Another post, another new book to write about. It’s not like I planned to follow up a book review with yet another book review, but what to do, when not just one but two fantastic (and badly needed) yoga books rock up on the doorstep in the space of a fortnight?
Last week, it was The Truth of Yoga by Daniel Simpson. One for the yoga philosophy fans and especially for those looking for an accessible way into the subject.
This time, an accessible way into the subject at hand is once again prioritised by the author of the brand new book, “Illustrated Yoga Anatomy“. Stu Girling is a long time yoga practitioner, bodyworker, teacher and founder of loveyogaanatomy.com. His fascination for the human body and how and why it works (and sometimes doesn’t) knows no bounds. But, as he acknowledges in his introduction, even he understands that anatomy “can be a dry and dull subject in the wrong hands”. (“Ain’t that the truth!” I can hear the weary veterans of many a Yoga Teacher Training sigh…)
He wanted to put this right with a book that would make the subject interesting and easy to understand, but most of all actually valuable on a day-to-day basis to yoga teachers and practitioners. The book is all about anatomy, but with a genuine focus on how it applies to your yoga practice and, if you’re a teacher, how you teach. It’s not just brought to life but made to absolutely sparkle by the colourful, fun and explanatory drawings on every page by yoga lover and talented illustrator Bug Fawcett. These drawings make a big difference, helping those of us who are visual learners, in particular, absorb the information being presented much more easily.
In the book’s introduction, Stu promises to use simple and anatomically correct language to help readers get their heads around the concepts he’s exploring. His goal is to help readers “be able to analyse yoga postures from a physical perspective, sequence more effectively, understand practitioner limitations and appreciate the importance of individuality in the experience of postural yoga.”
As someone who wears his encyclopedic knowledge of anatomy lightly, Stu talks about even the most complex issues in an easy, accessible way. People who struggle with the subject will love the way he explains things, while the anatomy geeks will have plenty to get their teeth into too. Even if you’re already well-versed in anatomy, you’ll find how the information is presented here makes it seem fresh and new. Instead of starting with overwhelming detail on various parts of the human body, as many anatomy books do, we go straight to “thinking about the makeup of the body and how that influences movement and our ability to create yoga postures.”
In bright and lively sections including “Key Concepts”, “Body Bits”, and “Posture Groups “, the book answers all of the questions we might have asked ourselves and if we’re teaching, been asked by our students: “Why can’t I fold forward”? “Why can’t I bind?”, Why can’t I do lotus?” “Why can’t I get my leg behind my head?” “Why can’t I balance?” Stu explores what he calls the king of concepts, “Range of Motion (ROM)”, which is our ability to move a joint in a particular direction. We see why this might be restricted in different bodies and learn how to recognise it easily so that we can do something about it, by working on ways to enhance ROM or choosing options of poses that work around the issues.
Stu is not afraid to stick his head above the parapet and potentially ruffle a few (primarily Ashtanga purist) feathers. He describes Setu Bandasana done in the Ashtanga style as a posture “I feel nearly everyone should avoid”. This is because “The most fragile part of the spine, the cervical area is in an extended position and loaded”. He does show a safer version than the often instructed “take the forehead to the floor” but still concludes by saying he’d be happier if students just left the posture out.
Talking about Bhekasana (frog pose), Stu says this is one of the poses that makes him “cringe the most” when he sees people pressing their feet to the floor. Just the way I was taught to do it myself many years ago. And even – God forbid and before I knew better – adjusted into it that way. “What the hell”, says Stu, “How can this distortion of the knee joint ever be thought of as a good idea? Just don’t do it like this!”. (See what I mean about tone? I defy you to find this kind of straightforward talk in another anatomy book). Recommended is the much more knee-friendly version of Bhekasana that those of us who value our knees practice and teach today.
Enjoying your yoga practice without putting your body at risk is a big theme of the book. Of Ekapada Sirsasana (one leg behind the head pose), we’re shown how the required ROM to perform the pose goes way beyond what most of us are gifted with. That, as we know, doesn’t stop people with restricted ROM from doing it, or trying to. A simple test is provided to determine whether or not you’re getting into the pose by putting your body at risk. We see a model who can safely do the pose, then another image shows a student forcing her body to make it happen. We’re advised that if you can do the pose as in the first illustration, you will probably not put any unnecessary strain on the body. But if you are contorting your body like the second model, you are placing yourself “right in the firing line for potential injury”.
This is a big book – running to over 300 pages – packed full of invaluable information for yoga practitioners and teachers. There’s an appendix at the back that gives the formal anatomical background information and provides a “quick reference material for those struggling with the terminology, bone or muscle names”. Practical exercises that will have you hopping up off the sofa and trying things out are scattered throughout the book and make the theory fun and easy to explore. I’m no anatomy geek, but I know that this book will be up and down off the shelf for a long time to come. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to cultivate a life-long practice while keeping injury at bay.