Yoga Anatomy Joint Actions 101: A Crash Course For Yoga Teachers


I Recently Received An Email From One Of My Yoga Genie Lesson Planner Members Asking How To Incorporate Asana Movements With: Protraction & Retraction, Abduction & Adduction Shoulders, Flexion & Extension Of Knees, Flexion & Extension Of Hips, Lateral Flex Of Lumbar Spine, And Shoulder External Rotation. Phew! Yep. I Know. That’s Epic. That’s Why My Email Reply To Her Morphed Into…Yoga Anatomy Joint Actions 101: A Crash Course For Yoga Teachers




This blog post is a crash course on the joint actions for yoga anatomy. 

Click a link below to be scrolled down to the section you want:  


Don’t Freak Out


99.9% of yoga teacher trainees utterly freak out when it comes to learning “yoga anatomy”.

The other 0.1% are either lying to themselves, or have had some sort of medical training where they have been exposed to “anatomy”. So, don’t feel bad. You’re in good company with the 99.9% of us.

Should the 99.9% of us be freaking out about “yoga anatomy”.




Learning Yoga Anatomy Is A Fab Challenge


Learning yoga anatomy is not easy. For most people it will be an epic challenge. Accept it.

Not all things in life are meant to be easy.

Embrace the wondrous hardness of learning yoga anatomy.


“Enjoy the hard. Be at one with the hard. Feel the hard. Luxuriate in the hard. OK. I may very well be labouring “hard”, but the message I want to get across is that hard is a really good thing. Hard is not something to run from. Hard is not something to back away from. Hard is not something that’s out to ruin your well cultivated inner peace. In fact, engaging the mind, body and soul in something hard (but not overwhelming) is mentally, physically and emotionally a very healthy thing to do.” 



Pomodoro Technique


When learning something I use the “pomodoro technique”.

It’s an amazing way to train your brain to concentrate (just like training your muscles when practicing a yoga pose). With the pomodoro technique, focus on a task fully for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. After four 25 minute sessions, take a longer 25 minute break. If 25 minutes fully committed to a task is difficult to achieve in the beginning, start with 5 minutes and then work your way up. I use a timetimer device to set the times.

OK. Time for an example. I’ll set the time for 25 minutes. When the alarm goes off I take a 5 minute break (which I also set with the device). The pomodoro technique works so well that I almost wish I never found out about it…because I cringe at all the effort I’ve wasted by not using the technique.

Top 3 Reasons To Study Yoga Anatomy

1) Deeper Understanding


As with anything in life, the more you understand something, the more enjoyment and benefits you get. It’s the same with learning yoga anatomy. Just imagine how much more confidence you’ll have going into a class when you know how joints moves in an asana.

Close your eyes. Go on humour me.

Close your eyes and imagine a student of yours is in Chair Pose. Now imagine you know how the joints move in Chair Pose. You know about the Axial Extension in the spine. You know about the Elbow Extension. You know about Forearm Supination. You know about Hip and knee flexion. And you even know about the Shoulder Extension.

Ah yes…

It feels good. It feels good because you’re now a better teacher. You’re now able to help your student’s in subtle, almost invisible ways.  You will know that Sally’s knees (a student in your class) are in flexion. You’ll know that the leg muscles are active so that they can withstand the relentless downward force of gravity. And you’ll know that if Sally is tilted slightly to one side, you’ll need to tell her to balance her weight evenly between both feet because this instantly creates an 8 lane highway for her body’s weight to travel down. You’ll know a lot of little invisible things like this.


2) Private Yoga Sessions


Many yoga teachers supplement their yoga class income with “private yoga sessions”. With a private yoga session your student is paying a premium for a bespoke service.

The good news is that they are essentially paying you to enhance your yoga teacher education. I love private one to one yoga sessions because it’s a golden opportunity for me to raise my game. It’s a golden opportunity to learn something new and deepen my knowledge of yoga anatomy.

Every yoga teacher who gives private yoga sessions soon discovers that every student is different. Every student comes in with a different array of physical and emotional challenges. That’s exactly why I encourage every yoga teacher to teach “private yoga sessions”. Nothing will improve your yoga teaching quicker than having to create a bespoke yoga lesson plan that fits the needs of only one student. It may seem like a lot of work for little pay. But the future payoff is well worth waiting for such as: seeing improvements within your student, and seeing improvements in your teaching.


3) Refine Your Yogic Art


Studying yoga anatomy will help you refine your yoga art (practice).

