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anatomical position

Anatomical language helps to understand yoga

Yoga is more than asanas (yoga poses). There is a whole science and a whole philosophy behind it. Even the poses aren’t just stretches. Doing them can break neuro-linguistic pathways. It’s something I always like to keep in mind whenever I teach or do yoga. But for now, let us focus on the asanas. If you want to do them correctly you actually need some anatomical knowledge, because only with that knowledge you will understand why some people can’t or can do certain poses. But to gain this knowledge you have to understand the anatomical language first.

Teaching yoga isn’t as easy as it might seem at first. Everybody can learn a series of poses and can learn cues to get people in and out of those poses, but a skilled teacher has deeper knowledge than that. Every asana has one or more medical benefits and also has one or more contraindications. The asanas where once all developed to heal the human body.

Yoga is a method to heal yourself

That brings us to healing. To health. Yoga is actually nothing more than taking good care of your body and your mind. It’s a method to heal yourself. Physically, mentally and spiritually. Looking at yoga from this perspective makes it logical that we use the medical language as well. Or at least the anatomical and physiological language. If you truly want to understand yoga, get better in your own practice and want to help others to get better at theirs, you have to speak the anatomical language.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to learn a whole new language to be able to read articles and books of great yoga anatomical experts as Ray Long (his books are among my favorite books), David Keil, Leslie Kaminoff and Paul Grilley. Basic understanding is enough. So let’s start with the basic of the basic.

For starters we divide the human body in two parts: the axial and appendicular skeleton. The axial part makes up the main axis of the body and includes the head, neck and trunk. The appendicular part consists of the limbs and the shoulder and pelvic girdle that connects the limbs to the trunk.

Anatomical language

If we speak about the human body in anatomical language we always look at the body (axial and appendicular skeleton) in the anatomical position. In this position the body is erect, the palms of the hand face forward, the thumbs point away from the body, and the feet are slightly apart. You can compare it with Tadasana – mountain posture.

We use this anatomical position to describe where parts (organs, limbs, muscles) are in the body. If we make that description it’s always related to another body part.

  • Superior (cranial) – closest to the head of the body; above
  • Inferior (caudal) – far away from the head of the body; below
  • Anterior (ventral) – closest to the front of the body; in front of
  • Posterior (dorsal) – closest to the back of the body; behind
  • Medial – closest to the mid-line of the body
  • Lateral – far away from the mid-line of the body
  • Proximal – closest to the body (trunk). We use this when we speak about limbs
  • Distal – far away from the body (trunk). We use this when we speak about limbs
  • Superficial (external) –  close to the surface of the body
  • Deep (internal) – far away from the surface of the body


The anatomical position is our starting point, but we can move our body in a lot of directions. For these directions we use specific terms as well:

Forward and backward movements

  • Flexion – decreases angle of joint (for a lot of joints this means bending)
  • Extension – increases angle of joint (for a lot of joints this means straightening)
  • Hyper extension – extending past 180 degrees (for example some people can hyper-extend their elbows)
  • Lateral flexion – bending the spine to the left or right

Sideways movements

  • Abduction – moving a limb away from mid-line
  • Adduction – moving a limb towards mid-line (to add) or past the midline

Rotational movements

  • Rotation (inward and outward) – twisting or turning
  • Circumduction – a combination of flexion, extension, abduction and adduction
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