Do you tune-in to your body, during a pose and feel the muscles you are working?
As an instructor I can be a stickler about proper alignment, precision in the geometry of yoga is important. Attention to details is required to correctly engage the strength of your body. It is also important in helping keep the body safe during practice.
The anatomy of yoga refers to the anatomical group of muscles you are working in each pose or asana. Yoga is not a combination of arbitrary poses with no rhyme or reason. There is a system which meticulously works all of the musculature and skeletal parts of your body.
Yoga never ceases to amaze me. I have had students who could barely touch their toes, then with dedicated practice, one day they press-up into a back bend. It is truly miraculous. Yoga works because it is based on your anatomy, working to make it stronger, more flexible, more balanced and it helps keep the body’s range of motion fluid.
There are a few good resources you can use to help you understand each pose and the work you are doing. My favorites are Anatomy of Yoga by Dr. Ellsworth and Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews.
Here are a few known yoga poses with detailed musculature anatomy of targeted muscle groups:
Most times when people think of a strong core, they think of the six-pack abs, otherwise known as the rectus abdominis muscle group. These illustrious group of muscles, denote strength in the fitness world and get all the praise for someone having a strong core. However a strong core is much more than that, a strong core is a group of six muscle groups that comprise what we call the “powerhouse”. It is comprised of the transverse abdominis, multifidus muscle, external obliques, internal obliques, rectus abdominis and the erector spinae.
A strong core is essential to everything you do physically. My Pilates instructor would say “… a strong core is like the trunk of the tree, it supports all of the limbs.” Both in yoga and dance a strong core is essential. Great dancers have incredibly strong cores. Remember all those buff guys in Magic Mike? If you watch closely, all of their fly moves stem from the core. What about all of the intermediate yoga poses like crow, headstand, and forearm stand? You must have a strong core to achieve those poses, it’s what helps you get into to the pose and stay there.
A strong core even helps with certain physical alignments. Ten years ago from a daily two-hour commute to and from Boston, carrying my laptop on one shoulder, I got the worse sciatic pain. It was the first time in my life I had to go to physical therapy. One of the things the therapist told me was that I had to strengthen my core. I was on a mission after that. I built in a fifteen/twenty minute core workout every day as part of my gym workout for the next five years at least. Guess what? It worked. I have long since diversified my workout due to all the classes I teach, however I’ve never had sciatic pain again.
Core strengthening is the most important work you should do. You should include a few core strengthening exercises no matter what your fitness regime is. There is a variety of core strengthening exercises to choose from. There are also many exercise machines designed to target the core area. Variety is good when it comes to strengthening your core. My favorite exercises are the ones where you have to use your own body weight like high planks, low planks, side planks, form arm planks etc. Both yoga, and dance inherently strengthen your core, however if you can build in extra core strengthening to your fitness workout schedule, do it! You can never do too much core work.
In a recent workshop, the speaker said “…we arrive with an inhale and we depart with an exhale…”. I thought about my firstborn…his first breath as he entered life—then I thought about my grandmother’s last breath–how I waited, and it came. It occurred to me that the breath is not only powerful–it is sacred. How have we forgotten this?—the simple, basic foundation of our existence.
Now, at the beginning of my yoga classes, when we sit and I start with the yoga breath (diaphragmatic breathing), I am conscious of both the inhale and the exhale, feeling each one with deep gratitude. I am also conscious that my breath is shared by everyone in the class, and that it is also contributing to the whole of life around me. In a book I recently read The Art of Doing Nothing by Veronique Vienne and Erica Lennard, they state “…we are the gardeners of the earth”. What an extraordinary thought! I am both grateful and blessed for the opportunity to simply breathe.
In my yoga classes, I remind my students that “your breath is your anchor”. It helps bring your attention to the present moment, when your mind starts to wander. It helps you to focus through challenging poses (asanas) that require both balance and strength and it helps build stamina for the duration of the flow. And as a bonus, it supplies your body with large amounts of fresh O2 (oxygen), something it needs in abundance to function optimally. Being conscious of the power of your breath and breathing deeply is extremely beneficial for everybody.