Anatomical Analysis Of Yoga Postures

One of the earliest things I was lucky enough to be taught about yoga was to be aware of why I was practising a particular posture rather than just copying postures without understanding why I was doing them. If you can identify what you wish to achieve with the posture then that will inform how you work with it and whether you are achieving that goal. It will also inform ways to progress, regress or add variations to the posture as needed.

A yoga posture is not just a ‘shape’. The posture emerges from the necessary contraction of the correct muscles, to produce the desired joint actions. An understanding of the muscles working or relaxing in a posture and how they affect the movement or stability created will inform your practice.

Without that knowledge of the anatomy and physiology behind the posture you may just be making a ‘shape’ and wasting your precious training time on an activity which is not going to bring you the results you are seeking. Similarly if you are a yoga teacher wanting to teach yoga to athletes, you need to understand the anatomy and physiology of the sport as well as yoga in order to use the right yoga, at the right time, in the right way.

Another very useful thing to keep in mind is that there is no ‘right’ posture. There is a posture and then there is your body. The posture needs to be adapted to suit your body so that you gain the benefit from the practice. You are not wrong for yoga if you don’t achieve the same posture that someone else does. You are simply using the posture in the way that your body can and is. We are all individual and have different lengths of arms and legs, differing amounts of body fat and muscle mass, have variations of joint shapes and alignment, different levels of connective tissue elasticity. In addition, we have different working lives and medical histories. You may have past injuries to work with that another person doesn’t. Postures don’t have alignment and form. It is you who has alignment and you can and should modify the posture to your needs.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downface Dog) also known as Parvatasana (Mountain Pose)

Downface Dog is a great posture for any athlete working with yoga. It’s a very beneficial posture on its own but also very usefully links with other postures in sequences. This pose strengthens upper and lower body as well as stretching the back of the body. It can be used as an active strength posture or as a resting pose during sequences.

Practice Notes

There are many ways of coming in and out of this pose within a sequence so the instructions here apply if working with the pose from the mat.

  • Begin on hands and knees with hands shoulder width apart and knees hip width apart. (Hip width apart is the distance between the points where your hips flex rather than the widest part of the hips.) Have your toes tucked under.
  • Spread your fingers and ensure that your press all of the larger knuckles of your hands (metacarpophalangeal joints) into the mat. In particular pressing the joint of the index finger into the mat will cause the forearm muscles to engage and will help to stabilise the wrists when you move into the pose.
  • Move your pelvis back towards your heels, press your hands into the mat, and keep your weight back as you begin to lift and then extend your knees. How much you extend your knees is a personal choice. Explore how it is for you today. If your hamstrings are tight there will come a point when to straighten knees further would cause your lower back to round. Get optimal position of the arms and torso and then explore the relationship of hamstrings to the pose. Contracting quadriceps and psoas will encourage hamstrings to relax and lengthen.
  • It is always worth exploring the distance between hands and feet at this point. That distance will affect all of the angles in the pose, how the weight is distributed, and your ability to lengthen within the pose. Your optimal base of the pose will differ from day to day. Always explore the posture afresh and make it work for you today.
  • As you maintain the pose, keeping pressing hands down and forwards into the mat, engage tibias anterior muscles to draw the tops of the feet towards the shins, as you press the balls of the feet down and back into the mat, encouraging heels towards the mat. (Ideally heels are not already on the mat so your heels have space to move into with this action, which encourages the stretch in the back of the legs.)
  • Further deepen the pose by drawing shoulders away from your ears towards your waist and encourage your pelvis to move back and up, lengthening your back.
  • Ensure your breathing is relaxed and easy whilst coming into, maintaining, and leaving the pose.

