Yoga Anatomy from the Inside Out: Teaching People to Be in Their Bodies

“Teaching people to be in their bodies is actually a radical political act,” notes yoga therapist Leila Stuart, co-author with Donna Farhi of Pathways to a Centered Body in this interview. When people are truly embodied in their body, then they’re present, and they’re available to reality. It is then that they can respond to the actual demand of the moment, rather than respond from a conditioned response.

In this interview, with YogaUOnline, she discusses the immense value of experiential anatomy in deepening our yoga practice and connection with our body. Leila Stuart is founder of Centerpoint Yoga Therapy Studio near Vancouver, which specializes in cultivating a somatic experience of the body and developmental movement patterns. 

Yoga U Online: Your teaching style is centered around what you call experiential anatomy. What does experiential anatomy mean to you and why is it such an important component of your teaching?

Leila Stewart: When I attended massage college over twenty-five years ago, I was fascinated by Anatomy and Physiology. I was introduced to experiential anatomy by someone who had studied with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. It blew me away. I firmly believe that it is pointless to learn anatomy unless you can apply it in a functional way.

Knowledge of anatomy can be used in conjunction with physical sensation to improve kinesthetic intelligence. For example, if someone has knee problems and they’re taught to feel the joint of the knees by visualizing the femoral heads rolling backward and gliding within the joint when they bend their knees, then it changes their movement and it keeps them safe.

“Teaching people to be in their bodies is a radical political act.”

 My favorite quote from my long time movement teacher is, “teaching people to be in their bodies is actually a radical political act.” When   people aren’t in their bodies, they can’t control them. When people are truly embodied in their body, then they’re present, and they’re   available to reality. It is then that they can respond to the actual demand of the moment, rather than respond from a conditioned response.

As yoga teachers, I think it is crucial to understand beyond two-dimensional anatomy. That knowledge has its place, but it remains a mental event. With experiential anatomy, it’s not an intellectual experience but a felt one, so it is processed by different parts of the brain. The result is that we end up having a somatic memory of something, which is a much stronger and longer lasting memory.

When we learn experiential anatomy, it becomes yoga therapy. It becomes very therapeutic because when people understand the limitations of their individual anatomical structure, then they know how to capitalize on their capabilities, and avoid yoga injuries. Experiential anatomy is about listening to your bodies and respecting it.

A huge problem with our society is that we overrule and overlook what our body is telling us. The result is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease because we’re missing all the signals that our body is sending us all the time.

Yoga Develops Kinesthetic Intelligence

Yoga U Online: You made reference to kinesthetic intelligence, the capacity to sense what’s happening in the body. Something that many people experience when they practice yoga regularly is that they have much more of that natural self-regulating feeling. How does that work?

Leila Stewart: Yes. I like to say that awareness is awareness is awareness. When we start with the physical awareness of the body awareness, then the awareness that we develop translates into our other Koshas, or aspects. For example, when we start to feel our feet on the ground, and touch base with that as a touchstone when somebody is yelling at us, then it becomes an easy way to self-regulate. The breath is also a great way to self-regulate but sometimes when we are in the moment, the breath can get away from us.

Teaching experiential anatomy gives us a number of touchstones in our body that we can practice on the mat. When we practice connecting with those touchstones in class, then they are available to us when we really need them in a sticky situation.

Yoga U Online: Experiential anatomy is usually referring to the physical body. Are you suggesting that it is not limited to the perspective of the physical part of our being?

Leila Stewart: Yes. Because we are multidimensional beings, we know that every layer of our being affects every other layer of our being. For example, when we don’t have good sleep, it can affect how we stand or affect our perception of our surroundings. Another example is if we have an attitude of victimhood or self-negation, then it will be reflected in our stance.There are so many different ways to know ourselves, but the physical is really the entry point to understanding ourselves in a much deeper and more comprehensive multidimensional way.

In the ancient languages like Sanskrit and Aramaic, when a word was spoken, people understood that it had multidimensional meanings. For example, when somebody said the word “breath”, they also understood that it meant “spirit” and that it meant “inspiration.” We have lost that.

