Simple Anatomy for yoga (How not to fuck up your body when you are a beginner)

No two bodies are the same, our anatomical construction is different and that impacts our yoga practice. But how are we different, and how can we know? Well, let’s take a look at a couple of anatomical concepts and see if we can answer that a little bit.

When two people reach the floor on trikonasana, they might feel restriction, but they don’t necessarily feel it in the same way. When you feel a deep stretch and you start to feel a bit of pain because your muscles are not that flexible to move you further, you might actually have found a tension restriction. If in the other hand the restriction feels like you just hit a wall and if you try to move beyond it, the pain you feel is not pain of muscles stretching but of muscles being pinched or two solid things colliding with each other, then you are experimenting compression, usually that means bone on bone action.

No matter how many years of practice we have under our belts we are always going to hit compression, there will be a time when we are so flexible that what is restricting our ability to stretch deeper is our compression point, some of us will hit that spot sooner rather than later. As a student, your practice will change tremendously once you learn to identify your points of compression. As a teacher you will become a life saviour for your students when you teach them about tension and compression.

The shape of our bones predisposes us to succeed or to fail at attempting to perform an asana just as we see our favorite yogi do it. One example of this is our femur. The angle of the neck of the femur can make a difference in the way we move our legs and open up our hips. Because of that little factor one person with years of practice can perform over-splits and a different person with the same amount of years of practice will never be able to do it. In that case, her or his bones will hit before they can move their leg upward. So you see, people might look the same from the outside but on the inside is a completely different world.

There are two other factors that we are going to briefly discuss in this essay, that impact our practice as well, we are talking about proportion and orientation. Proportion refers to the length of your body parts in relation to one another. Orientation refers to the way our body parts are oriented to one another.

When we talk about body parts we mean the axis and appendicular skeleton. Putting it simple the central core of your body (head, thorax, vertebral column) is the axis and the rest of the body (the extremities) is the appendicular skeleton.

If for example, when you bend your elbows and they are not longer than your head, in fact they are shorter, you are probably going to have a problem with inversions like headstands and for some of you, this will never be a possibility. Although there are other factors involved in your probabilities to execute a headstand safely, we don’t want to sound too apocalyptical either. But you get our point.

Another example of proportion would be arms to torso proportion. This one is very special for me. I used to think that I was not able to uplift myself from the ground because I wasn’t strong enough, although I was strong enough to do inversions and several arm balances. So what was it? My arm to torso proportion was getting in the way. Because my arms were not long enough (meaning shorter than my torso) I have to use extra force to barely uplift myself from the ground. If my arms would have been longer, they would have served me as leverage to do the uplifting a lot higher and with a lot less effort. So you see, finding this out completely changed my uptake with these movements. As a student it made me more merciful towards myself, a lot more understanding and forgiving of my abilities and effort. And I hands down believe that a yoga teacher should uphold those very same values.

Looking up for the proportion of your students is a way to teach them to care about the way their bodies work. This would also mean that they are going to use tools to help them up in some cases, and take the best out of the pose. And for the cases that they are not going to be able to do, they would be able to let go and make their peace with it instead of forcing themselves in poses that are not helping their bodies in any way.

We could probably find one or more points of interest regarding orientation, but one of my favorites because of its many benefits is the orientation of the body to gravity. When practicing asanas, are you working against, with or neutral to gravity? Gravity can make a world of difference when it comes to the quality or amount of effort put into the execution of a pose. Let’s take backbends for example. The compression of the lumbar spine could be the same or slightly deeper depending on the angle of the pelvis. In a cobra pose you compress your back almost the same as in pigeon, the difference is that in the latter one, the angle of the pelvis changes and you are using gravity to help you push more into the pose without giving any extra effort. It all depends on what you want, sometimes you might want to use the extra push provided by gravity to help you relax, and some other times you’ll maybe want to develop certain muscles by making it a bit difficult for you to stretch, in that case, working against gravity helps you fulfill that goal.

You are also welcome to explore how to use your extremities to help you orient the angle of your appendicular skeleton to your axis or vice versa. Again, maybe the compression of the twist or bend might not change that much, but you could use your extremities as tools to make it easier or harder, depending on what you want.

In the end, one of the things that you should remember is that the way our bones are, their length, their angle, all of these characteristics provide us with a blueprint of what our bodies can develop regarding the asana practice. What works for you might not work for another person with your same age, gender, and time and dedication to yoga. How flexible we might seem to be when we are beginners might have a lot do with our bones and the way they interact with each other. Same thing with how tight you might look in spite of years of practice.

Mastering or at least getting familiar with these four concepts will help you become more aware of your body and will provide you with clarity as to how to proceed.

But remember, is not to sound apocalyptical, you should not take these factors as proof that you are not adequate for yoga. Yoga is foremost a philosophy, it’s there for anyone who wants to broaden their horizons. It’s just that it is important that you find the right way to develop yourself physically and no to continually waste effort and put yourself down because you have not considered these factors.

With practice you will develop a higher level of awareness, you will learn to know the limits, or better put, the nature of the movement of your skeleton. You will see that in a lot of the cases, you are not “improving” not because you are a lazy yogi, but because of compression, and in some cases you will get more flexible because your restriction is tensile, it’s just a matter of consistency. And this is important to know for any person, but especially for those with chronic conditions or injuries, where their bodies have lost their natural movement. If you had a cast on your leg for a couple of months, yoga can help you restore your elasticity, and thus making your body return in some cases to its natural state. But that is for another essay, we don’t want to lose track of our thoughts here.

The bottom line is that the perfect way an asana looks does not really exist, I mean, for sure, there are some pretty pics out there of some amazing movements of the body, but what I mean is, as long as you are moving within your body’s own parameters then who said the way you move is harmful or wrong? Some people can hyperextend safely because their point of compression allows them to, most can’t. Some people can lift their head off the ground in a headstand because their long arms allow them to, some people are not even close. Some people can backbend easily because of the angle of their pelvis, some won’t. You see where I am going with this? Know thyself I tell you! If you do, your practice will become something else, more complete, less competitive and more therapeutic. Namasté!

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