Awakening Yoga Anatomy

By Mark Stephens on Tue, 05/01/2018 - 08:25

This is excerpted from Chapter 9 of Yoga Therapy, "Kinesiology and the Biomechanics of Movement."

The trouble with the fast lane is that all the movement is horizontal. And I like to go vertical sometimes.

YOGA ASANAS ARE TYPICALLY DEPICTED in the yoga anatomy literature in the same static form that we find presentations of human anatomy more generally. We are given idealized perfect forms showing the precise position of the bones (and occasionally ligaments) in various asanas, with muscles added to show how the skeleton is held in that position. These portrayals help us understand the basic form of the asana and which muscles are doing what in support of it, sometimes including identification of the role played by each muscle. Many of the best of these published works on yoga anatomy are written by teachers with a primary background in Iyengar-style yoga, which emphasizes, in the words of B. K. S. Iyengar, the “perfect pose.”

The American yoga teacher Erich Schiffmann, whose early yoga roots initially grew during five years of study with Iyengar in India, gave his 1996 book, Yoga, the subtitle The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. In his foreword, he writes that yoga “will make you sensitive to the stillness, the presence, the hush, the peace of God. This deep inner stillness is at the core of your being.”

But when Schiffmann discusses how we do asanas, he draws primarily from the teacher he “most notably” acknowledges—Joel Kramer, whose concept of “playing the edge” involves persistent inner listening and dynamic refinement. Although Schiffmann is true to his Iyengar roots and general yogic sensibilities in explaining stable and precisely aligned asanas, his subtitle is particularly suggestive in using moving, the verbal root of which, move, means to pass from one place or position to another: we are moving into stillness, not somehow always or already still. (The preposition “into” implies action, movement, going toward, a process, etc.)

This points to a profound limitation in the extant yoga anatomy literature: we see the final or idealized form of the asana, yet very rarely do we see how to get there. For example, we see Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), along with the associated muscles primarily involved in holding them, but not how we move from one to the other. Because transitional movements are ignored, there is typically no discussion of the biomechanics or kinesiology of movement, including how the neuromuscular system functions to create movement and stability. Consequently, many of the essential elements of what is happening are missed.

Kinesiology considers human movement through the integrated application of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, psychology, and neurology. From the Greek term kinesis, meaning movement, a primary interest of kinesiologists is how the bodymind is an adaptive organism that changes physiologically (and psychologically) when exercised. These changes, including many that involve neuroplasticity (brain adaptation), are found in many areas, including range of motion, muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance, neuromuscular control, emotional depression, immune system function, sleeping habits, and metabolic disease. As such it potentially provides insight into asana and other yoga-based practices designed to accommodate the special conditions, needs, and unique intentions of many yoga students and yoga therapy clients. Although kinesiology can focus on any of several aspects of human movement, here we focus on the biomechanics of movement, including its neuromuscular dimension.

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