Understanding Asanas from an Anatomical point of view

Seated Classification

We can explain the anatomy of asanas in many ways. Let us first understand what anatomical position is. When we stand up straight with the palms, toes, head and pelvis facing forward, this is anatomical position. In Hatha yoga we often begin in a seated, meditative like (crossed-legged) position. Here our hips externally rotate, feet invert, elbows flex slightly to bring hands to the knees (or lap) and head, neck and back are in a straight line. This simple crossed leg position is known as sukhasana or easy pose. Here the tendency is to collapse the abdomen, which rounds the thoracic and/or lumbar spine. Beginners can sit against a wall to learn what it feels like to align the spine against a wall, keeping it straight, against gravities nature of drawing us downward. The reason we sit in this position is to allow room for proper breathing. We can practice many methods for improving the breath. This is known as pranayama. The lungs and diaphragm require space to inflate and deflate during the respiratory process. When we keep our spine erect, the open space for our organs and respiratory muscles is vital in taking efficient breath. In easy pose we can further develop into more challenging seated poses, as in padmasana(lotus). This pose requires our legs crossed, but with each foot resting upon the opposite thigh. Due to muscular and structural compositions, each individual will feel either comfortable or uncomfortable in any given pose. For example, someone with poor range of motion in the ankle cannot rest their foot on the opposite thigh because this action requires inversion of the ankle to be constant. There are many other factors that affect how we perform each asana. Since we all have different sizes, shapes, flexibility and proportions of our bodies, certain asanas come with ease whereas others may just do harm. Consider also that chronic, traumatic and acute injuries or illness can prevent us from performing certain poses. There are many modifications we can make to ease tension, when a particular asana elicits pain. Most of the time, the pain comes from incorrectly performing the asana and by correcting the body position, the pain desists. In seated asanas, we can move the body through all 3 planes and axis. By doing so, muscles, ligaments and tendons are contracted and relaxed to improve strength and flexibility in our body. Meditation (dhyana) is one of the 8 limbs of yoga and a means of connecting the individual to the divine. In clear expression, a human can reach to a higher understanding of its existence. There is contentment that follows this process. It is a means of living without suffering under the pyscho-somatic control of our brains. Seated poses require the ability to be still and reverse any unnatural curvatures that may have developed in our spine. Due to habitual sitting, standing and movement tendencies, many people will find the simple crossed legged position unbearable. These people can sit upon a cushion or block to alleviate the discomfort. A tight ilio-psoas muscle along with major external rotators of the hip may prevent people from sitting upright comfortably. In other cases, the bone structure prevents an erect spine, as in scoliosis. Lastly, illness can also inhibit an ability to sit upright. This is true if someone is born with or acquires a condition that affects the bones, muscles and/or joints. A counter pose for any seated asana is bhujangasana (cobra pose). When seated in a meditative pose, we can chant ohm which has many meanings. Yoga practitioners use this as a way to focus, pay respect to nature and connect with consciousness (moving awareness inward). To adjust in any seated pose, the teacher can place one foot perpendicular to the students back, directly at the sacrum. Then, teacher keeps their leg straight and draws the student’s shoulders back with their hands, asking the student to press the spine against the teacher’s leg. Breathing should be slow, rhythmic and comfortable. In sequencing, seated can be a starting point, an ending point and also used as a resting point for a student who needs a break during class to reconnect with their breath.

Table-Top (hands and knees) Classification

This position is also known as many other names. For now we will call it quadruped, as I had first learned about it in physical therapy. The hands are positioned on the ground/mat in line with the shoulders. The elbows are straight with the elbow creases pointed toward each other. The knees are on the ground placed in line with the hips. Tops of the feet are on the floor with the toes pointed away from the body. Most of us have not created a strong abdominal wall and have tight back muscles from activities of daily living. Therefore many people sink their low back in this position, when they are at rest. Squeezing our abdomen, keeping the shoulders away from the ears (in a neutral position) and fingers spread, are the important reminders when holding a quadruped asana. Awareness begins at the feet making sure they are directly in line with the knees. The knees should be hip width, directly under the hip bones. A cushion under the knees (or rolling the mat a couple times) will alleviate pain in quadruped position. Keeping the elbows straight and the back flat, are 2 more important factors to be aware of in the table top position. Breath should be slow and rhythmic (as with all asana/meditation), while focusing on the diaphragm. No counter pose is needed for table top, since it does not place the spine in any exaggerated position. No adjustments should really be made by a teacher though a mirror is useful for a student to ensure their back is straight, neck also in line with the spine. This is a very basic position and every student should feel comfortable and capable here if there are no injuries. Table top is typically used in class sequence after the students has been in a seated posture for some time (mostly in the beginning quarter of class). It may also be used to transition the class from standing postures back to the floor.

