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The Carpentry of Yoga Anatomy
Things I learned about anatomy from learning carpentry
The Carpentry of Yoga Anatomy
In March I moved from Colorado to Western Massachusetts to apprentice with a friend in his carpentry business. I had always wanted to learn the proper way to build things, and the current shortage of skilled carpenters worked in my favor. That same month I began an advanced yoga teacher training led by American yoga innovator Amy Ippoliti and her school, Vesselify.
I wondered if my brain could handle learning two different disciplines at once. It turns out that carpentry and yoga anatomy have a lot in common!
Level, Plumb and Plane in Carpentry
My first day on the job my friend and carpentry boss/friend/mentor Matt Kozuch asked me, “Are you down with LPP?” He then went on to explain that in carpentry we should always be aware of Level, Plumb, and Plane.
Level is the horizontal plane. Using a bubble level (also called a spirit level!), we can determine when an object is parallel with the Earth. Liquid naturally becomes level with the earth due to gravity. Spirit levels have translucent tubes filled with liquid spirits, often ethanol. An air bubble inside of the tube floats on top of the liquid, and indicates where level is (here’s a fun spirit level history).
Plumb is the vertical plane. It is 90° perpendicular to the level plane. Plumb can be found in empty space by suspending a pointed weight on a string (plumb bob). If a vertical structure exists, then a spirit level held vertically on its surface can be used to find plumb.
Plane is the relationship between two structures, the alignment. Absolute horizontal (level) and vertical (plumb) planes are relational to the Earth, but structures must also align with each other. Two pieces of drywall on the same plane should fit together without one protruding, and if the room you are building is rectangular, the planes of the walls should intersect at 90° angles (square planes).
Level, Plumb and Plane in Yoga Anatomy
In studying human anatomy, we divide the body into planes so we have reference points. In yoga anatomy, when we want to help students find alignment, these reference points are essential. There are three main anatomical planes to consider.
Coronal/Frontal Plane divides the body into front (anterior) and back (posterior).
Sagital Plane divides the body into left and right (medial is towards the middle, lateral is outward to the sides.)
Transverse Plane divides the body into top (superior) and bottom (inferior) at a chosen point in the body.
The anatomical planes of our bodies move in relationship to the Earth, but level and plumb are still useful concepts to integrate into our yoga practice. It is also useful to identify planes in our bodies.
For example, the top front of our pelvis has bony protrusions on either side called the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS). Some yoga teachers call them hip points. If we are standing in tadasana with perfect alignment, they will be level to the ground, and parallel to the front of the mat. Stepping the left leg back into lunge, the left ASIS will move back to be slightly further from the front edge of the mat than the right one. The plane of the pelvis is now facing slightly left, at about 30º. If we lowered our back heel and transitioned to trikonasana, “opening” our hips to the left, the angle will be around 150º (I’m estimating the angles; it will vary from body to body). It is helpful to become aware of the pelvic alignment in each pose. A slight turn of a foot or toso will affect pelvic alignment, which will in turn affect alignment up through the torso.
Building with alignment in carpentry
If a carpenter begins installing a frame for a window, and the sill isn’t level, it creates a misalignment that affects the boards around it. The vertical framing boards will either be out of plumb, or out of square. Instead of 45º angles in the corners, each board will need to be cut at a different angle. The window will have trouble opening. The homeowner will get upset and grumpy, and soon the whole neighborhood will be up in arms.
The window in this photo was part of my first carpentry remodeling job, installing new windows on a porch. We are looking at a side view of the porch, which is connected to the main structure of the house, on the right. The porch has settled over time. You can see the red arrows pointing in a downward angle to the left, in line with the original framing. The yellow arrows show where we built new level framing and installed the windows. Because those lines are level, the windows are vertically aligned with the blue plumb line. All is squared at 90º angles.
