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Essential Anatomical Reference Points

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When we teach yoga, we use words and phrases to orient people to certain parts of the body. Knowledge of these points is essential to create healthy alignment and to allow students to customize each pose as they see fit. As students, we hear the words and phrases and try to interpret where they are on the body or what action we are being asked to take.

We know from watching the class that everyone can have a different understanding of these body parts and actions. People come to class with a lot on their mind so the more essential we can be as teachers in our words, the better. It can be helpful to know some basic references so you can set up the alignment correctly. In this first part of a two-part article, I refer to 6 key points that can be helpful to understand:

 

1. Feet Hip Width Apart

It’s interesting to watch the class when you request people to stand “with feet hip width apart.” In many cases, it can be due to the student not hearing the instruction or just being less diligent about positioning the feet in this way. Use the reference point of the hip joint and imagine a straight line down to the ankle joint, traveling down the outer thigh. Stack the hip joint over the ankle joint (you can use your lateral malleolus, that ball-like structure that sticks out of your ankle joint as reference). Be sure your knees point directly forward or slightly move them to that position, noticing if the tendency is to have the knees falling in towards each other (“known as “knock kneed”).

 

2. Stacking Hips Over Heels

Now that we’ve discussed the alignment of bringing the feet to hip width, we can take this foundation and when we come into a forward fold, create healthy alignment in that position too. As you have your feet at hip width and fold forward, bend your knees if you need to in order to keep the hips in line with the heels. The other tip you’ll potentially need to use is to lift your sitting bones up. Working these two actions together will allow you to stack your hips over your heels. This position stretches the hamstrings and allows the upper body to relax.

 

3. Knees In Line With The Hips

As we work the concept of “feet at hip width” up the legs, we come to a related physical orientation, that of “keeping the knees in line with the hips.” If you stand with your feet at hip width and your knees at hip width, arms at your sides, palms forward, you’d be in “Anatomical Position,” that “home base” of positions where the joints are aligned. When we start to take the knees outside hip width, as in poses that have us in a squat, for instance, we’re typically externally rotating our hips or opening the inner thighs. But in poses like Bow or Wheel, when the knees widen beyond hip width, we’re actually decreasing the width available in our lower back for the backbend we’re trying to do. This can make these poses uncomfortable and actually a lot harder than if we stay at hip width as much as possible.

 

4. Stacking The Knee Over The Heel

There is a good amount of “stacking of joints” that occurs in yoga and stacking the knee over the heel is a common reference in poses like Warrior 1 and 2. In this position the knee joint is most steady. As the pose goes deeper in it’s expression, the front foot may need to move forward to keep the knee over the heel.

 

5. Drawing The Shoulder Blades Together

This can be an important action in many poses to allow one to open the chest. When we use the muscles called the Rhomboids, we are drawing our shoulder blades closer together. The resulting effect is to open the chest or what may be referred to as “stretching across the collarbones.” This can be a helpful action to take in poses like Wheel, Locust, Bow and Upward Dog. It’s also helpful to be aware of this action as you are sitting at your desk and possibly hunching over your computer.

 

6. Shoulders Back And Down

The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint (like the hip), and it’s most stable position is when the “ball” part of the upper arm bone, the humerus, fits nicely into the “cup” formed by the shoulder blade or scapula. That “fossa” of the scapula holds the humeral head with the best support from the nearby muscles, ligaments and tendons when you relax your shoulders “down the back.” If you hunch your shoulders up by your ears and then drop them down in a relaxed position and slightly draw the shoulder blades together using your Rhomboids as referenced above, you’ll create a steady shoulder. You can use this for support in poses like Side Plank, Crow, Upward Facing Dog and many inversions like Handstand, that depend on shoulder steadiness to create safety and stability.

 

These 6 anatomical references can be applied to many of the poses that we do. They are also helpful alignment cues for healthy posture, both when seated or standing. The more we can integrate these movements into our day, both when practicing yoga, running, sitting, standing, riding a bike or lifting weights, the healthier the movements will be, the more integrity the movements will have and the longer we will be able to do them without pain or injury.

 

It can be helpful to understand each one so you take action correctly on what’s being suggested but as a teacher, it’s important to understand what you’re asking people to do and why.

 

Top Edge Of The Pelvis

The two pelvic bones join together in the back at the sacrum and in the front at the pubis. The top edge of the two pelvic bones forms a “rim” and the shape of the pelvis is bowl-like. Teachers refer to “making the top edge of the pelvis level” or to “lift the top edge of your pelvis.” This cue can help to stretch the hip flexors, muscles like the psoas, which need a level pelvis to be adequately stretched. Also, once you cue people into the top edge of the pelvis in seated poses, they can begin to feel if there is evenness to their seat as they are sitting and in seated postures.

 

Center Your Hips

Put your hands on your hips while standing with the feet hip width distance apart and you will feel the top edge of your pelvis. Bring both of your index fingers to your belly button and start to trace your fingers along the top edge of the pelvis. The two highest points, each called the ASIS on each side (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) are commonly called “hip points.” They become the markers for bringing the hips to center (remembering that this instruction is a guideline, not something to hear and than shove yourself into the shape). As you hear “center your hips” you will bring the two ASIS’s towards the front edge of your mat (in a standing pose like Warrior 1, for instance). Your hip points would face directly down in a pose like Pigeon. Keep in mind that in order to center your hips in a standing pose, the position of your feet is crucial, especially the back foot. It needs to be turned slightly inward in order to center the hips.

 

Sitting Bones

Known as the “ischial tuberosities,” these two knob-like bumps are on the bottom edge of each pelvic bone. They hit the floor when we’re in seated poses like Boat Pose. Sometimes teachers refer to “sitting on the front edge of the sitting bones” in Seated Forward Fold or “dropping the sitting bones toward the heels” in Chair Pose.

 

Tailbone

Known as your “coccyx,” this is the final section of the spine. It’s concave when viewed from the side and depending on the orientation of the top edge of the pelvis, can be either reaching back or slightly tucked under. When the tailbone is tipped backward, it’s known as “hyperextension” (too much extension). This orientation of the tailbone is seen in people where the psoas is shortened, thus drawing the pelvis into a forward tilt in a pose like Warrior 1. A helpful correction is to lift the front edge of the pelvis and drop the tailbone down.

 

Relax Your Upper Ribs

In several standing poses, like Warrior 1 and Crescent Lunge, students may thrust their chest forward, creating a “caved in” back or lordosis (“swayback”). To avoid this, which will tip the front edge of the pelvis down and prevent stretching the psoas, relax the upper ribs. Place your hands under your chest and soften right under the chest and draw it slightly inward. At the same time, draw your belly in slightly to activate your rectus abdominus, the long abdominal muscle that runs up the midline of your body. These two actions will level your pelvis and help stretch your psoas (on the straight leg) without hyperextending your tailbone.

 

Internally Rotate Your Thigh Bones

In backbends, including Bridge, Wheel and Bow, it’s helpful to keep the thigh bones aligned, internally rotated and the feet parallel to each other. To internally rotate your thighs from standing, stand with your feet hip width distance apart and rotate your inner thighs back. In Bow Pose, your inner thighs would roll up towards the ceiling and in Wheel, they would roll down towards the floor. This positioning keeps the lower back broad, which is helpful for backbends.

 

There are many cues we hear when practicing yoga and the better we understand them, the more we can potentially experience in the pose. It also will help us practice with greater safety and stability and can create better alignment when sitting and standing as well.

 

Source: DoYouYoga

 



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