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Functional Anatomy for Yoga - Part 1: Bones

17 Dec 2016   Shanti Gowans

The practice of asana has historically been to prepare the seeker (sadhaka) for the prolonged practice of meditation towards the spiritual goal of liberation. Today, however, yoga asanas are being used by millions of people all over the world for other reasons as well. These include to increase energy, reduce stress, improve health, enhance atheletic performance, recover from injury and illnesses as well as to simply improve their enjoyment of daily life.

Whether you are an experienced teacher of yoga or a novice practitioner, an understanding of the basic systems that create and control movements of your own body will help you to move with more enjoyment and less difficulty and pain, understand the dynamnism of asana, and become your own teacher.

Your starting point is to study your body's basic structure, your anatomy. Just as learning the letters of the alphabet provides you with the building blocks of words, understanding the structure and function of your locomotion system leads you to better movement of your body through space. 

Macro anatomy, the anatomy of the major structures of the body, micro anatomy, the structure of the cells or specific fibres of the muscles, and subtle anatomy, the anatomy of your energy channels (nadis), the meridian system and their organs (chakras) are not merely a collection of facts about the body, they are all immediately applicable to your practice.

Human anatomy and physiology is a vast study, as is the art and science of Yoga. It is not necessary to memorise hundreds of muscles and bones to experience the benefits of yoga.

To become a more effective and efficient practitioner and teacher, you will need to direct your awareness and explore your locomotive system, vetebral column, lower extremeties, trunk, upper extremeties, diaphragm, abdomen, and your respiration, and their relationship - one to another, and also how these organs and systems can be affected by various asanas and movements.

Explore as much as you can about your body, its bones and joints, as well as soft tissues such as connective tissue, nerves and muscles. They all work together to help you locomote or move. Know everything experientially. Make this your lifelong enquiry. There are no useless details in the study of the anatomy of your physical body, the stula sharira. Your bones, joints, the pertinenet connective tissue, nerves, muscles, all provide a platform for understanding principles that will prevent injury, enhance and enrich your practice and teaching, and lead you to a deeper exploration of your subtle body, the sukshma sharira, and eventually to the causal body, karana sharira.

Anterior and Posterior

The front of your body is know as the anterior view. The back of your body as the posterior view. 

Axial and Appendicular Skeleton

The underlying structure of the pjhysical body is your skeleton, which is a collection of 206 individual bones. It is divided into two main parts, the axial and the appendicular.

The axial skeleton is made of bones that form the axis of your body: the skull and vertebral or spinal column, ribs and sternum, and the hyoid bone, seventy-four bones in number. The vertebral column surrounds and protects the spinal cord, which is the central energy channel or the sushumns nadi. It is the axis around which the postures in yoga revolve.

The appendicular skeleton consists of your limbs or your arms and legs. These number sixty-four in the upper extremity and sixty-two in the lower extremity. Adding six more auditory ossicles makes a grand total of 206 bones. The appendicular skeleton connects us to the world. The lower extremities form our connection to the earth and the upper extremities, in association with our senses, connect us with each other.

Shoulder and Pelvic Girdle

The shoulder girdle is the yoke that connects the upper extrimities with the axial skeleton. It is the seat of the brachial plexus, a collection of nerves, that, in association with the heart forms the basis for the fourth (anahata) and fifth (vishuddhi) chakras. 