What I love about yoga therapy, and working with the Koshic model, is that we can go back that multidimensional meaning, and then people get themselves back. Unfortunately, we live in a society of such separation. Working with experiential anatomy from a Koshic perspective allows us to know ourselves better, which is what yoga is all about. The ancient directive is “know thyself.” I’m very passionate about this because I see in classes and in my private sessions that, so often, what’s going on physically is not really physical.

For example, we might start with some physical movement but it’s together with an awareness of breath or an awareness of mental movement. That’s why the yogic tools like mantra, meditation, or seva can be so powerful, because they are simultaneously working on the physical and deeper levels. One example of this came up with a student I had. After class one day, she told me she had fibromyalgia, a very painful condition. She said, “The class that helped my pain the most was the one we did on forgiveness.”

Every part of the body is associated with some particular aspect of being human. For example, I experience the arms and the shoulders as being about giving and receiving. From the arms comes reaching out, not being able to reach out, or freezing the impulse of wanting to punch someone. The legs and the pelvis, on the other hand, have to do with grounding. Every part of the body has some sort of human issue associated with it.

Yoga U Online: When you teach experimental anatomy, you often start from the ground up with the feet. Do you feel that they are the most important part of the body?

Leila Stewart: I didn’t always start my training with the feet, I used to start with the pelvis. However, over time, I realized that if the feet are not meeting the ground in a balanced way, then the pelvis is going to be out of alignment. Just like each Kosha affects every other Kosha, each part of the body is connected and affects every other part. The way that we meet the ground through the feet, patterns what happens in the rest of the body. It’s our body’s primary directive to keep our eyes level with the horizon. If there is a lack of support from below, then the body will make different kinds of compensations in order to keep the eyes level with the horizon. It’s called the righting reflex.

What often happens when the relationship to the ground is lost is that people feel that they have to hold themselves up, causing a lot of tension in the neck, the shoulders, and the jaw. That tension then affects the physiology in ways that manifest as poor digestion or heart conditions from a tight chest. Everything is connected to everything.

“Gravitational Harmony” is the term I use for when the weight of the body is distributed equally through the foot triangles. When we feel firmly grounded with gravitational harmony, then we tend to have potency, vitality, and that ability to be present.

Yoga Feet Debate: 4 Corners or a Triangle?

Yoga U Online: In Tadasana, we are told to ground through the four corners of the feet, or some say, the foot triangle. This is a common instruction that everyone learns but many don’t really understand. What is the significance of that cue?

Leila Stewart: I never learned the instruction to ground through the four corners of the feet. What I did learn in massage school is that the weight of the upper body is transferred into the ground through three points in the foot: the front of the heel, the first metatarsal joint, and the fifth metatarsal joint. All of the weight of the upper body goes through the ankle joint and passes down to the ground through the talus bone through the calcaneus (heel bone), and then is spread forward to those two points. That’s an anatomical reality.

If you go further up the body, the pelvis has three bones. Each one of those bones forms one-third of the hip socket. So the hip socket is receiving weight from the upper body – one-third from the ilia, one-third from the pubic bone, one-third from the ischium. That weight then travels down the leg.

Next, look at the tibia and it is a triangular bone. When you hear the cue about the four corners of the feet, it’s not actually anatomically correct because we have all of those threes. In fact, the triangle is the most stable and efficient shape in nature, and the celestial design committee was pretty smart, so it designed our feet to receive weight that way.

When people do the practice of the foot triangles, they start to really understand it in their body. If you did a cross section of the leg and cut it like a pie into thirds, then the musculature is divided into three. There’s the side, a little bit in the front, and a little bit in the back. So each foot triangle point is associated with one-third of the leg, with one pelvic bone, with one or more core muscle and also with the myofascial line. Everything really lines up. When you start to use kinesthetic intelligence, then it drastically changes your postures and how you are in your everyday life.

If you’re bending forward to pick something up from the ground and you stay in your foot triangles, then you’re not going to hurt your back. If you’re in your foot triangles in Warrior II, you will never lose the foundation of the back foot. I am not even sure where the idea of the four corners came from. The foot triangle has been recognized as an anatomical reality people started looking at anatomy and gravity.

