Sun Salutation Anatomy Part 1
This blog is generally aimed at the the current Teacher Trainee's, but is something that any regular practitioner or anyone with any interest in anatomy may find helpful. The subject of anatomy when it relates to asana practice is interesting and opens up a number of debates. It can just make the process much more complicated than it should be. Does it really matter what is stretching and what is contracting (shortening)? In many ways it does not. You can have a very enjoyable practise without knowing your vastus medialis from your sternocleidomastoid! What an understanding of anatomy does however, is give teachers the tools to guide students in the right direction and to ensure what you are doing is safe and consistent with the way your body is designed. For example, a teacher understanding that a knee is a hinge joint gives them the knowledge and understanding of how to keep the bent knee safe in Warrior 2. Without this knowledge the front knee could drop in, potentially causing pain to the student. It is for this reason that students are cued to push the knee out and keep it consistent with the joint of the knee.
The following basic anatomical break down of the classical sun salutation should give you an idea of what works and when, helping you to synchronise your mind, body and generally help refine your surya namaskar.
1) TADASANA - MOUNTAIN POSE
The 1st part of the traditional Sun Salutation sequence is Tadasana. Or Namaskar-Asana. Or Pranam-Asana. Different names but all referring to the same standing upright posture.
In this pose the mind helps the body find balance and poise. The early focus should be on finding an even balance between the left and right side of your body. B.K.S Iyengar would often say that most people do not have balance in a basic standing posture. He would say that many ailments existed as the result of not being able to stand on both feet correctly.
Start by bringing the feet together. Toes touching each other or toes apart is really a personal preference. Re-visit my earlier blog on this subject. Press the heels evenly into the ground. This activates the calf muscles statically which helps keep your knees stable. The thighs (quadriceps) are then evenly contracted paying special attention to the vastus medialis quadricep muscles that sits to the inside of the leg. You don't need another 'lecture' on this muscle so here is a quick reminder.
You can click on this link to read an earlier blog on the importance of the vastus medialis.
Working our way up to the hips, what you are looking for is a neutral pelvis. What is a neutral pelvis? This is when your pelvis is sitting in a natural position where it is not being pulled forward (by muscles or gravity) or backwards. Gently squeezing the muscles of the backside (gluteals) and pulling the navel in towards the spine (transverse abdominis) generally help find this natural position. B.K.S Iyengar would cue this action be telling all his students to "tighten the buttocks". You can take your hands to your hips and move the pelvis backwards and forwards until a position is found that feels neutral to you.
Next the chest is lifted by gently contracted the trapezius and rhomboid muscles. The shoulders are relaxed and drop away from the ears (potentially stretching the upper trapezius muscle).
The hands are then brought together in Namaskar. Thumbs to the chest and elbows relaxed. The eyes are then closed so the focus can now start on your breathing. On an inhale your chest should lift. As you hold your breathe there should be awareness of your standing posture. You are still upright with your spine elongated. As you exhale, further relax your shoulders but maintain the upright posture.
Before you exit your mountain pose, your body is balanced. The left and right sides are in equilibrium, the spine is long and the breathing is slow and controlled. Tadasana is the foundation pose for all other asanas. Those who practise with me will understand the under appreciated benefits of this pose. Most people are NOT ready to adopt the next pose in a yoga class. This often leads to poor technique and confusion within the student. Adopting tadasana can help the student re-align and re-set their bodies. Both the body and the mind can find strength, stillness and steadiness.
RESTRICTION - NONE
2) TADASANA 2 - MOUNTAIN POSE
In the 2nd stage, the lower body remains the same. The palms staying together (or apart depending on the school of yoga), the arms are lifted overhead reaching for the ceiling. At the same time the head tilts back. The gaze is on the thumbs.
The heels continue to press into the ground. The firmness in the thighs and backside remains building the foundation for the pose.
The shoulders draw back (cued again by the middle trapezius and rhomboids), the lower trapezius pulls the shoulder blades down and the latissimus dorsi is flexed bringing the arms overhead.
MAIN STRETCH - Lats
RESTRICTION - Tight shoulders and the Lats
Tightness in the lats can make it difficult to lift the arms up to 180 degrees. Tight lats will either prevent you from lifting your arms all the way over your head or tilt your pelvis forward or even both. If this is difficult then you must persevere. 180 degrees is what the shoulder joint is capable of in that position so make this your goal.
3) UTTANASANA - FORWARD FOLD POSE
The fingertips reaching for the ceiling will now reach for the ground. The option here is to bend the knees to reach the ground avoiding a slumped posture, or keep the legs straight with the fingers hovering off the ground. Both options have their various pro's and cons.
Bending the knees will allow you to touch the ground taking potential pressure off your lower back. So anyone with a history of back pain may well find it preferential to bend the knees. Anyone with a torn hamstring in the past will find it more comfortable keeping the legs straight but this can lead to slumped posture. I would recommend speaking to a teacher to work out what option is best for you right now. Eventually, in the complete pose, the finger tips (or palms) are down to the ground either side of the feet and the legs are straight.
The muscles stretched in theory start from the achilles heel and go all the way to the muscles that attach to your skull. The entire rear side of the body. I say in theory as not everyone will feel a stretch in these parts. If your body is flexible enough, the pose is pretty relaxing. From your achilles, this pose stretches the calf muscles, then your hamstrings, followed by the muscles into your backside. The stretch can also be felt into your lower back, the muscles that run all the way up your spine (erector spinae) and your lat muscles. The muscles shown in yellow in the image below are being stretched.
3) ASHWA SANCHALANASNA - EQUESTRIAN POSE (low lunge)
From the forward fold, a big step back is taken with the right foot. This lunge backwards is initiated by the glute muscles of the right leg (the glute when it contracts takes the hip into extension or behind). Once the toes touch down to the ground, the hips sink towards the ground. The sinking of the hip stretches the quadricep (as the knee goes into flexion) and gluteal muscles (hip goes into flexion) of the front leg.
There is already a stretch into the rectus femoris quadricep muscle of the right leg (as the hip has gone into extension and the rec fem is a hip flexor). This will increase when the chest is lifted and body bends backwards (extension). This movement also stretches heavily into the psoas (core and hip flexor muscle).
The more the body bends backwards (extension), the more the abdominals will stretch (when contracted the abdominals flex the spine). The front shoulder muscles (deltoid) will also stretch along with the pectoral muscles. The erector spinae muscles of the spine will contract to bend and stabilise the spine. The trapezius and rhomboids will also contract to draw the shoulder blades together aiding in lifting the chest.
Finally the upper trapezius contracts to tilt the head back stretching the sternocleidomastoid neck muscles.
MAIN STRETCH - Hip flexors of the back leg. Glute muscle of the front leg. Shoulders and chest.
RESTRICTIONS - Tight hips will make it difficult to lift the chest. Poor posture and lack of awareness of the trapezius and rhomboids make it difficult to lift the chest and keep good posture.
In part two we will look at Chatarunga Dandasana and Ashtang Namaskar.
Zahir Akram has a number of qualifications in Human Biomechanics (the understanding of human movement) and Anatomy & Phsyiology. Zahir will be teaching various modules of our yoga teacher training programme beginning in May 2018 and is available for 121 bookings. For more information contact Zahir on 07577 422132.