Even though you are a yoga teacher, and your students think you’re infallible, you are fallible. You will have plenty of week, tight or injured areas. Having a deeper knowledge of yoga anatomy will help refine your yoga practice, just as Leonardo da Vinci refined his art.

Masters in any discipline are constantly refining their art, whether it be artists, golfers, teachers, doctors, plumbers, gardeners, or yoga teachers.


Joint Actions By Asana


Bridge Pose

Bridge Pose Yoga Anatomy Card

Cat Cow Pose



Chair Pose 



Crescent Lunge Pose



Dancer Pose



Downward Facing Dog Pose



Handstand Pose



High Plank Pose



Shoulderstand Pose


  • Flexion (when chin drops toward chest, the neck is flexing)

Squat Pose



Standing Forward Bend Pose



Tree Pose



Triangle Pose



Warrior I Pose



Wide Leg Forward Bend Pose


Yoga Anatomy Glossary


– any motion of the limbs or other body parts that pulls away from the midline of the body. Swinging the hands from the side of the body up to the shoulder or higher is abduction. For fingers and toes, abduction spreads the digits away from the hand or foot’s centreline of hand or foot. Raising the arms laterally, to the sides and moving the knees away from the midline are some examples of abduction.


Adduction – movement of a body part toward the body’s midline. So, if a person has their arms straight out at the shoulders and brings them down to their sides, it is adduction. For fingers or toes, adduction brings the digits toward the centre of the hand or foot.


Ankle Dorsiflexion – moving foot so toes get closer to knee.


Ankle Plantar Flexion – point toes downward and away from knee.


Axial Extension – simultaneous reduction of the primary and secondary curves of the spine. In simple speak that means the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar curves are all reduced resulting in the length of the spine increasing. Poses with “axial extension” include: chair pose.


Axial Rotation – rotation of the vertebral column around the horizontal axis (Z-axis).


Counter nutation – leaning forward (Nutation and counter nutation are movements that happens at the sacroiliac joint, that is where the sacrum meets the two sides of the pelvis. Nutation (from neutral again) is where the top part of the sacrum would move down and forward relative to the pelvis being fixed in place. Counter nutation is simply the opposite).


Dorsiflexion – movement of the foot upwards, so that the foot is closer to the shin. For a movement to be considered dorsiflexion, the foot should be raised upward between 10 and 30 degrees.


Elbow Extension – bringing forearm back to anatomical position (arm by side of body). Poses with “elbow extension” include: chair pose.


Elevation – movement in a superior direction (for example, shrugging is an example of elevation of the scapula).


Extension – process of straitening or the state of being strait. Extension of hip and knee joints is necessary to stand up from a sitting position.


External rotation – also known as lateral rotation, is rotation away from the centre of the body.


Flexion – being bent (the act of bending a joint or limb in the body by the action of flexors). Poses with “flexion” include: camel, downward-facing dog, handstand, shoulderstand, and tree.


Forearm Pronation – rotational movement where the hand and upper arm are turned inwards.


Forearm Supination – rotation of the forearm and hand so that the palm faces forward or upward. Poses with “forearm supination” include: chair pose, and dancer pose.


Hip Abduction – movement of the leg away from the midline of the body. We use this action every day when we step to the side, get out of bed, and get out of the car.


Hip Extension – backward movement of your thigh. Muscles that cause hip extension are active when you stand up from a chair, walk, run, jump, roll over and climb stairs.


Hip Flexion – lliacus and psoas muscles within the hip cause the hip to bend (flex). Poses with “hip flexion” include: chair pose, dancer pose, standing forward bend pose, tree pose, and warrior I pose.


Internal Rotation – also known as medial rotation is rotation towards the centre of the body.


Knee Extension – when you straighten your leg, the quadriceps muscles contract pulling on the quadriceps tendon, which in turn pulls on the patella via the patellar tendon causing an extension of the knee.


Knee Flexion – on posterior side of knee the hamstring group of muscles contract pulling on tendons associated with hamstring, pulling on femur, which causes flexion (bending) of knee.


Neutral Spine – maintaining natural cervical lordosis, thoracic kyphosis, and lumbar lordosis (maintenance of a neutral spine is fundamental for protection of the spine).


Medial Rotation – rotational movement towards the midline.


Nutation – leaning forward (Nutation and counter nutation are movements that happens at the sacroiliac joint, that is where the sacrum meets the two sides of the pelvis. Nutation (from neutral again) is where the top part of the sacrum would move down and forward relative to the pelvis being fixed in place. Counter nutation is simply the opposite).


