Anatomy, Alignment and Action in the Practice of Yoga, Part I: An Introduction

Level: All Levels

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The posture of meditation should be steady and comfortable.
It should be effortlessly relaxed and infinitely expansive.
Then the yogin will be undisturbed by the buffeting of opposing forces."
- The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali

The physical practice of asana, especially in the Iyengar Method, is based on a well-defined technique in much the same way as dance or the martial arts. Any given movement can be broken down into a coordinated combination of muscles and joints working together to achieve the desired effect. The human body is only capable of a finite number of ways to move, so every movement, every shape that the body assumes, regardless of discipline or technique, emerges from the same vocabulary that we all share. All that distinguishes your movement vocabulary from that of the person next to you is the freedom and skill you posses, either through genetics or training, in the fundamental building blocks of movement.

Simple and advanced yoga poses share the same actions. In simpler poses the interactions of the different body parts are less complex, but the seed of even the most advanced backbend, for example, can be contained in the simplest of standing poses. This is the basis of a student’s progression in Yoga as conceived by B. K. S. Iyengar. Simple poses, such as standing poses, are used to learn the fundamental actions. These actions are then practiced and combined to condition the nervous system and build up the body’s intelligence and capacity. Once these fundamentals are mastered, progressively more challenging poses are introduced, along with more advanced actions and refinements.

In this way the student’s flexibility and endurance are brought along hand-in-hand with their capacity for introspection and discernment. Consider Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), the first of the advanced backward extensions that the student works towards. For many it can seem like an impossible feat to lift up off the floor and straighten the arms without jamming into the lower back. Careful investigation into such poses as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) and Viparita Dandasana (Inverted Staff Pose) will reveal similar actions in the leg, sacrum, lower back and shoulder girdle. (See Figures 1 to 3.) The student is then in a position to take advantage of this to support the development of the harder pose.

Practicing and mastering the important actions in the less challenging poses will prepare the body for the more advanced backward extension. This, in turn, will enrich the relatively simpler poses that lead up to it. There is a story that is sometimes told to illustrate this point. A man went to Mr. Iyengar for help with Urdhva Dhanurasana. Mr. Iyengar worked with the man for a year helping with his problems, but in all that time would not let him even attempt the pose. Finally, when Mr. Iyengar was satisfied with the man’s progress, he told the man to go up into it. The man was then able to perform it with ease and with none of the problems he had originally been experiencing.

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Differing Approaches

Asana in the Vinyasa tradition is primarily a choreographic exercise in which placement of the limbs in one pose shape leads the practitioner into the next. (See Figure 4.) It is the breath that unites the poses into a coherent whole, flowing from shape to shape, giving them their cumulative spiritual effect. Movement is external, whereas action is internal. In the Iyengar Method, the student moves simply and efficiently from pose to pose, sustaining and deepening the action being explored. (See Figure 5.)

The student’s awareness is bound by concentration to the nervous system as it performs increasingly subtle internal muscle actions. Over time, and with much effort, that awareness and control is refined to the level of transcendent penetration. Mastery over the body’s subtle actions becomes a vehicle by which to discriminate between that which is transitory and impermanent, full of anguish and sorrow, and that which is truly eternal and beyond all suffering. It is on this level that the practice taught by B.K.S. Iyengar has encoded within it the precepts of Classical Yoga as put forth by Patañjali in his Yoga-Sutra:

To the observer all is sorrow, be it from the anguish of change, the sorrow caused by latent impulses in deep memory or the conflict that arises from fluctuations of the underlying qualities of nature.
Future sorrow is that which must be overcome.
The confusion of observer with observed is the cause of that which must be overcome."

The observer is pure awareness. The observed, on the other hand, is the physical body, the entirety of the nervous system, the senses that interpret the information of the body, the mind that organizes and the consciousness that controls that information, all of which are bound together in the actions of the pose. In that binding they become conditioned, purified and integrated until the untouchable underlying awareness can realize its true nature as something other than that which has been bound. The student works from the external to the internal, from the extremities of the limbs inward to the organic core, from the gross to the most subtle and refined. In this way the boundary between voluntary and involuntary, between body and mind is permeated, preparing the nervous system for the most subtle step of final emancipation.

The basic shape of a given pose, then, is secondary to the underlying body actions of which it is composed, so much so that, should it not be possible to maintain the constituent actions of a pose while striving for the classic shape – bringing the hand to the floor in a standing pose or the head to the shin, say, in a forward extension – then the shape must be broken and a prop must be used to support the body. To do otherwise is to violate the first tenet of yoga, non-violence.

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Areas of Focus

In Yoga terms an “action” is different from a movement. A movement involves part of the body moving through space, whereas an action involves the internal movements of muscle, bone and sinew. Taking your arm from down by your side and lifting it up to point at something in front of you would be considered a movement. That simple movement involves a number of actions: the arm lengthens from shoulder to fingertip; the outer arm muscles contract and the inner arm muscles lengthen; the crook of the elbow extends; the shoulder blade moves.