Working Muscles & Their Joint Actions

  • Triceps – extend the elbows.
  • Anterior deltoids – lift the shoulders and arms.
  • Infraspinatus and teres minor – externally rotate the shoulders.
  • Rhomboids and middle trapezius – retract the shoulder blades towards the midline.
  • Lower trapezius – depress the shoulders away from the neck.
  • The erector spinae stabilise and extend the back.
  • The quadratus lumborum and psoas extend the lumbar spine.
  • The abdominals contract to draw the internal organs inwards and flex the spine.
  • The psoas, pectineus, sartorius, and rectus femoris combine to flex the hips and trunk.
  • The quadriceps – extend the knees.
  • The tensor fasciae latae – extending the knees and assists internal rotation of femur
  • Gluteus medius – internal rotation of femur.
  • The tibialis anterior and extensor hallucis draw the top of the foot upward, causing the heel to sink to the ground.
  • The peroneus longus and brevis help to press the balls of the feet into the floor.

Beneficial Stretches

The most noticeable stretches in this pose are those of the hamstrings (in the back of the thigh) and gastrocnemius and soleus (in the calves). You may also be able to stretch pectoral muscles if the range of movement of your shoulders allows. Coming into this pose by bringing the pelvis back towards heels will also create a stretch for the underside of the foot and contribute to flexibility of the foot over time.

Progressions, Regressions & Variations

  • One way of regressing any yoga posture is to not come fully into it. In this case that means not fully lifting up and fully extending knees. This is useful if tight hamstrings are your primary limitation with the pose at the moment.
  • If wrists are uncomfortable in the pose, I recommend some wrist strengthening movements (to be found elsewhere on this site). I also recommend checking that you really are pressing that index finger joint into the mat and engaging forearm muscles rather than slumping onto the wrists. If that doesn’t improve your experience, explore using blocks under your hands to change the angles of the pose and take some of the weight from the wrists.
  • You may wish to explore having feet on blocks to feel how playing with the angles and weight distribution feels for you.
  • The intensity of a posture will always be progressed by changing the time you take to move into the pose, (slower is harder) or by increasing the duration you stay there. You can also increase the intensity by increasing the number of times you move in and out of the posture.
  • Variations on this posture include One-legged Downface Dog (the clue is in the name!), Revolved Downface Dog, and my personal favourite for its cross-body stabilising and strength requirements, One-legged Downface Dog With Arm Behind Back. (I made up the posture and the name!) See the Walking The (Downface) Dog sequence on the Home Yoga Practice Sequences page for ideas of how to put these together. Working with the posture in a sequence is a three-dimensional, multi-joint, and functional exercise and maximises your training gains.
  • Downface Dog can be worked with statically or dynamically. When working dynamically, you can use it as a posture to move into and out of with other postures or you can move within the posture. For example, coming up onto toes and dropping heels down with the breath or raising one leg with one part of the breath and lowering it with the other part.

Particular Benefits For Triathletes

  • Shoulder flexibility and strength will add functional strength and improve your endurance for all swim distances.
  • Strengthening core muscles will improve your position on the swim, making for a more streamlined position, and greater efficiency and endurance on the bike and run.
  • Strengthening the whole back will enable an athlete to maintain optimal position on the bike for longer.
  • The attention to keeping the forearm muscles working in the posture will strength those muscles, improve your handling strength and ability, and subsequently safety, on the bike.
  • Strengthening tibialis anterior will help with stability and endurance on the run section.
  • Focussing your attention on alignment and the subtle adjustments which can be made in the posture will help to develop your proprioception, your awareness of where parts of your body are in space. This will increase your awareness of body alignment and posture in all disciplines.
  • Moving into the posture and creating the maximal alignment and length in the posture requires the stabilisation of some joints whilst allowing movement in others. Some muscles must work just enough to stabilise whilst others need to relax in order to lengthen. Developing refinement of muscle action to create this balance in the posture allows you then to refine the movements you make in triathlon, increasing efficiency and endurance over time.
  • Awareness of breathing whilst practising this posture will encourage you to maintain efficient breathing in other aspects of your life, including whilst training and racing.

Downface Dog is the first of many postures to be added to this site. Photos to illustrate the points made will follow soon. If you have any questions about this posture or any other, do please contact me. I will be happy to answer.