The Library

Your Yoga Anatomy


In `normal` life we would usually associate the word `anatomy` with our physical body only.  In yoga we are able to think beyond this narrow box and go on to consider also the esoteric structures that many people including medics and other physical therapists and trainers may dismiss with contempt.

In our yoga practice it is certainly true that we need to be aware of the physical body.  It is our starting point on the journey to that state of awareness that we call Samadhi (bliss).

The physical body determines our response to the exercises which are so much a part of modern yoga – the asanas etc.  It is important to remember however that originally yoga was essentially a psycho-spiritual experience and the principle ability of the yogi was to be able to sit comfortably for long periods of time.  The basic physical considerations we need to remember are things such as build; are we ectomorphic (tall and thin by nature), endomorphic (shorter and thicker), or mesomorphic (the Greek ideal between the two).  Weight in relation to our build is also important.  Apart from any other health considerations a few spare kilos around the middle will limit some postures, and clinical obesity will certainly affect our abilities.  Age does make a difference and has to be taken into account.  What we must avoid there is judging our body chronologically rather than by functionality.  In that respect we also need to remember our life history and medical history.  Gender and hormonal differences will also affect the approach we should consider.

Many activities are relatively limited in their effects on the physical body.  Walking is excellent cardio-vacular exercise but the range of movement demanded of the joints is small.  Weight lifting stimulates muscle growth but again at the expense of flexibility. Modern yoga in some forms may develop extreme flexibility or suppleness but at the expense of strength or cardio-vascular functioning.  Yoga has to be more than a few gentle stretches and a lie down to relax.

It is useful to have at least a basic understanding of the mechanics or functioning of the body.  We are often afraid of using the body fully and correctly because we have the idea that the body is both complicated and delicate.  Certainly the chemistry and physics of the body may be difficult for us to understand unless we have a driving interest in that area, but fundamentally we can see the body as simply a series of chemical processes activating a system of pulleys and sensory organs.

The chemical processes of the body vary widely between the gross production of digestive fluids, excretion and respiratory chemical reactions to those based on the hormonal system; some of which are long term in their effects like the growth controlling production of the thymus and thyroid glands, and others instantaneous and short lived for specific responses such as the release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands alongside the kidneys.  In addition there are the more subtle hormonal secretions by glands such as the pineal and pituitary glands in the brain which coordinate many of the complex responses in our body.  One other chemical process often overlooked is that of the nervous system.  It is only by electro-chemical messages being passed along the nerves that our senses pick up the information derived from the external and internal worlds of the body (including conscious thought), and in turn instruct the muscles and other organs of the body to respond.

We may be more aware of the mechanics of the body, than the chemical.  It is this knowledge that we use in movements such as the complex asanas of yoga.  We know by experience and observation that the joints can be categorised into those that fold in one direction only and others which have wider rotational movement.  Little teaching is needed for us to learn that a muscle contracting will pull parts of the body in a certain direction.  Knowledge of the part played by tendons and ligaments may be more sketchy but worth investigating.  Finally we need to be aware of the various forms of circulation in the body caused by muscular activity including that of the digestive, lymphatic and cardio-vascular systems. 

In order to maintain physical health, and to establish the foundations for the other stages in yoga progress, all the above considerations have to be met, and need to be developed in balance.

There is perhaps a tendency to separate the above physical aspects of the body from the more esoteric structures that the early yogis discovered by personal observation and experience.  We must be aware however that however much we ignore the body in our pursuit of inner harmony and well being in the search for that promise of bliss and experience of the Divine, we are in effect making the journey much more difficult if not impossible.  A body wracked with indigestion, breathing problems, arthritis and other common conditions will find it much more difficult to bring the mind into a state of balanced calm.

When we remember that the aim of yoga is to bring about union between body, mind and soul it is well to realise that there is no emphasis on any one of those aspects, but there is a logical progression towards the soul.  The ancient yogis with heightened sensitivity and maybe a more active intuitive sense have left us with the teaching of the esoteric psycho-spiritual equivalent of modern anatomy and physiology.  The subtle systems of the body based on the koshas (auric bodies), nadis (energy channels) and chakras (vortices of energy) become increasingly relevant to our yoga practice as we progress.  It is interesting to see how modern science is discovering physical links with those concepts.  To the yogi, and many others, this subtle anatomy of the body or self is every bit as important in our sadhana (spiritual path) as intimate knowledge of the physical body.

On a planetary level we accept the concepts of gravity, electricity and radio wavelengths.  Nightly we watch weather forecasts telling us of approaching depressions and fronts.  To acknowledge a similar pattern of energy forces in the human (and any other object) does not seem too farfetched.  The five levels of existence – the physical and etheric bodies, vital, astral and mental auras release us from the strait jacket of the skin.  The subtle inner anatomy of the 72000 nadis including the central sushumna and the associated chakras provide us with a circulatory system beyond those of the blood and nervous systems.

The eight-limbed astanga of yoga leading from the yamas, through asanas, pranayama and eventually to meditation and Samadhi, provide us with a route and a basis for our practice that can help us to realise the real aim of yoga – to realise the Self within us.  There are many pitfalls along the way.  Moral integrity, personal discipline both in lifestyle and practice of the exercises of yoga can all delay our progress.  At any stage we may become complacent with our success and feel we have achieved what we set out to find.  We need to keep our hearts and minds open.  Any mountaineer knows the feeling of reaching the first peak only to find that there are others beyond.  The yogis warned that the acquisition of siddhis (abilities) could sidetrack us.  Even when we come to the stage of meditation and Samadhi this confusion can happen. 

Meditation  provides methods to achieve enlightenment and release from earthly constraints.  Its main purpose is not to clear the mind and reduce stress but to go further into oneself.  Even Samadhi is divided into the first and then ultimate stages.  Savikalpa Samadhi is that state of ecstasy where the meditator  achieves sensory awareness based on an external (to the subconscious mind) object.  In enstasy the meditator moves away from sensory awareness to an objectless sense of bliss where the body is no longer relevant, here there is an internal opening and discovery of the atman (Self or individual soul  ).  This final Samadhi is known as Nirvikalpa Samadhi.

All levels of our being, physical, physiological, mental - conscious and unconscious, and subtle are like the oft quoted simile; they are  nothing but layers surrounding the inner soul.  They are the equivalent of the church or temple, the priests and rituals, the sanctum sanctorum with its high altar or representation of the deity.  Beyond all of those is the essence of the Divine which is boundless.  As humans we recognise the soul in our hearts but need to recognise that like God in a church the spirit cannot be constrained; it is limitless.


Derek Osborn   Swami Shiv Giri Baba                        12 08 2009.