Book Review: Yoga Anatomy

Over the past couple months, I’ve taken a break from blogging in order to focus on matters of professional development. All the while, my personal posture practice has proven to be as important as ever. Lately, I’ve decided to pick up a copy of Yoga Anatomy to broaden my own insights on the physiology of asana.  Authors Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, have succeeded in writing a meaningful summary of classical anatomy specially written for the aspiring, self-directed yogi. Their work would not have been complete without Sharon Ellis’ carefully hand-drawn medical illustrations.  At a glance, each page is a delight to behold.

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The whole body can be thought of as a system of multiple organ systems; Kaminoff and Matthews understandably focus their attention on skeletal and muscular systems.  The organization of their book can be conceptualized similarly, in so far as the ‘muscle’ of their work pertains to the poses themselves described in chapters 6 through 11.  To that effect, I’d say the ‘bones’ of their shared project are the teachings written in chapters 1 through 5, in which the geometry, philosophy and evolution of these organ systems are thoughtfully introduced.

After breezing through Yoga Anatomy, I had the great appreciation the sheer clarity of materials presented in chapters 6-11.  Therein, illustrated figures and tables describing how each muscle group behaves in posture forms the mainstay of the each entry.  A prevailing theme of which is how even simple stretches require the active extension of one or more muscle groups and the necessary contraction corresponding groups.  With approximately 84 asanas depicted here, the shear depth and breadth of Kaminoff, Matthews, and Ellis’ work truly speaks for itself.

As comprehensive as Yoga Anatomy seems, it was never meant to be an exhaustive compendium, and understandably there a few related limitations to mention.  First of all, pertinent classifications written in the tables, at times, did not clearly correspond to labeled features in the figures.  To give a brief example, muscle groups such as the posterior suboccipitals were identified but never depicted (p.141).  On the other end of the spectrum, certain important topics such as fascia were not discussed in any chapter.  To suggest a couple ideas for a future revision, I would include a glossary of extensively labeled illustrations depicting the smallest muscles of the neck, hands and feet, as well as a full chapter which explores the body’s system of connective tissues including fascia.

The key ideas presented in Yoga Anatomy are numerous, so I would just like to focus on a singular highlight found in chapter 1.  Kaminoff and Matthew describe the action of the thorax and abdomen during respiration in of terms an accordion sitting on top of a water balloon.  With each contraction of the diaphragm, air pressure pushes against the abdomen the same way one would expect a water balloon to become displaced by an opening accordion. Their description, which I am paraphrasing, includes the activity of multiple skeletal muscles, furthermore shedding light on how the quality of one’s breath largely reflects which accessory muscle groups one chooses to recruit.  With such a beautiful merger of freedom and precision (i.e. sukha and sthira) evident throughout the book, I anticipate browsing through the pages of Yoga Anatomy for years for come.

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