Why I Started to Learn Yoga Anatomy
Universal laws and principles are operating in macrocosmos and in microcosmos; the laws
that govern the planets also govern the cells and subatomic particles.
In the same way the planets are dancing their dance totally independent of our
comprehension and approval, our own body is functioning with incredible precision without
our understanding and knowledge. Digestion, breathing, and all the processes happen by
themselves, with or without us comprehending or at least being aware of the subtle
mechanisms, the physics and the chemistry.
In the same way that I drove my car without knowing too much about engines and
exhaust mufflers, my yoga practice started in almost innocence (maybe the right word is
ignorance) regarding the mechanics of the human body.
Do we have to understand precisely HOW movement happens in order to practice yoga?
Do we have to know and understand the laws of the universe in order to live?
Probably not necessarily.
(Most likely after some serious practice one will start to deepen their understanding
regarding their body, how it functions and how it moves.
It comes to mind the Yoga Sutras, Chapter Vibhuti Pada - about the progression of our
practice and the siddhi’s. Sutra 28 states that through concentration, contemplation,
meditation (samyama) on the energy center of the navel, one gets deep knowledge
regarding the functioning of the physical body (Patanjali, 254).
I give full credit to Patanjali and his teachings but this is less conventional way of acquiring
knowledge so I will not further elaborate on this a bit reversed angle of viewing things.)
Going back to the previous idea - we can live in ignorance, but can one teach yoga without
understanding how the human body works?
Here I would answer, rather not.
On one hand, knowing and understanding the laws of human body, nature, life, universe -
make the difference between the levels of consciousness we are operating from. And yoga
is a science of consciousness.
On the other hand, in order to teach, you have to know what you teach. And in order to
know you have to be willing and open to learn and to explore and you have to LOVE.
Michelangelo loved his craft so much and wanted to know so much that he was compelled
to study anatomy by dissecting corpses. And he only needed this knowledge in order to
paint and to sculpt.
We as yoga teachers to be, we are meant to guide our students in one of the most
physical spiritual journeys that exist.
Can we lead others through this journey (and can we go deeper in our own journey)
without proper knowledge?
Let us explore why not.
First of all we have to be able to protect our students and not to cause harm.
We have to comprehend pathologies, we have to understand breathing, bones, muscles,
Not all of our students are going to be young athletes in absolute health. (Not to mention
my self: I am 52 and my body is bearing the traces of its own medical past.)
We then have to be able to comprehend the medical history of the student and to
know which movements and postures to encourage and which to avoid, which are
the appropriate modifications, know which asanas are suitable for which anatomical
part of the body, and which body structures are at risk of lesion during yoga
Let us pick for instance high blood pressure. It is such a common condition, that it has its
well known abbreviation, HBP. I estimate half of my middle age friends are suffering from
hypertension. It seems so small, but what a difference does it make only to remind the
students suffering of HBP, to turn their gaze downward instead of following the raised arm
while practicing Utthita Trikonasana! Or while practicing Vrsksasana, not to raise their
hands above their head. Minor adjustments can make huge difference in terms of basic
This was one side of how to not harm. But what about how to heal (participate in the
Yoga can be used in more proactive ways than the above described postural
modifications. Yoga can be an efficient adjuvant therapy in many medical conditions:
injured elements of the musculoskeletal system, arthritis, recovering after surgery,
accidents, trauma. It can alleviate symptoms of menopause, can correct corporal
postures, can help healing depression and alimentary disorders, and many other
conditions. It can also help natural processes like pregnancy or getting old.
This topic is a delicate one, especially for unexperienced yoga teacher. My view regarding
healing yoga is based on few principles:
- I do not think it is wise to interfere if we do not have expertise with a specific ailment.
Better to refer a student to an experienced teacher. I do however have my own history
with active recovering after major abdominal surgery and an incipient knee arthritis and I
feel like I could offer valuable advice.
- it might be helpful to speak directly with the attending doctor prior to begin classes
- healing yoga is safer and more effective in individual classes
- permanent and reliable feedback from the student is crucial
- advance in small steps.
Under the umbrella of “do not cause harm”, we also have the commandment to avoid
injuries in our class.
I find it crucial to educate the students to stay connected to their bodies and be aware of
their own range of physical capabilities. By encouraging our students to develop not only
body awareness but also a sense of trust and autonomy, they will develop the precious
skill of protecting them selves from injuries. This goes hand by hand with discouraging the
attitude of showing off and competition by any kind.
Pain is our ally in this, because it is the first and most clear signal from the body, indicating
to immediately exit the posture.
Let us remember the precious and famous indication from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras sutra 46
chapter Sadhana Pada“: sthira-sukham asanam”. The pose [should be] stable and
pleasant. (Patanjali, 201). Feeling stable and comfortable in the posture is an indication
that we are on the right track.
I find it is of outmost importance to educate the students when to push and when to stop,
discerning between the constructive strive (the required arduous effort in order to
progress) and the damaging strive - the effort that comes usually from an egotic impulse
and can be taxing on our body.
A golden rule for avoiding injuries is a proper warm up. Especially in cold climates, our
muscles will always perform better and will be less exposed to injuries when they're warm.
Through proper warm up, we raise our muscle flexibility, increasing the amount of blood
flowing to our extremities. In my experience, morning yoga needs more time for warming
up than evening yoga, due to a significant variance of mobility. In the morning we are also
more prone to injuries (again, especially in cold ambience).