Misalignment and the Kinetic Chain
The way the musculoskeletal parts of our body move together and effect one another, is called the kinetic chain. From toes to heels to shins to knees; from femurs to hips to spine to shoulders, arms, elbows, and hands. From the souls of our feet to the seat of our souls.
Misalignment in our bodies moves through the kinetic chain, with one joint compensating for another’s weakness or avoidance of pain. We carry the traumas of our past not only the ways we think, but also in the ways we move, and in the ways we hold ourselves in stillness.
In the photo above, the man is standing in his natural posture. Without the arrows a casual observer would probably not notice anything amiss. Humans are asymmetrical, and we are used to seeing each other that way.
Because his pelvis tilts to his left and his shoulders to his right, his left side body is elongated. His head and his pelvis are misaligned in the sagital plane, and he is most likely compensating for these misalignments in the ways he moves.
The two photos of the woman show how we can become misaligned through laziness. Our smart phones and other devices have brought the term text neck into our lexicon. For every inch that your head sits forward, it increases the weight of the head by approximately 10 lbs! It can cause everything from headaches to thoracic kyphosis and spinal degeneration.
By pressing her thighs back and engaging her lower back muscles, the proper alignment moves up through her kinetic chain. It feels natural to draw the shoulderblades onto the back, and the head and neck move towards the back plane. You can see the plumb line of good alignment runs from the top of the head through ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and down to the ankles. It takes some awareness and muscular engagement. Because our bones are the sturdiest parts of our anatomy, stacking them along the plumb line creates balance and allows our muscles to work as they were meant to.
In carpentry the removal of pre-existing structures is called demo, short for demolition. During this phase the underlying framing is revealed. It is common during this phase to find that foundations have shifted, or that previous carpenters were sloppy.
In yoga, demo is short for demonstration. Yoga teachers will demo a pose to “break it down”, showing the common misalignments, and then rebuild it by demonstrating the proper alignments. Here we are going to look at a yoga pose that students commonly misalign in, Agni Stambhasana.
Alignment in Agnistambhasana
Also known as fire log pose, ankle-to-knee pose, or double pigeon.
In Sanskrit agni is fire, stambha is log or statue. Agnistambhasana is a pose in which our hips are on fire and our legs are the logs. The posture helps create opening in the hips. The photo above shows:
Yellow arrows - The log plane. Proper alignment of shins and hip points (anterior superior iliac spine) of the pelvis, which are parallel to each other and the front of the yoga mat. The stacking of the lower legs like fire logs is where the pose gets its name. The feet should be dorsiflexed so they are at 90º angles to the shins. Keep the feet engaged so they don’t roll onto the tops, but stay on the outer edges.
Blue arrows - The plumb line. In this pose, the ankles and knees are stacked in a plumb line. Even if our hips are too tight to allow the opposing ankles and knees to touch, an imaginary line dropped from above should go straight through both of them.
Red arrows - The plane of ankles and knees in the photo shows the misalignment. For the student to be in proper alignment, he would need to move his top leg towards the left side of the image, until the red lines are in line with the blue lines.
If you have tight hips, it might take time and practice to get your hips open enough to come into that alignment while sitting upright. Inwardly rotating the thighs while plugging the femur bones into the hip sockets will help. In the video below, I teach the proper alignment, and give a variation for people whose hips are too tight to sit upright in the pose.
How to achieve proper alignment in Agnistambhasana, also known as fire log pose, ankle-to-knee pose, or double pigeon.
Building a solid structure
Yoga is a tool that can help us bring mindfulness to our alignment. Over time we can reduce pain and discomfort by finding the level and plumb lines in our bodies, and developing the strength and flexibility to align our musculoskeletal planes.
I will be going deeper into the metaphysical concepts of yoga and carpentry alignment in an upcoming episode of the Warrior One Podcast, so make sure you subscribe to go deeper into these concepts and how they relate to yoga philosophy. For an in-person or online assessment of your body’s alignment, with exercises to correct them, reach out for an appointment! If you have questions or comments, please leave them in the comments section below.