Thursday, August 13, 2009

A LITTLE bit about Yoga Anatomy

There's a really cool book called Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff that shows crazy illustrations of what's happening to your muscules and your skeletal system in different yoga poses.  (Kind of like that Bodies exhibit, if any of you have seen that... I saw it in Boston and thought it was wicked cool.)

I don't own the book, but I was thinking of it the other day because I was talking with Mei about the anatomy of the spine (shout-out!).  I found in ebook form - yay!! - but it cuts off right before the part that I was trying to remember!  Boo!!  It is still an amazing read, though - the whole first chapter, which describes the anatomy of how we breathe, is available online right now: Yoga Anatomy  Highly recommended FREE reading!  It kinda makes my head spin, but it's amazing stuff, especially when you start thinking about pranayama breathing in an anatomical context and you realize what you are actually doing to your body during the exercise...

The part that I was looking for (which I did not find!) explained the different ways that your spine can move.  There are five.  Forward bending (extension), backward bending (compression), lateral bending, twisting, and axial extension (which I think was called by another name).  If I'm remembering correctly, the vertebral discs (the little cushions between the vertebrae) get farther apart when you round forward (like rabbit) and closer together when you bend backwards.  Axial extension, where the spine actually lengthens by reducing the curvature, is the only one of these motions that virtually never occurs in day-to-day movement, unless maybe you're reaching for a REALLY high shelf.  

It's pretty easy to break down any yoga posture into the different actions of the spine that are involved.  A few examples: we get pure forward bending in rabbit and all the "head to knee poses."  Back bending is obvious - half moon, spine series, camel.  Side bending is half moon, of course.  Final spinal is pure twisting, though there are other twists; standing bow is sort of a composite twist and backbend.  Axial extension - think of standing separate leg stretching, or the final stretching posture.  I'm also CONVINCED that pranayama breathing is all about axial extension, which I think is brilliant.  Think about all the length that you can create in your spine on the inhale, using the leverage of your hands on your chin.  That's what REALLY prepares you for half moon, which hits you right away with three of the other actions.  (Isn't it a great series?!)

Incidentally, this is why I think it's weird when people talk about avoiding compression in backbends, since they are compressions by definition.  The vertebral discs move closer together.  That's the anatomy.  However, it IS true (and very important) that before you do any back (or side) bend, you need to create as much length in the spine as possible.  Again, this starts in pranayama!  This is also why, if you pay attention to the (pure) dialogue, you'll notice how many side and back bends start with an inhale breath and axial extension, either explicitly or implicitly.  Like in half moon side bend, the last instruction before the bend begins is to "stretch up out of the waist one more time, touch the ceiling."  In the half moon back bend, the instruction is to take a deep inhale ("inhale breathing, full lungs") immediately before beginning the backbend from the cervical spine ("drop your head back as far as it goes, look at the floor behind you").  Lengthening precedes compression, without exception!

Why was I talking about this?  Oh yeah... because Mei posted measurements of her spine when it was compressed, extended, and in its natural state, and someone wrote her a comment saying "What the heck?!  How can your spine change length?"  Visual illustrations were requested, and I happen to have some handy, so here you go.  I've got a bunch of random yoga pictures of myself, including a few in rabbit, camel, and pachimottanasana.  Picture time!  

My pachimo - close to max length, though standing separate leg stretching would really be an even better example

Rabbit: Maximum extension

Full camel: maximum compression.

These were all taken last year (some of you will be able to tell which one was taken over Christmas break by looking at the carpet...) and I can see TONS of room for improvement, but I guess it is kind of my job to look for those things since it is my own practice.

Cool though, right?  Look at the spine!  It can change so much!  And in this post I have barely even scratched the surface of all the things that are interesting about the spine!!  I would have to write a whole book to talk about how crazy important the spine is!  Every sentence would probably end in an exclamation point!!

My sister is sitting in the living room with me and I kept shouting stuff out to her as I read the Yoga Anatomy ebook, and she did not agree that it was incredibly fascinating.  This reminds me of a friend who was in grad school for geology, who one day, at the age of maybe 25, turned around with this expression of shocked realization and said "OH my gosh, I just realized something!  Not everyone thinks that rocks are incredibly interesting!!!"  To each her own, I guess...

12 comments:

FoOie said...

Hello there! I think I was the one who left that comment on Mei's blog about spine changing lengths..