Yoga U Online: Could the four corners be intended to balance the weight from front to back, as well as inside-outside with pronation and supination? Some people may argue that if you’re just doing the triangle with the heel and the two front points, you’re balancing from front to back but not from left to right.

Leila Stewart: That is a misconception about the foot triangle, because if you are firmly established in the first and fifth metatarsal joints, then you’re in balance transversely as well. It is interesting when people start working with the foot triangles, they become aware of their own habits. Most people will either under rely or over rely on one or more particular points. For example, people who pronate are going to be over relying on the big toe point and under relying on the little toe point, and the heel point is going to be slightly skewed toward the midline.

Working with the foot triangles is easy and can be done anywhere. I have people doing foot triangle work standing in line at the bank or waiting in a doctor’s office. When we build that awareness physically, it affects our psychological footing and our ability to be more seated in ourselves. The four corners of the foot don’t have any anatomical correlation except for the superficial muscles. If you want to be a superficial person, then you can work more superficially. If you want to be a deeper person, more seated in yourself, then go in deeply with the triangles.

Yoga U Online: A quote from your bio reads, “As a teacher, yoga creates the conditions for students to cultivate a somatic experience of parts and systems of the body and developmental movement patterns. By developing a felt sense of doing anatomy and inherent body wisdom, students can apply this intelligence to their own healing process. By practicing yoga in this transformational way, the physical body becomes a doorway to the deepest self and the philosophical teaching of yoga can become a daily lived experience.” That’s very beautiful and also a tall order. Do you feel that more happens when we begin to practice with this awareness?

“By practicing yoga in this transformational way, the physical body becomes a doorway to the deepest self and the philosophical teaching of yoga can become a daily lived experience.”

Leila Stewart: Absolutely. I have seen it. I have been teaching for almost twenty-five years and I have seen it over and over again. Many people come to the classes for something physical and they stay for the non-physical. I think that’s really what our task is as yoga teachers: to steer students toward an experience of their wholeness because somehow they’ve become separated from that. And we yoga teachers have become separated as well, and we teach what we need to learn. The more we can get a sense of our own wholeness (the best tool for which is experiential anatomy), the more seated in the self we are and the more connected we are to our self, to others, and to that which is greater than us. We make room for it.

Yoga U Online: Leila, we’re also very excited because you have a course on YogaU on Experiential Anatomy with special focus on the the feet. Tell us about the course and what you’re covering.

Leila Stewart: Sometimes I think that if lack of awareness was a pathology, nearly everyone in the world would have pathology. Some might say that the feet are not a very sexy topic. If people understood that the way the feet meet the ground, how they relate to gravity through the ground and then mediate the counter thrust of gravity is important not just physically, but on all levels, then they would pay more attention to their feet.

I have cultivated a habit of observing. Whenever I’m out, I look at how people are walking; I’m always doing assessment. Over and over again, I see how people are not actually walking on the ground in a connected way.

In this course, the main goal is to explore what it actually means to have a stable foundation, both physically and on other levels. What does that it mean to be able to stand on your own two feet metaphorically and physically? The course is about how to get there. We will look at the two dimensional anatomy as well as some of the concepts and principles that we then take into practice in a somatic way. The Foot Triangle work is something that I have developed over many years and there will be an introduction into that work and people will learn how to use the awareness of the Foot Triangles in yoga poses.

We will also look at the Koshas because for me, the Koshas are a foundational part of understanding yoga therapy. Additionally, we will look at some pathologies and the anatomy. The anatomy of the foot is fascinating. The feet are so tiny compared to rest of us, yet contain a quarter of all the bones in our body and have an amazingly intricate and complex architecture to allow us to both have stability and mobility. The foot is one of the structures in the body that equally balances these two abilities: stability and mobility. Yogicly, we’re looking at Sukha (ease) and Sthira (steadiness). That duality is really exemplified in the feet. We will look at how we pattern mobility and stability in our feet by understanding and feeling the anatomy of our feet.

Yoga U Online: That sounds wonderful, Leila, and we look forward to your course.

Want to learn more? Join Leila Stuart, co-author with Donna Farhi of “Pathways to a Centered Body,” for her online course: Standing on Your Own Two Feet:  Experiential Anatomy of the Foot.

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