 

Standing classification

When we are ready to begin sun salutations and increase dynamic postures, we move students into standing asanas. This usually happens after pranayama, meditation, seated, table-top and the first downward dog of a class. This is not a hard and fast rule. That simply means we may start the class doing surya namaskar(sun salute), depending on the conditions of our external environment or other factors. In contrast, we would not typically end a yoga class in standing. The reason for this is that we want the body to take full rest after a proper practice. Standing asanas build internal heat and warm the muscles, ligaments and connective tissue. Coordination, lung capacity and oxygenation are improved with the use of standing asana. The heart is put under voluntary stress which has a strengthening effect. Standing asana is best used by those whose spend a lot of time sitting. These poses increase both strength and flexibility in our muscles and connective tissue. Ujjayi breath is recommended here to keep a focused and conscious “self” connection. The breath should be synchronized with the movement. Inhaling with each expansion/extension and exhaling during compression/flexion of the spine will improve the ease through which the body moves through standing postures. Breath coordination is especially helpful in sun salutations. Awareness of the soles of the feet rooting down to the earth beneath is important. Toes should be spread, thighs squeezing, lifting the knee caps, shoulders rolled back and down, abdomen and buttocks tightened and neck long when in a static standing position. The spine should remain erect, if simply standing in sama sthihiti. Eyes should remain straight ahead on one point of focus (a Dristi). While in standing we can perform our dynamic postures in all 3 planes, sagittal frontal and transverse. This will balance the use of muscles as we move through our practice. Typical adjustments will ensure the bones are stacked on top of each other providing a protective position of all joints, ligaments and tendons.  The knees should always be kept over the heel or ankle. The shoulders should always be kept away from the ears. The hands should be active, spreading the fingers wide apart. The neck should be aligned with the rest of the spine so we should never let the head hang in standing asanas. The spine should be warm before attempting any major flexion, extension and/or twisting asana. A counter pose will depend on which position the spine is in, in a particular asana. We should reverse the spinal position within a smaller range of motion, opposing the original asanas alignment. Slightly bent knees will take pressure off of the back should anyone have back injuries or issues.  “People with slipped discs or sciatica should avoid all standing postures except for tadasana, hasta uthanasana and akarna dhanurasana”(Swami Saraswati 285).

Balancing classification

We can perform balancing asanas in seated, standing, inverting, forward bending, back bending, and using just our upper body. There are so many contraindications when considering whether or not to perform a balancing pose. As we age, brain function decreases and the cerebellum (which controls motion) loses ability to function, in the process. Anyone with cerebellum issues should not practice these asana. The effect of practicing the balancing asana is improvement in posture, physical grace and coordination and reduces stress and anxiety. It is important to start simple with beginners and cue only basic balancing poses for the beginner to work on. In sequencing, a balancing pose is best performed after the body has warmed up. After some sun salutations have been performed it is helpful to still the body and find balance. This classification of asana may be your peak or climactic pose of the whole class. It also may be part of a flow sequence, in transition from one pose to the next. Lastly, the balance pose may be saved for the last quarter of a class, when we truly need to stay focused on our own selves. There is a tendency to lose the breath with dynamic movement so balancing can steer us back to looking within for strength and coordination. Balancing poses also increase bone density, which is depleted by the aging process. To counter pose balancing asanas, we can come to simple resting poses such as child’s pose and downward facing dog. Modify these postures by using a wall, floor, block or belt to assist in creating stability. Adjusting a student in balancing poses may be too obtrusive. Try using cues to enhance the asana and let the student find their way. Alternatively, adjustment may be helpful when the teacher supports the student by easing into the adjustment and slowly easing out, allowing the student to stay coordinated.