Thanks for the explanation! :)

thedancingj said...

Oh, yippee!! Thanks for giving me the inspiration. It's a great topic. Hope you enjoyed reading!!

lifelonglearner19 said...

So I have today off and I'm headed to the 11:30am in Back Bay. As of late, I have LOVED how I can see my body change just in the breathing - it's fascinating and feels good! This was a great post and I will take this awareness into the studio with me at 11:30, for sure. And perhaps check some of these books out at Borders along the way.

Keep 'em comin', J!

Mei said...

AWESOME POST!!!

Thank you thank you! I know what to get myself for Christmas.

With the spine twisting, yes it's your spine that's twisting top to bottom, but could one also be using their oblique muscles to help "turn and twist" ? Just wonderin'...

Duffy Pratt said...

There's axial extension all over the place in Bikram. But it typically occurs in the set-ups. It's certainly in the set-ups to Half Moon, Camel, Rabbit. And in the poses themselves: Tree, Half Tortoise, and Balancing Stick are all axial extensions.

I have the book, and liked it, but learned the most from the breathing chapter and the spine chapter. The stuff on the individual poses I thought was interesting, but not as helpful.

I have a friend who took a workshop with Rajahshree. (sp?). She picked him out to do Rabbit and measured his spine before and during. The difference in length was 17 inches!

As I understand it, the vertebrae go completely around the spinal cord. Thus, I think its kind of a mistake to say that the spine lengthens in a forward bend and shortens in a backward bend. The back of the spine does that. The front of the spine gets the opposite effect. But that's just a nomenclature quibble.

The thing in backbends is that you are first supposed to get the greatest distance you can between the vertebrae so that there is room. Thats why axial extension is so important beforehand. And I think that's what people may be getting at when they talk about avoiding compression in these poses. Again, its either a misunderstanding or a shorthand that works for some people and not for others.

bikramyogachick said...

J~ I'll check out the book. Very cool. (I'm loving "how yoga works" by the way).
Your last sentence cracks me up, about your sister not being amused by these things. I constantly seek out my coworker that I got hooked on Bikram so we can chat each other up about postures. Because lets face it, unless you are a Bikram addict, these conversations can make your eyes glaze over with boredom! :)

thedancingj said...

Oooh, lots of comments, this is fun. :)

L - Yay, hope you had a great class!! I noticed some new things in MY breathing this morning and thought it was so cool.

Mei - You're welcome! Happy early Christmas! Hehe. And the muscles are ALWAYS moving the spine one way or another, right? The spine is not a muscle? So yeah, those are the muscles groups that you use to create a spine twist. :)

Everybody read Duffy's comment cause he has the book and I think he explained it better than I did. :-D And I agree, the first two chapter are by FAR the best part. The rest is like... eh.... pretty pictures...

Michelle - Haha, tell me about it. Some people just don't understand! P.S. What chapter are you on now in "How Yoga Works"?? I love that you love it!!

thedancingj said...

Ok, Duffy, I am still thinking about axial extension. :) It IS all over the place... before ever backbend or side bend, and in all the "natural human traction" poses - awkward, stick, tree, too...

I don't think it's in rabbit though, I just read your comment again and I gotta nitpick that one. The set-up for rabbit (after the grip) is chin to chest, look at your stomach, exhale breathing, and round forward. Same idea in standing separate leg forehead to knee. Some teachers tell you to lengthen your spine in the set-ups, but that ain't dialogue and it doesn't really help you.

leigh said...

I love that anatomy book too. Thank you for putting up your favorite yoga books! I started Bikram Yoga in May and have been devouring everything I can get my hands on.

thedancingj said...

You're welcome, Leigh!! Thanks for reading, and commenting! I've been meaning to put up a book list for AGES, and those really are my favorites. Hope you find something on there that sparks your interest...

Shabs said...

Hi there! I also have this book, and love the section on breathing. I must admit I haven't got any further into it though, as I bought several books on yoga at the same time, and have been working my way through them. I wish I could consume all the information in all of them at the same time :)

Nice photos by the way!

thedancingj said...

Hi Shabs!! Yeah, I have a bunch of unfinished books on my shelf too, there is always SOOO much more to read! You should read chapter 2 of that book, though, it is even better than chapter 1, in my humble opinion. ;-) Thanks for reading, and you'll have to let me know if you read anything brilliant that I should know about!