Pronation – natural side-to-side movement of the foot as you walk or run. It is also known as eversion. Your foot normally rolls a bit inward with each step.


Protraction – the action of extending a part of the body. The movement of protraction is the opposite of the movement of retraction. To remember what protraction does come up with a bizarre image (e.g. imagine the “pro” golfer, Nick Faldo, protracting his arms through the ball so far that he hits a red “tract”or on the fairway. The farmer gets out and chases Nick off the course). Poses with “protraction” include: cat pose, crescent lunge pose, downward facing dog pose, handout stand pose, and high plank pose.


Retraction – movement of a body part in the posterior direction (being drawn backwards). The movement of retraction is the opposite of the movement of protraction.

Sacral Nutation – leaning forward (Nutation and counter nutation are movements that happens at the sacroiliac joint, that is where the sacrum meets the two sides of the pelvis. Nutation (from neutral again) is where the top part of the sacrum would move down and forward relative to the pelvis being fixed in place. Counter nutation is simply the opposite).


Sagittal Plane – anatomical plane which divides the body into right and left parts.


Scapula Upward Rotation – Lift arms overhead and the scapulae will follow and rotate upward.


Shoulder Extension – move arms behind you.


Shoulder Flexion – move arms anywhere from a resting position by sides to above your head.


Spinal Extension – backward bending of spine.


Spinal Flexion – flexion is the anatomical name for forward bending. When treating back pain, many yoga teachers encourage yoga poses that strengthen the muscles that act to bring the spine into flexion. In the lower back, approximately 50% of flexion occurs at the hips, and 50% occurs at the lower spine.


Superior Direction – Directional terms describe the positions of structures relative to other structures or locations in the body. Superior or cranial – toward the head end of the body; upper (example, the hand is part of the superior extremity).


Supination – rolling motion to the outside edge of the foot during a step. The foot naturally supinates during the toe-off stage of your stride as the heel first lifts off the ground, providing leverage to help roll off the toes.


Yoga Anatomy Themed Lesson Plan Ideas




There are a bazillion different yoga lesson plan themes you could conjure up using yoga anatomy. Here are a few to get you started…


Yoga Anatomy Lesson Plan Theme 1


Shoulders: 5 Millimetres Can Change Your Life


You won’t be giving your students the cold shoulder (forgive the obvious pun) when you create a shoulder themed yoga lesson plan (Shoulder Extension and Flexion).


A highly memorable, possibly life-changing theme for your students could be called: 5 millimetres Can Change Your Life.


During the talk at the beginning of the class (when introducing the theme) you could say something like:


Improving your posture by a few millimetres completely and utterly changes the bio-chemistry of your body. If you tested your saliva you’d see that a 5mm expansive change in your posture will have positively altered your hormone levels. If you want to feel anxious, round your shoulders by 5 millimetres. If, however, you want to feel confident, move your shoulders back by 5 millimetres. When you round your shoulders you’re telling the Universe nonverbally something along these lines, “I am unworthy.” But when you move your shoulders back 5mm (improving your posture), you’re telling the Universe, “I am worthy.” 


Yoga Anatomy Lesson Plan Theme 2


Spinal Flexion: Forward Bends – A Natural Protection Bubble


OK. Quick recap for you…


Flexion is the anatomical name for forward bending. Forward bends are known for calming the mind. Forward bends calm the mind because they are a “natural protection bubble” (e.g. Don’t believe me, then stop reading this and get into a simple standing forward bend. What did I tell you…a natural protection bubble (if you can find a more protective position to be in when standing, I’m all ears). So, what happens to someone’s mind when in a natural projection bubble? Man, you’re good at this. Yep. They instantly feel protected.


So, a good theme for your students could be called: Forward Bends – A Natural Protection Bubble. 


All you need to do is add several forward bends to your yoga lesson plan, and make sure you sprinkle in some backbends as a counter.


Phew! That’s about it… 

Hmmm, some wise parting words are required. Yoga anatomy is a massive subject. I’ve selected a tiny part, join actions, to focus on within this post. I recommend you keep refining your yoga anatomy knowledge by going to workshops, buying books, reading other blog posts, and watching YouTube videos. And most importantly apply what you learn in the real world…your yoga classes, yoga workshops, private one-to-one yoga sessions, and your own personal practice. 


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