The Yogi's Blog: Facts, Figures, and Figments of Imagination

Yoga Anatomy: Upper Body

Posted by Juliette Oliva on 12/16/2013

You will hear plenty of sanskrit jargon in your yoga class, but medical and anatomical jargon mixed in as well? A typical student can’t even get past the whoseandwhatasana’s. That is, until they’ve been practicing for years. All of a sudden, Sanskrit doesn’t sound so foreign anymore. The teacher says “Trikonasana” and I’m moving into Triangle Pose without having to look around the class for a prompt. In entry level or mixed level classes, you may not hear so much information about anatomy. Even advanced level classes aren’t traditionally poised to offer up much information outside the scope of asana, pranayama, and alignment. As a teacher, it is your job to inform without coming off as boring or confusing. Advanced or intermediate students are probably more eager to learn about the human anatomy than beginners, because their practice is more advanced and open to receiving more information. A study of the human body is a voyage in self-discovery. If we know how to body connects and functions, we might be able to translate that into better posture or alignment on our mat.

Today I want to concentrate on the anatomy of the upper body. This includes the core, the arms/ shoulders, the neck, and the chest.

The core includes the muscles of the abdomen, around your spinal cord, and pretty much anything above the pelvis that does not include the arms/shoulders, neck, and chest. The core is not a two dimensional set of muscle groups -- instead they are similar to layers of an onion that can be peeled back, revealing another layer. Core muscles help you to build up total body strength, as it is in the middle of the body from which all other body parts originate. They hold up and maintain the entire body. The core consists of the following muscle groups:

  • Pelvic Diaphragm: area under pelvis
  • Transverse Abdominal: front and side of torso, under and around (but not inside) the ribs
  • Rectus Abdominis: the 'abs'. Think: six-pack
  • Multifidus: runs vertically along the spine
  • Internal Obliques: the innermost layer of the abdomen, protecting internal organs
  • External Obliques: the next layer that protects the side and anterior of the abdomen
  • Erector Spinae: a collective of back muscles

The arms and shoulders can be strengthened through balancing/stabilizing asanas, Pilates, or with the assistance of weights and machines through repetitious exercises. We like yoga because it’s simpler, using the natural weight of the body against itself, building strength. A little side arm balance or Triangle pose will be sure to strengthen and sculpt the following muscle groups:

  • Deltoid: forms the rounded part of the shoulder. Connects the arm to the torso
  • Triceps: large, long muscle on the back of the shoulder that runs from the elbow to the shoulder, opposite of the biceps
  • Biceps: opposite of the tricep, runs on the front of the upper arm between the shoulder and elbow
  • Brachialis: a frontal muscle that flexes and operates the elbow joint
  • Brachioradialis: a frontal forearm muscle that helps flex the forearm. Runs from the elbow to the hand

The neck is largely ignored, yet a very important component in any yogi’s workout. Correct alignment and posture can alleviate headaches, aches, and pains along the neck. Doing it wrong can agitate instead of help. Work it out with a nice shoulderstand or headstand.

  • Levator Scapulae: runs along the back of the neck, connecting the upper neck vertebrae to the shoulder blade
  • Sternohyoid: connects the hyoid bone to the sternum; two thin muscles which run along the front of the neck.
  • Sternocleidomastoid: passes across the side of the neck from the ear to the sternum; a wide, flat, anterior muscle
  • Trapezius: This large, flat, anterior muscle actually connects the back of the neck to the shoulder and runs down the upper back along the spine

The chest is pretty simple, it’s made up of the pectoral muscles -- a fan-shaped muscle that makes up the chest, in men, and is found underneath the breast, in women. To target this muscle group, try Dolphin Plank Pose, Bow Pose, or Cat/Cow Pose.

A simple lesson in anatomy can help you to understand how the body works mechanically, which leads to a better overall understanding and improved alignment and posture on your mat. The upper body is activated primarily in yoga and the lower body supports and sustains.

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