The shoulder girdle is comprised of the following structures:
Scapular (shoulder blades)
Scapulothoracic joint
Clavicle (collar bone)
Sternoclavicular and Acromioclavicular joints
Humerus (upper arm bone)
Glenohumeral joint
The pelvic girdle is the yoke that connects the lower extremities to the axial skeleton. It is the seat of the sacral plexus, a collection of nerves that forms the basis for the first (muladhara) and second (svadhisthana) chakras. 
The pelvic girdle is comprised of the following structures:
Iliac bones (hip bones)
Sacroillac joint
Femur (thigh bone)
Hip joint
The shoulders and hips are ball and socket joints. Their form reflects their function in that the deep socket (acetabutum) of the hip is designed to support weight, while the shallow socket (glenoid) of the shoulder is designed to provide maximum range of motion for the arms. Yoga postures balance mobility and stability by increasing the range of motion of the hips and stabilising the shoulder. 
Location Terminology
Structures are often described to where they lie in relation to certain landmarks on the body
Superior: Above or towards the head
Inferior: Below or away from the head
Dorsal: On the back of the body
Ventral: On the front of the body
Anterior: Towards the front of the body
Posterior: Towards the back of the body
Distal: Away from the trunk or midline
Proximal: Closer to the trunk ir midline
Medial: Closer to the midline of the body
Lateral: Away from the midline
Deep: Inside the body
Superficial: Towards the skin.


Each bone is made up of a vascular covering called a periosteum, which is painful to firm touch. If you have hit your shin on a table, you would have experienced periosteal pain.

The marrow, found in the centre of the large bones, is one of the sites that produce red blood cells (the other is the spleen). The function of the red blood cells is to carry oxygen in the bloodstream.

At the end of each long bone is an epiphysis, or growth plate, which is exactly what it sounds like. Bones grow from their ends, and when an individual has reached her maturity, the growth plates are no longer active.

Bone is one-third living tissue and is basically a protein matrix, with various minerals, such as calcium and other inorganic salts embedded in it.

Another function of bone is to act as a storage place for minerals such as calcium. When calcium is needed for a variety of physiological functions in the body, it can be released from the bones to that service.

Bones grow along lines of stress. This means that when we bear weight on our bones, especially on those which are intended for weight bearing, such as the femur, it helps to strengthen the bone. Astronauts who have been weightless in space have actually lost a small percentage of their bone mass when they are tested back on Earth.

Each bone is uniquely shaped to perform a specific function. The unique shapes of bones are described as long, short, flat or irregular. For example, the humerus is a long bone, and a tarsal is a short one; the illum is a flat bone, and a vertebra is irregular.

A special kind of irregular bone is a sesamoid bone. This is a bone that develops in the tendon of a muscle. The benefits of a sesamoid bone are to offer protection to the tendon as it passes over the joint during movement, as well as to offer increased leverage and thus power on contraction. An example of a sesamoid bone is the patella, or kneecap. The kneecap develops during the first year of life in the tendon of the quadriceps as it passes over the knee joint.

Bones can have ridges, called spines, or crests, which serve as attachment points of muscles and other connective tissue; they can have openings called foramen (singular) or foramina (plural). These openings allow for the passage of other structures, such as nerves and blood vessels. Bones also have projections, such as tuberosity of the humerus and the trochanter of the femur.

As a Yoga teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner or if you are involved in doing body work, memorising the names and locations of all the bones can be useful to be able to quickly identify various bony prominences or anatomical markers and to communicate this information to other professionals who would be familiar with the language and terminology. 

The following are especially important to know as you can address them most frequently when teaching or assisting:

• the head of the humerus: the top, rounded part of the upper arm bone as it fits into the shoulder joint.

• spine of the scapular: a horizontal ridge that divides the posterior surface of the bone.

• inferior angle of the scapular. It's position will help you ascertain your student/patient's scapular position.

• inferior superior iliac crest, commonly known as the hip bone. It should be level, not only right to left, but also front to back. The angle of this prominence can inform you about the curve in the student/patient's lower back.

• greater trochanter, the prominence on the outer, upper thigh and is an extension of the neck of the femor. Noting the position of this prominence can tell you about the rotation of the student/patient's thigh and whether the person is standing with a neutral position of the hip.

• tubercles at the inner and outer knee joint, the site of attachment of many muscles.

• malleoli, the lateral and medial ankle bones, which can help you identify ankle alignment.

You address all of these when you align the body is Tadasana, the mountain pose.



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Shanti Gowans is the globally recognised author and founder of Shanti Yoga™, Meditation and Ayurveda for the self, family and community.

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