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Basic Anatomy for Teachers

Why should yoga teachers study anatomy? Find out some excellent reasons, beginning with an introduction to flexion and extension.

By Julie Gudmestad

While flexion and extension of your hips, knees, elbows, and fingers are fairly straightforward, other joints have to be considered more carefully. When you drop your chin toward your chest in Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), for example, your neck is flexing. You can see that your neck and head are moving in the sagittal plane, but the idea of bones moving together is lost. If you slump over, with your head moving toward your lap, your whole spine is flexed. When you push up into a backbend, your spine is in extension. In Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), your neck is flexed while your thoracic and lumbar spines are extending.

Flexion and extension terminology for the shoulder is challenging, too. According to anatomical convention, your shoulder is flexing when you bring your arm forward and up overhead. In Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Vrksasana (Tree Pose), and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), you need full shoulder flexion-180 degrees-and if you lack it, these poses are much more challenging. Your shoulder is extending, on the other hand, as you bring your arm forward and down from overhead, and even as you continue on back until your arms are reaching straight back behind you, in poses like Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and Sarvangasana.

Practice your understanding of flexion and extension by simply observing people in their various positions and activities. Sit in a public place for a few minutes and notice how people sit and stand, or observe a yoga class. Identify joints that are positioned or moving in the sagittal plane, and determine whether they are they flexing or extending. This will prepare you for the following two columns, in which we will discuss the other two planes of movement and their actions.

Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.

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Reader Comments

Jessie Luttman

Great info! Unfortunately not very many teacher trainings include/make time for anatomy.

John D

About the worst written article in this magazine.


This is great. But how about a few resources of where we can begin to deepen our knowledge and understanding of anatomy. I have many books, but many are all together overwhelming. What about mentioning a few books or resources to get started and grow our anatomical understanding.

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