‘The map is not the territory’, my thoughts on anatomy and yoga

Sometimes, the challenge of teaching anatomy to yoga teachers is conveying the idea that, despite sharing the same anatomical blueprint, each person’s body is unique. The anatomical map offers us detailed portrayal of the human structure, however it is still only an approximate representation of the actual body we inhabit. 

Each person is a  perfect specimen of human anatomy as can be attested just by observing the people out on the street: some people are taller, others shorter, some have inherited a robust constitution while others seem more delicate.

If we understand that the study of anatomy encompasses all of these individual differences between human beings, then we can use our anatomical atlas to study each individual student with discernment and curiosity. To do this we must patiently compare the ‘map’ to the ‘territory’ so as to become familiar with the actual bodies of the people we work with. This is how I apply my understanding of anatomy in the context of yoga.

One way to put the theory into practice is to locate certain bony reference points that will help us evaluate our students’ yoga poses.

For example, the sacrum is a reference point that comes in handy.  This bone is shaped like an upside down triangle. It articulates with the iliac bones to the sides and with the coccyx below. The pelvis is formed by the union of sacrum, iliac bones and coccyx.  If we can locate the sacrum, then we can evaluate the position of the pelvis in relation to the spine and legs.

Following the same example, in the forward flexion called pashimottanasana, we want to position the top the sacrum perpendicular or in front of the coccyx. This will establish hip flexion and will simultaneously challenge the elasticity of the hamstring muscles, which if shortened drag the pelvis backwards.

If, on the other hand, the top edge of the sacrum is positioned behind the coccyx, the pelvis will be in a less-than-favorable position for the lumbar spine. We want to position the pelvis in such a way that it helps to establish hip flexion and stretch out the hamstrings.

bad pashimottanasana

With this example I hope to illustrate how we can apply anatomy to yoga in a way that is helpful to our students. In the current case example, we could suggest our student bend his knees so as to work his shortened hamstrings. In this way we are adapting the yoga practice to the student instead of imposing on him a posture that his body may not be ready for.

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This article was written by
Julia Zatta

Julia is a yoga anatomy teacher and bodyworker based in Barcelona, Spain.

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