or lower back, try relaxing the chin and drawing the belly to the spine. Spinal twists are great for loosening the mid-back.
3. To lengthen a tight muscle, use the opposite movement
Taking the opposite movement is healthy for yoga students because it works the opposing set of muscles. Tight hip flexors can be stretched by extending the spine in yoga poses such as Bridge, Wheel, Cobra, Locust and Bow.
If you have tight shoulders, aim to externally rotate the shoulders in order to lift the heart center and create an opening through the chest. Try interlacing the fingers behind the back and squeezing the shoulder blades together in upward-facing dog, cobra and bow pose.
4. Keep breathing deeply in your poses
Deep, conscious breathing is a vital key that differentiates yoga from other types of exercise. Ensure that you can maintain deep, slow breathing pattern as you perform the different yoga postures in your sequence. If your breath becomes rapid or labored, this is a clear sign that you need to either not go as deeply into the pose (yet) or take a brief rest.
We hope this mini-lesson on anatomy for yoga practitioners has helped deepen your knowledge of your body, so that you can prevent injuries and recover more quickly when you do overstretch or harm your physical body. Try implementing the four tips above into your daily practice and you’ll soon see your poses elongate and improve.