Forward Bending classification

Society today causes unnecessary tension and tightness in our bodies due to the habits and patterns of culture. We can look at forward bending as a means to deepen our capacity in exhalation. These are also a counter pose to back bends and vice versa. Gravity assists our bodies in forward folding asana and helps relax our back muscles, causing space between the vertebra and discs. Over time the space diminishes and our backs become weakened. Organ compression is a side effect in these poses which helps improve circulatory flow throughout the organs, keeping the body in homeostasis. There are emotional, mental and physical effects of forward bending with or without ease. These asana can be placed, in sequence, post pawamuktasana or joint movement. Any time throughout the practice and during sun salutations, we use forward bending to increase range of motion, flexibility and strength in our backs. Awareness is needed to bend at the hips and keep length in the spine. This will prevent injury to a spine. As we bend forward, the breath should be exhaled for as long as is comfortable, in reaching the final position. Adjustments feel great if properly applied and pressure is not given at the upper thoracic or cervical spine. Remember these poses can affect us emotionally, so never pressure yourself or a student beyond their end point.

Backward Bending classification

Back bends are a counter pose to forward bending, which allows for deep inhalation. The ribs expand and separate here, providing more room for the lungs to inflate. We connect outward more with the world/nature, when we do backward bends. We can modify our backbends if there is discomfort by bolstering the spinal column. Those with degenerative diseases should not exaggerate the extension of the spine because it adds more compression (pressure) onto already weakened bones, discs and muscles. For a healthy spine and to balance our forward bends, we can use back bending as a way to keep space in between the vertebrae and discs. The affect is a flexible spine which allows free flow of blood, lymph, cerebrospinal and all other bodily fluids. Homeostasis will be present when the spine has space to move with freedom and strength. Awareness should be placed on limitations of the extension within our individual bodies. Slow return from a backbend is another major focus that will keep us safe as we exit a back bend. Adjustments can be performed adding further extension to the spine as long as the student feels comfort and support. After practicing intense back bends, such as wheel/chakrasana, we can do a gentle forward bend to counter pose the spinal movement. This brings balance to the body.

Spinal Twisting classification

We must remember that our spine has the ability for more than just flexion and extension. It can also rotate and when we twist into rotation, we keep the spine healthy. To sequence a twist we can truly place them anywhere but they are most beneficial after both forward and backward bending. Also, we can take a twist after the counter pose to an inversion. They can also be utilized in an active way or to relax the body at the end of our asana practice. Twisting massages the internal organs by compressing the space they have to function. When we release the twist we increase the space for easy movement of organ circulation. Imagine a pump that puts pressure and releases pressure. Twisting is a pump (like the heart) with which we move fluid, nutrients and waste easily. If pregnant, only one spinal twist is recommended. This is meru wakrasana, which does not induce extreme rotation, rather is gentle and safe for non-risk pregnancy. Free flowing breath is a direct result of spinal twisting after the practice has been completed in both directions. To counter pose we simply twist in the opposite direction. A block under the hand and cushion under the hips may be used to support a twisting pose, in a seated posture. Emotional affects can result from spinal twisting. We can twist away negative thoughts and also become better at managing challenges in our daily events.

Inverted classification

The force of gravity is a constant factor in our health, posture and vitality. Inverting allows blood to flow easily to the brain, oxygenating it with the use of gravity. Inversion is a way to counter pose standing, sitting and lying down asana. Emotionally, we can find new perspective on any given understanding. So we can invert if we are looking for a new way to view an experience. Inversions are well known for combating anxiety, stress, depression, lethargy and support positive thinking. To counter pose an inversion we can rest in child’s pose, or even gentle seated forward fold. The head should be slightly elevated to rebalance the veins flow from the brain. Anyone with neck injuries, vertigo, heart conditions (like high blood pressure) and/or back problems should refrain from inversion poses. A bolster or blankets under the shoulders or head is always a benefit to protect the head neck and shoulders. Adjusting a student while they are inverted is dangerous and can only be done with extreme caution and great confidence. A student should also feel extremely comfortable in the inverted pose before anyone assist them further into the pose. We must ensure that we include these asanas after the body has been through some movement when sequencing them into a class. The inversion can be the peak pose in the middle of a class or even near the end of the class for a rebalance of all the gravity influenced movement.

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