The actions of which the body is capable are as numerous as its many parts. For the purpose of yoga poses (or asanas) the ones we are interested in are fairly straightforward, especially at the beginning. To make them more accessible, let us organize them into areas of focus, starting at the base, and working our way up, the standard approach in the Iyengar Method.

In the most general terms, there are eight areas of focus (See Figure 6.):

The Feet: spreading, grounding.
The Legs: extending, flexing.
The Hips: turning in, turning out, folding, opening.
The Pelvis: tilting forward, tilting back.
The Trunk (including the belly, the ribs, the back and the chest): stabilizing, lengthening, extending, broadening.
The Shoulders: drawing back and down, connecting in, broadening, rolling out.
The Arms: extending, flexing.
The Hands: spreading, grounding.

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Levels of Complexity

The actions themselves can be thought of as having different levels of difficulty or complexity. It should be said, however, that though simple and lower level actions may be easier, they are as important as the more advanced actions. A practice focusing on fundamentals is just as valid to an advanced practitioner as a complicated routine of difficult poses. The idea of “levels” in general is entirely arbitrary and can be confusing, especially between different yoga centers and individual teachers. The categories presented here are not necessarily “levels” in the sense that you might take a “Level I” class, or a “Level II/III” class. I present these divisions as a general guideline.

Level I – Fundamental Actions

These volitional internal actions can be thought of as the impetus or end result of an external movement, or the intention behind that movement. For example, grounding through the feet would be the impetus behind standing upright. Even when one is fully standing, however, such as in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), it is still possibly to consciously and intentionally ground down through the feet. The same could be said of other component actions off standing up, such as extending the legs or lifting the chest.

Level II – Fundamental Combinations

This involves the idea of actions working in opposition to each other. Nothing in the body works in isolation. A limb that moves is able to do so because another part of the body is grounding and stabilizing it. The notion of being able to fully isolate an action is a simplification used as a convention to facilitate ease of learning at the beginning. Consciously performing two seemingly unrelated or opposite actions at the same time can be challenging to the beginner and the advanced practitioner alike. Try patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. Or try playing two completely different musical lines on a keyboard with both hands simultaneously. Combining actions is a skill in itself and is the basis of a deeper meditative approach to asana. A mind trying to hold multiple actions together at the same time is unlikely to be wandering.

Level III – Refinements

When first approaching fundamental actions or combinations, the primary concern of the student is usually “Am I doing it? Am I doing it right?” There is an element of all or nothing to the approach. Once the student has familiarity with an action, the challenge then becomes to maintain freshness, lest the mind become dull and the practice rote. Here is where refinement comes in. If you are turning the thigh out in the hip socket, for example, what part of the thigh are you focusing on. From where are you initiating the action? How are you stabilizing the rotation? This is where artistry comes into the practice, as any simple action can be approached from a multitude of perspectives.

Level IV – Kinesthetic Actions

This category of action is somewhat harder to define. Here the practitioner is less concerned with the mechanics of a given action or combination and more concerned with their accumulated or even secondary effects. Based on a firm grounding in the fundamentals, vectors of energy and underlying intention become key in this approach. Let us return to the example of the out-turned thigh. What effect does the action have on the leg as a whole? Turning the thigh out engages the muscles of the outer leg, but also lengthens the inner leg and opens the groin. Approaching standing poses such as Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Utthita Parshvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) from the perspective of opening the groin as opposed to the opening hip would be a kinesthetic approach.

The mechanics of anatomy can even be abandoned completely in favor of imagery and metaphor. Any system, objective or subjective, classical or self-created can be applied to great effect. One might work with ideas of the elements or the Gunas (the three underlying qualities of Classical Yoga philosophy). One might work with lines of energy or adjectives of expression. This approach is limited only by the imagination and, more importantly, the clarity of the teacher or practitioner.

Level V – Advanced Organizers

In the Iyengar Method a pose is broken down into its constituent parts and then rebuilt upwards from the base. Once all the individual parts are mastered, then the task becomes to re-integrate them into a complete pose. This requires an intensely meditative mind capable of balancing discerning detail with holistic awareness. At this stage one returns to the fundamentals and imbue them with new meaning and resonance. Here it becomes possible to organize an entire practice around observation of one or two actions or body parts. How does the action affect the pose, and the pose the action? How does the action impact the living breathing practice sequence as a whole?

At the Yoga Journal Conference held in Estes Park in 2005, Mr. Iyengar joked that the practice of the assembled crowd was a holistic practice “because it is full of holes”. It is at this most advanced level that the student attempts to rectify this and unite action with body, body with mind, mind with the eternal and unchanging.

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In articles to come, we will look at each of these levels of action in more detail, outlining the theory and application that underlie the methodology of practice that drives an anatomical approach to yoga.