I spent the weekend in a yoga anatomy workshop that was led by University of Michigan-trained orthopedic surgeon and hatha yoga practitioner Ray Long, MD, and assisted by 3D graphic designer/illustrator Chris Macivor.
In this blog post, I’m going to share a couple nuggets about how yoga students and teachers can approach learning and applying anatomy, and then I’m going to send you over to additional resources from this doctor-designer team.
The more I learn about anatomy, the more I think that one of the most sorely lacking aspects of the American educational system is what we don’t teach our kids about their own bodies. You can’t really fault a society that turns to quick-fixes — pills, surgeries and questionable products hocked on infomercials — if people aren’t taught how to assess the source of their pain and how to further investigate potential fixes.
I’m lucky I found yoga, because I’d probably be in that category of quick-fix seeker. I’ve never so much as taken an anatomy class, and I never did much in my teen and adult years that required truly connecting with my body — I exercised only grudgingly, didn’t do any type of dancing, didn’t play sports, didn’t ski. It wasn’t until I started my yoga teacher training in 2009 that I started to delve into the human form. I got a sweet taste of anatomy during my 200- and 500-hour yoga teacher training programs at Hilltop Yoga, and I deepened my understanding from studying with Tim Miller.
I first heard about the concept of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), or facilitated stretching, in one of Tim’s “Asana Doctor” workshops. (Read about the history of PNF.) PNF, used by physical therapists and other clinicians, can be applied to yoga. Dr. Long’s website describes it this way:
Stretching applies tension to the muscle and its tendon. There is a nerve receptor (the Golgi tendon organ) that is located at the muscle-tendon junction. This receptor senses tension and relays a signal to the spinal cord. The spinal cord then signals the stretching muscle to relax. This reflex arc acts as a protective circuit breaker to prevent the tendon from tearing at its attachment to the bone. Because all skeletal muscles have Golgi tendon organs, this powerful technique can be applied to gain length and dissolve blockages throughout the body in yoga poses. Use it with caution and care.
So basically, PNF uses a primal response — protecting the health of the body — to essentially trick the spinal cord into sending out a “call off the guard dogs” order. Genius.
Here’s more from BandhaYoga.com:
Facilitated stretching involves contracting a muscle that you are lengthening. This increases the tension at the muscle-tendon junction and recruits more Golgi tendon organs than does stretching a muscle alone. Facilitated stretching causes the spinal cord to signal the muscle to relax, in essence, creating ‘slack’ in the muscle. You can then take up the slack to move deeper into the pose.
I’ve seen yoga students who had little mobility in a pose such as utthita hasta padangustasana deepen to an amazing degree using this technique, which essentially involves the student resisting (in this case of utthita hasta padangustasana, the student would have a little pressure applied to the lifted leg) against the instructor for a short amount of time, then release. This would be done a couple more times before the instructor asks the student to try going into the full expression of the posture.
Over the weekend, Dr. Long used PNF on my supta kurmasana, and it helped me get farther into this pose than I have ever been able to get before — which is especially cool because I find this pose rather frustrating. Finding a way to better connect with the pose is helpful not just for my body, but my mind.
You can apply PNF yourself, by resisting against your own body — so the technique doesn’t depend on you being in a class or a workshop (though I can tell you from experience it is, of course, better with an experienced teacher).
Connecting with your inner anatomist
Both Ray Long and Tim Miller adhere to the principle that it’s more of a service to teach people how to sleuth rather than give them a long list of facts to memorize. Yoga students and teachers need to be able to look at a postural challenge and work backward, then forward again. What is causing this pain/tweak/limitation? How can this be relieved now? How can this be further refined going forward?
Ultimately, though, I think it’s useful for anyone to have a basic understanding of this stuff. After hundreds of hours of studying yoga over the past two years, I still think that sitting — plain old sitting — is one of the hardest poses to maintain. If we all knew just a little bit more about muscle groups and sources of strain and tension, we might be able to make minor adjustments in our daily lives to relieve pain and perhaps even avoid it in the first place.
Some of the nuggets I took away this weekend:
Know what affects mobility
Three factors affect mobility: the shape of the bones involved, the ligaments involved and the muscles involved. You can’t do anything about shape of bone once you’re an adult, and you don’t want to change ligaments. That’s why we focus on muscles.
You don’t have to enroll in med school to get a handle on anatomy
You only need to know about 20 muscle groups. They’re all interrelated and it’s not as complicated as it looks.
Wash, rinse, dry, repeat
When presented with a postural challenge, approach it logically. As an example:
- Analyze the pose and isolate what’s involved. (What are the joints doing? What the agonist and antagonist muscles doing?)
- Gain length where you need to gain length and engage the muscle stabilizers.
- Assess the effects.
My suggestion? Check out the “Scientific Keys” section on BandhaYoga.com, pick up Ray Long’s books (available at BandhaYoga.com and through the YogaRose.net Amazon affiliate store) and get to one of these yoga anatomy workshops if you can.
You can learn about anatomy from a book, but I don’t think it will really resonate if you don’t get the chance to devote time during a class or workshop to sleuthing real-live anatomy puzzles. Plus, Ray takes you through a lovely standing posture sequence to awaken the psoas and you get to enjoy a hypnotic savasana. (I can’t help but note that while I was doing the psoas series this weekend — see the sequence here — I thought it was yet another beautiful example of the benefits of the Ashtanga yoga sequence of standing postures.)
If you’re into social media, you can follow Bandha Yoga:
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