3 things you need to know about alignment, anatomy and movement in yoga asana
There’s a lot to learn about the human body and it's easy to get overwhelmed with anatomical terms and Latin names. Either as a yoga teacher, or as a dedicated student of yoga, it’s helpful to remember that the main reason to understand anatomy is to facilitate a safe and healthy practice, and to be aware of what’s going on in the body, particularly in the musculoskeletal system.
You don’t have to be an anatomy genius to be able to keep yourself (and your students) safe! You don’t need to dive into a physiotherapy-level training to be able to navigate the human body. There are some things that are pretty easy to learn that will make a big difference in how you approach your own practice, and how you share that knowledge with your yoga students.
1. How does your body move?
Yoga is a practice of embodied movement. Movement can be described in many ways, but in order to understand it from an anatomical perspective, it’s helpful to know how moving different body parts creates actions including flexion, extension, internal and external rotation. The challenging part of this is in applying the different actions to various body parts while practicing asana.
Often in one pose, there can be several actions taking place simultaneously. As a teacher, telling students to ‘externally rotate’ their thigh bone might invoke some blank faces. External rotation of the thigh bone can look pretty different to external rotation of the upper arm bone - especially when your arms are up over your head! How do you guide yourself and your students into these movements using visual, kinaesthetic and verbal cues so that’s meaningful for them, and so they don’t get lost or confused?
Some types of movements we commonly aim to communicate in a yoga class are:
Flexion: this is where the angle between two articulating bones decreases. When the hip joints are in flexion, we’re in a forward bend. When our elbow joint is in flexion, it’s bent with our forearm moving towards our upper arm. Confusing our students with anatomical terminology often isn’t helpful. It’s simpler to say, “Fold your body forward at the hip creases”.
Extension: this is where the angle between two body parts or articulating bones increases, also known as straightening a joint. In a yoga class, you’re unlikely to say, “Now please bring your right leg into extension.” But you might say, “Extend your right leg until it’s straight”.
External rotation: this occurs when the upper leg bone (femur) rotates in the hip socket away from the centre line of the body. In modern humans, prolonged sitting can cause a weakness in the muscles that externally rotate the hip, and tightness in the opposing muscles, the internal rotators. This commonly shows up in asanas like Warrior 2, where the front leg collapses inwards.
Internal rotation: this is the opposite to the above, where the femur bone turns inwards towards the centre line of the body. Where the internal rotators of the leg/hip are tight or restricted, combined with external rotators being weak, we see that all too familiar rolling in of the front leg.
Is it important for yoga students to know the anatomical terms? Not really. But understanding these specific actions, and being able to feel kinaesthetically how your body is designed to move will help you to embody healthy alignment, and avoid undue strain on certain joints.
For yoga teachers, rather than telling our students to externally rotate their front leg in Warrior 2, we can be more effective if we explain in simple terms the actions of internal and external rotation of the hip, and where they might be weak or restricted. This can be done with verbal cues, demonstration (i.e. show them with your own body), and hands-on assisting (with permission), or a combination of all three! Knowledge is power, and when we understand functionally what’s happening in our body, we’re more likely to keep creating the right actions that move us towards healthy alignment, and wellbeing of our physical body.
2. How the 'moving parts' of the body move
Yoga asana practice is a movement-based activity, and we know that the moving body is made up of bones - the support structure of the body; and muscles - which pull on the bones to create movement. Joints are the ‘moving parts’ of the body between the bones, that allow our bodies to get around and do all the wonderful things we can do. Understanding the types of joints in each part of the body and how these different types of joints function has significant implications for the kinds of movements that are safe and accessible and the kinds of movements that are more risky, especially depending on a yoga practitioner’s knowledge, and degree of strength and flexibility. In a yoga practice, we’re placing all kinds of different ‘loads’ on our joints - it’s helpful to know which joints can tolerate certain types of load. To safely put joints under load, we need to understand what creates the balance between mobility - the joint’s movement in its particular range; and stability - the ability to maintain or control the position of a joint through the coordinated action of the surrounding tissues, especially muscles and ligaments.