“Warm muscles increase the rate of energy production which increases reflexes and
lowers the time it takes to contract a muscle. A good warm up should also increase range
of motion and mentally prepare you for exercise.” (Julie Blessing, Importance of warming
The best physical alignment provides the highest protection. Enter the importance of
“Alignment refers to the specific way in which a pose should be done to achieve maximum
benefits and to minimize the possibility of injury. In the yogic tradition, alignment
represents the ideal way to hold a pose. But alignment should really be looked at as a set
of flexible principles that can be adapted for different bodies and different levels of
practice. For example, in Downward Dog, don’t force your heels to the mat if you have
tight hamstrings. This will cause your spine to compress when your focus should be on
lengthening your spine. So instead, bend your knees as much as necessary to send your
sit-bones up and back.”
(Yogi Aaron, “Yoga Alignment: Principles, Cues and Tips for a Better, Safer Yoga Practice”)
The time we are holding the posture can also make the difference between benefit and
harm. Let us take this example with vajrasana:
“In this pose the circulation to the legs is relatively restricted – some people may even feel
the legs go slightly numb if held for too long and then feel pins & needles upon releasing
the pose with the blood flow returning fully to the legs. This relative restriction of blood flow
makes the pose completely contra-indicated for those with thrombosis in the leg veins or
with oedema in the legs. However, the sudden increase in blood flow that occurs when the
pose is released makes this pose therapeutic when held only for a minute or so for those
with a tendency towards varicose veins – but those with a tendency toward varicose veins
must take care not to hold the pose for long otherwise the tendency towards varicose
veins is increased.” (Tabitha Evans, “Vajrasana (Kneeling) - Issues and solutions”)
Always using the breath when moving in and out of poses is another tip for safety. “In
yoga, we’re most likely to injure ourselves during transitions. When we hold our breath, it
creates tension in the body. Exhaling deeply will release tensions and allow the body to
transition to the next pose.” (Yogi Aaron, “Yoga Alignment: Principles, Cues and Tips for a
Better, Safer Yoga Practice”)
Then, we have to proper understand the general limitations of human body and that
the human bodies can be (and are) different. We should guide our students to find the
balance between aspiring for perfection and contentment within their body limits. Taking an
individualized approach to yoga is vital to maintaining a safe practice.
Not all students will be able to sit in Padmasana pose no matter how hard they strive, and
not all the students will find comfort and relaxation in Malasana or even Balasana.
For most students, Sukhasana is “the easy pose”, while other yogis (including myself) find
easier to meditate in Vajrasana.
The main reason is the architecture of femur and the hip socket.
“The femur has a neck that lies between the head and the shaft of the bone and the angle
of the neck can range from 110° to 150° in most people. This angle will impact the ease at
which you can take your leg directly out to the side (abduction).”
“While one person has a shallow hip socket the person next to them may have a deeper
socket. This will potentially have a huge impact the range of movement of the hip in all
directions. Some people have a hip socket that is positioned slightly further forward or
further back, angled upwards or downwards. Again there are an infinite number of
What to do then?
Sometimes we can slightly adjust the posture. For instance we can try wide legged
Balasana instead of classically keeping the knees close together; or for Sukhasana, we
place a pillow or a folded blanket in order to raise our pelvis and allow the spine to relax
into its natural arches.
For Malasana and Upavesasana, if the students find painful to get the heels to the mat,
this could be due to tight Achilles tendons, or due to compression at the front of the ankle
joint: a rolled blanket under their heels can help a lot.
I mentioned Vajrasana as a preferred (by some students) meditation posture over
“For some people, these kneeling positions are easier than sitting cross-legged because
the hip joints do not need to externally rotate or adduct as they do in siddhasana or
Kneeling poses are also more symmetrical because both legs can do the same action and
neither leg is crossed in front of the other. This crossing of the legs creates an
asymmetrical action in the pelvis and hips that can have long-term effects.”
(Kaminoff & Matthews,165)
But not everybody can sit comfortably in Vajrasana, due to stiffness in the ankles, in the
shins, in the quadriceps or in the knees.
Therefore it is required to open the muscles in order to relax into the pose. A blanket can
be helpful, especially for the beginners:
- If the knees are in discomfort, we can place a folded blanket under the knees to
- For the ankle discomfort due to the intensity of plantar flexion, we can place a
rolled blanket or a rolled towel under the ankle joint.
- A padding placed between the bottom and the heels can bring lot of ease in case
of tight quadriceps.
There are clues and cues and modifications for almost all the postures; sometimes though,
we just have to accept our limits and our students limits and just relax. It brings a bit of
humbleness and serenity and every now and then I think this approach might be almost
more valuable for the yoga mind than striving for perfection.
Patanjali - Yoga Sutra, Traducere din limba sanskrita de Constantin Fagetan, Comentariu
de Gheorghe Jurj, 1993
Blessing, Julie - Importance of Warming Up, published on 28.12.2018 on Wyomissing
Fitness and Training page
Aaron, Yogi - Yoga Alignment: Principles, Cues and Tips for a Better, Safer Yoga Practice
Evans, Tabitha - Vajrasana ( Kneeling ) - Issues and solutions, Sudokasana.com
McGonigle, Andrew - 5 Reasons why Lotus Might Not Be For You, published on
31.03.2017, on Movement for Modern Life, Tutorials/ Anatomy
Kaminoff, Leslie & Matthews, Amy - Yoga Anatomy, 1.11.2011