Anatomy Story

“The greatest malfunction of spirit, is to believe things.”

– Louis Pasteur

Believing stories about our bodies can be both useful and misleading. Anatomy is no different from any other story in that it shows us one way of looking at reality. Because it is the work of yoga to unravel the stories we learn about ourselves, it is important to take even the anatomy story with a pinch of salt.

That said, the language of anatomy represents the human conversation about our bodies, and for that reason yoga practitioners are getting involved. On a practical level, learning anatomical terms gives us common ground with other movement professionals, body workers, physiotherapists, and anyone else seriously interested in the story of the human body.

My Anatomy for Yoga teaching methodology has evolved out of my academic study of anatomy through the dissection of cadavers, model-building, and years of personal experience. After practicing and teaching yoga since college, I’ve come to feel a deep fascination with the nature of consciousness seated in human tissues. Knowing many other yogis who share this fascination with the body as an instrument of spirit, it seems we are all deeply curious about the structure and function of its parts on a fundamental level.

It seems common that as yogis, we don’t want to get stuck obsessing over the “parts list,” but we know it makes sense to have a working familiarity with gross anatomy. Memorising the muscles and bones, for example, is as good a starting point as any. The body parts are like vocabulary words; when your intention is to become fluent in a language, you have to start somewhere.

As your vocabulary builds, and you start connecting the parts to each other, a really beautiful shift takes place. At least it did for me, when most of my pains and limitations started to make some sense in the context of biomechanics. It became clear that if I wanted to go deeper in backbends, I had to lengthen my hip flexors. If I wanted to catch heels in Kapotasana, I would also have to work on my lats, which we learn are often embedded into the fasia of the body wall, which means working on the external obliques and even the TFL.

I started spending a lot of energy on “connecting the dots” – experimenting with muscle groups in the fascial network to see if I could open my range of motion for specific asanas, with mixed results. As an achievement-driven person, I wanted to put this new learning to good use and “get somewhere.” I had ideopathic shoulder pain, ligament laxity, hypertrophic areas, and had already been through 3 successful knee surgeries. No doubt about it, I had become fixated on gross anatomy.

Obsessing over tweaking it all into submission was becoming extremely confusing, not to mention time-consuming. It was fascinating — intoxicating, even — to feel extraordinary release as a result of these hours of “research” using a variety of props to isolate an area of interest. But after awhile, I got pretty deep in the rabbit hole of body fabric, and it was spooky. It got to the stage where all I was doing was “research” and had lost the vinyasa, going from one “problem” area to the next.

The problem is that seeing things in terms of parts is a reductionist approach. While this problem-seeking can certainly be useful, and even required in order to progress in asana, ultimately it does keep us focused on the parts rather than the viscoelastic whole.

Consider the old nursery rhyme: “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…”

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly 

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
That wriggled and wiggled and tickled inside her;
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
How absurd to swallow a bird.
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cat;
Fancy that to swallow a cat!
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady that swallowed a dog;
What a hog, to swallow a dog;
etc…

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow, etc.

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse…;

…She’s dead, of course!

Apparently, this is called the cumulative style, in which the absurdity stems from the increasingly improbable solutions that only worsen the initial problem and are more likely to cause the woman’s death. This nursery rhyme has amused countless children, who even in their naivety know that solutions that are bigger problems than the solution are not solutions!

The Old Lady and the Fly are here to remind us of the absurdity in creating more problems for ourselves. Anatomy can be like that. In the initial stages of learning a little anatomy, we get too smart for our own good. As we throw around lots of latin words and cliches, one problem becomes caused by a bigger one somewhere else, and so on, until the pain or limitation is abstracted to the absurd. In my case, I had overanalysed my body in asana to the point of almost losing my Ashtanga practice. Sometimes, the physiotherapist nails it. Other times, we have swallowed a horse.

My point is that while learning the vocab is fundamental to building fluency in anatomy, there comes a time to zoom out to see the bigger picture. When we realise by feeling in our bodies the limitation of classical biomechanics, that’s when single muscle theory in all its pedantic leverage is actually just a story. Our spine regularly defies the limitations of its Newtonian description as a set of levers and pulleys. The spine, intimitely woven into the rest of the connective tissue matrix, is far more quixotic than classical biomechanics would have us believe. Trying to break it all down into mechanical parts was a useful exercise to learn the words, but for a big-picture of human anatomy we want fluency.

This is where biotensegrity comes in. Instead of using the scalpel to slice up the woven fabric into a parts list, biotensegrity looks at the geometric patterns inherent in biological shapes. By studying morphology, we will have more unified story to work with, one that reconciles with anatomy, physiology, sacred geometry, consciousness, harmonics, and indeed, all of nature.

In conclusion, I have some recommendations for yoga practitioners looking for a deeper understanding of anatomy:

  1. Learn the parts list by traditional and creative means (dissection, models, body painting, rote memorisation, etc)
  2. Study the work of the manual therapists on neuro-myofascia, such as: Thomas Myers, Serge Gracovetsky, PhD, Dr Steven Levin, Graham Scarr, Joanne Avison, John Sharkey, many others.
  3. Study sacred geometry and see the pattern emerging in life on earth.
  4. DO go through research phases in asana, and get deep into your own tissues.
  5. DON’T get carried away for too long trying to solve “problems” – keep up that vinyasa practice to maintain overall systemic health.

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