Let’s consider the shoulder joint, which is actually three main anatomical joints, where three separate bones articulate. We have the humerus (upper arm bone) that fits into scapula (shoulder blade) like a ball and socket. Then there’s the clavicle (collar bone) which meets with the acromion, a bony projection of the shoulder blade. These three joints contribute to the mobility of the shoulder joint - in fact, it’s the most mobile joint in the whole body, with tremendous range that allows us to move our arms in all directions. The muscular structure of the shoulder joint creates the ability for your arm to move, and when correctly engaged, also contributes to the stability of the joint.
The fact that your shoulder joint is so mobile also means it’s potentially vulnerable to injury, particularly when you do dynamic, repetitive weight-bearing movements. This is really important in yoga, especially when we place the shoulder joint under consistent repetitive load, and often with swift movement. Every time you do plank pose, or downward facing dog, or chatturanga, or an arm balance - you’re putting the shoulder joint under the load of your own body weight with the force of gravity. If your shoulder joint is not stabilized by the appropriate activation of the supporting muscles, you’ll experience a lack of strength in supporting your body weight in healthy alignment, as well as a risk of injury.
The biggest issue yoga teachers see when it comes to shoulder stability, is that most people’s shoulder girdle muscles are relatively weak anyway, due to poor postural habits. If you’re practicing or teaching vinyasa yoga, where there is so much emphasis on supporting your body with your arms while energetically moving through a sequence, stabilizing the shoulders is one of the most important things you can do to maintain longevity in your practice.
3. What stops you from moving?
Knowing what stops your body from easily performing certain types of movement is key to understanding how we need to approach yoga asanas. It’s not just muscle length or tension that can prevent us from moving in certain directions. It could be the density or the laxity of your connective tissues, or fascia, that can create restriction that prevents you from being able to do certain things with your body. Or it could be that the actual shape of your bones, and in particular the articulating surfaces of your joints, that stops your body from moving in a direction. How do you know whether it’s your muscles or your fascia or your bones that are stopping you from moving into an asana? It’s eye opening to see how different people’s bodies are during yoga asana practice, and why your practice will always be 100% unique to your own individual body!
For a long time, yoga alignment has been taught with a general assumption that we are all the same, and that our bodies all move in the same way. Many of the more traditional styles of yoga had very exact “rules” of alignment, and this has been perpetuated by modern yoga teacher trainings needing to standardize and systematize a curriculum that teaches yoga teacher trainees how yoga “should be taught” in a condensed period of time, namely 200 hours. Granted, it’s challenging to teach yoga effectively without some generalizations. However, generalizing yoga asana alignment is not doing us any favours as yoga practitioners and teachers. The onus is on yoga teachers to look for opportunities to dive a little deeper in their understanding of human movement and kinaesthetic awareness - the internal awareness of your body.
It’s no longer effective for us to rely on the external aesthetic of a yoga asana and aim to achieve that as a goal. When we default to a standardized set of alignment instructions we make the assumption that everyone’s body is the same and that all people who come to a yoga class should move their bodies in the same way. Just as no other person has the same fingerprints as you, no one else has your exact same body type and bone structure. I often share this quote from yoga teacher and co-author of Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff, “Variation is the norm”.
When we take this concept into consideration and understand the reality of human variation, it helps to debunk any misconception that our ability or inability to do a particular pose is related purely to effort, dedication or desire. There are some things that we just can’t do! Yoga teacher and author Bernie Clark states: “There is no pose in yoga that everyone can do, and no one can do every pose.” You are unique. What stops you from doing a certain yoga asana could be associated with:
Tension: we reach a point where the soft tissues of the body can’t stretch any further and movement is restricted. This relates to tension in the muscles, fascia, ligaments and joint capsules.
Compression: this is where the bony structures of the body come in contact with one another, and further movement in that direction is restricted.
There are other factors, such as psychological or neurological factors that may prevent you from going further in an asana, but I’ll leave that for another post! Determining what stops someone from being able to do a yoga asana relates to our kinaesthetic awareness. As yoga teachers we can train ourselves to a certain extent to see where a possible restriction in the musculoskeletal system is happening, but the most reliable information usually comes from what is felt in the body. The greatest gift we can offer our students is to help them cultivate self-inquiry in their yoga practice, and develop greater sensitivity and awareness into what they are feeling, and a more true reflection of what is happening in the body.