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Sun Salutation Anatomy Part 3

As per the previous two blogs on the sun salutation (geared towards the current teacher trainees), the anatomy behind the various poses is vast and often very confusing. So in this series of blogs I am giving you a very basic anatomical breakdown of the sun salutation.


From Ashtang Namaskar we lift up into upward facing dog.

From Ashtang Namaskar you lower the hips down and flatten the body down to the ground. The feet are kept together or one foot apart (Iyengar has them one foot apart), the calf muscles contract to point the toes away taking the ankle into plantarflexion. The quadriceps contract to straighten the legs (extension). Next the palms press into the ground lifting the torso off the ground. The erector spinae muscles contract to extend the spine stretching the anterior portion of the trunk, the psoas and the abdominals. The glute max and minimus contract to extend the hips stretching the rectus femoris (which is a hip flexor). The triceps contract to keep the arms in extension and the middle trapezius and rhomboids again co-contract to draw the shoulders blades together (retraction) and lift the chest. In the final part of the pose, the upper trapezius contracts to extend the cervical spine so the eyes can gaze upwards. Urdhva Mukha meaning 'having the mouth upwards'.


Iyengar says to straighten the arms and keep the legs tight and straightened at the knees (but do not rest the knees on the floor). The weight of the body lie on the palms and toes only.

Iyengar also asks us to push the chest forward. When I teach I find the best way to achieve this is to keep the hands planted firmly and slide the thighs forward. This pushes the chest forward, retracting the rhomboids and middle trapezius or in other words, bringing the shoulder blades closer together.

In the video below I show you what I mean by sliding the hips forward to draw the shoulder blades together. I then press my palms into the ground. This means I use both palms 50% each to create the lift. I want to create a symmetrical and balanced pose. This makes the pose more anatomically balanced and remains consistent with the 'ha-tha' sun and moon principle of yoga.


Anatomically the biggest restriction in my experience is tightness of the rectus femoris (hip flexor muscle). The rectus femoris is a hip flexor that stretches when the spine goes into extension. If this muscle is tight, it can pull on the rim of the pelvis possibly taking the pelvis into an anterior tilt (but not always). This can create discomfort into the lower back as the lumbar discs begin to compress. The remedy, if you experience lower back pain as a result of a tight hip flexor, is to bend the elbows and lower the torso, decreasing the amount of spinal extension (backbend). This will stop the pull by the rec fem on the pelvis. It is important to keep the length in the spine when the elbows bend and to understand that overtime the arms must straighten to complete the pose.

A point to make about bending the elbows is that although this can be easier on the lower back if the pelvis tilts forward, this modification does require the lower back to work much harder than it would in the full pose. This is because the arms are no longer locked so they cannot take the full weight of the torso, meaning the lower back must take up the slack to create and maintain the lift. The lower back as the fulcrum is not assisted by the arms as it would be when the arms are straight. This is not an issue unless there is obvious weakness in the lower back due to injury or post pregnancy etc.

Have I lost you with the Fulcrum bit? 😏

In movement mechanics, a fulcrum is the point in the body that creates movement. A joint where two or more bones join together creates a fulcrum (or an axis), and the muscles crossing that joint apply the force to move that resistance. If you think of a dumbbell curl, the fulcrum or axis point would be the elbow.

In the case of the upward dog pose, the fulcrum is the pelvis and the resistance is the upper body. Without assistance from the arms, the muscles of the lower back that attach to the pelvis would have to lift and take the resistance of the upper body which can cause problems. So the arms essentially take the load off the fulcrum in downward dog. Are you still with me? TT Trainee's can quiz me more on this on our next weekend if you need me to elaborate.


From the extension of the hips and spine, we go into flexion of the hips and a neutral spine. The hands are kept in the same position as the hips are pushed towards the back of the room.

Starting with the foot position, the feet are hip width apart and the ankle is now in dorsi flexion (toes pointing up), this stretches the calf muscles of both legs. The quadriceps remain contracted keeping the legs in extension. The hips are flexed so the opposite muscles are stretched. The opposite muscles of the hip flexors are the hip extensors (the hamstrings and gluteal muscles). The arms are flexed overhead to 180 degrees stretching the latissimus dorsi and pectoral muscles.

The tricep muscles contract to keep the arms straight and in extension. The lower trapezius keeps the shoulders down and away from the ears by depressing the scapula. The middle trapezius and rhomboids prevent the upper back from rounding as they draw the scapula towards each other in retraction or adduction. The serratus anterior then works to slightly protract or abduct the scapula maintaining the integrity of the shoulder blades. The combined actions of the middle trapezius/rhomboids and serratus anterior keep the shoulder blades in neutral so they are not too close together or too far apart. The infraspinatus and teres minor (rotator cuffs) contract to rotate the shoulder away (external rotation).

The abdominals or core muscles contract to stabilise the spine. The deep stabilisers of the spine the multifidus also contract.


There are many restrictions in downward facing dog. Starting with the lower body, tight calf muscles make it difficult to push the heels towards the ground. Tight hamstrings are the biggest restriction by far. The hamstrings attach to the ischial tuberosity's of the pelvis meaning that if the hamstrings are tight, they can pull on the pelvis and take your pelvis into a posterior tilt. This is not necessarily uncomfortable (as is an anterior tilt), but means you lose the natural curve of the spine.

The ischial tuberosity's below market in red.

Other common restrictions are tight lats and chest which makes keeping the arms in line with the spine very difficult. The remedy for this is of course, persevere with the pose.


See previous posture clinic on Downward Dog.

From downward dog you step forward again into equestrian pose. Once this pose is complete, step forward bringing your feet together into a forward fold.


Bringing the palms together, reach up towards the ceiling into your high mountain pose. We then prepare our bodies for our backbend.

From the high mountain pose, press the heels into the ground contracting the calf muscles which stabilise the knees. The thighs are kept in extension by engaging the quadriceps. The hips are then pushed forward by squeezing the glute muscles.

The backbend starts at the lumbar or lower part of the spine which stretches the rec fem, psoas and abdominals. The extension of the spine then goes to the thoracic spine or middle spine by engaging the rhomboids and middle trapezius (retraction) stretching the pectorals and deltoids. The spinal extension finishes with the extension of the cervical spine or neck which stretches the sternocleidomastoid. This is achieved by contracting the upper trapezius which pulls the head back.

If the arms are kept overhead, the triceps engage to keep the arms straight and there is a stretch into the pectorals and lats. From half moon, make your way back to mountain to re-set your body and to slow your breathing down.


As with all backbending, the most common restriction is the rectus femoris quadricep muscles followed closely by your psoas. Your rec fem if tight, can pull your pelvis forward into an anterior tilt which can compress the discs of your lower back. It's important to push the hips forward and squeeze the glutes to counter any pull from the rec fem and/or psoas muscle.

Zahir Akram has a number of qualifications in Human Biomechanics (the understanding of human movement) and Anatomy & Physiology. 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.

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