When you learn anatomy, either for yoga or any other discipline, you’ll learn about “Anatomical Position.” This term describes any position from which movements, like flexion and extension, can occur, and it gives the student a reference point for where to move. It’s not only a great thing to understand for yoga teaching, but it contains a number of qualities that are helpful to bring into our day-to-day posture as well.
Standard anatomical position is described as standing, with arms at the sides, palms facing forward, feet hip width apart, body facing forward. Here are other positions which are important parts of yoga practice, and they contain some of the key elements for posture in general:
1. Head sitting on top of the body in a neutral position
The head is neutral, meaning the chin is not dragging forward of the sternum (breastbone) nor is the back of the head dragging back. As we sit hunched over our computers and phone, we pull more on the head and neck. This can result in a standing position in which the chin sticks out ahead of the sternum, dragging on the back of the neck. As you move through standing poses, notice the position of the head with respect to the torso to keep it in line.
2. Shoulders down the back
The shoulders are most steady when they're shifted down the back, away from the ears. We feel this when we stand in anatomical position, when the palms are forward and the arms slightly bent. However, in different poses, our shoulders begin to move, and generally they move up toward the ears. We also see this as we hunch at our desks. As you move through practice and your day, look for opportunities to relax the shoulders down the back.
3. Chest broad and open
As a result of this healthy shoulder position, the chest expands, which helps you take deep breaths. This is one of the key positions to carry with you in life and notice as you stray away from it through your practice.
4. Spine curved
Although the spine’s actual curves will vary from person to person (especially if there’s scoliosis or injury), the neck (cervical) spine generally curves inward, the middle spine (thoracic) curves outward and the lower back (lumbar) curves inward. The sacrum is flatter, and the coccyx is concave (curved inward when viewed from the side). Depending on a number of different variables, you may experience variation in these curves or may be tempted to deepen them more than is natural, or flatten them in certain poses. While in some poses we’re deepening the bend in the whole spine, in standing poses, notice how the body shifts out of natural curves to something different.
5. Shoulders over hips
As you stand or take various standing poses, unless the pose calls for leaning or twisting, stack your shoulders over your hips. This creates stability through the stacking of those joints and requires less effort.
6. Hips level and facing forward
When we say, “hips level,” we’re referring to the position of the pelvis. When you stand, you may tip your pelvis forward or back. In standing poses, try to keep the pelvis level and notice any resistance you feel to bringing it to this position.
7. Hips over knees, knees straight ahead
The knees should be moving toward straight in terms of the relationship of the kneecap to the front of the mat. Watch for shifts in the kneecap as you turn the upper body; especially in poses like Triangle or twisting poses. Also watch for a “knock-kneed” position, and work to externally rotate the knees until they're more neutral.
8. Feet hip width apart
Having the feet in this position creates steadiness because the hips are over the heels. This position can be found in many forward folding positions from standing. “Feet hip width” can also be found when we come into shapes like backbends on the belly (Bow Pose) or on the back (Wheel).
9. Rooting down through the four corners of the feet
Press into the space under your big toe, your little toe and the inner and outer heel. When you do this while standing, it brings greater stability to the position and also can lift the arches a bit, especially if you have flat feet. In all the standing poses, take this action to create greater strength and stretch.
As you teach yoga, look for these characteristics in the poses. As students ask you questions about imbalances in the body or muscle tightness in various places, look at them from this “home base” position first, noting any variance that appears. Work first to bring them to neutral, then reassess how they feel in terms of their area of concern.