Though you feel the sensations in the backs of your thighs when you fold over to start your sun salutations and in the front of your hip when you press into wheel pose, you may not know which muscles you're stretching in those asanas. Upping your anatomy IQ helps you create a yoga practice targeted to your tight spots.
Forward Bending Asanas
Forward bending asanas stretch your backside, including the erector spinae muscles along your spine and the gluteal muscles in your tush. With your knees straight in poses such as Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend pose, you're stretching your hamstrings and the gastrocnemius muscles of your calves. Forward bends with your thighs spread apart, such as in Upavishta Konasana, or Wide Angle Seated Forward Bend pose, and Baddha Konasana, or Bound Angle pose, stretch the adductor muscles of your inner thighs.
Backward Bending Asanas
Asanas involving bending over backward will stretch the front of your body. Backbends such as Bhujangasana, or Cobra pose, stretch your abdominal muscles, particularly the rectus abdominis -- your six-pack muscle. They also stretch your hip flexors, including your iliopsoas. Depending on how you position your arms, your shoulder muscles may get a stretch as well. When you reach your arms overhead in Urdhva Dhanurasana, or Wheel pose, your latissimus dorsi gets lengthened. When your arms are behind you in Ustrasana, or Camel pose, the pectoral muscles of your chest and the anterior deltoids on the front of your shoulders get stretched.
Rotating your spine stretches the oblique muscles on the sides of your belly and also some of your back muscles, including the rotators and multifidi. In Ardha Matsyendrasana, or Half Lord of the Fishes pose, the rhomboid muscles of your upper back get stretched, as do some of the muscles of your butt, including the piriformis and gluteal muscles. A reclining twist such as Jathara Parivrtti, or Belly Twist pose, stretches the pectoralis major muscle of your chest.
Not surprisingly, side-bending poses, such as Parighasana, or Gate pose, stretch the sides of your body. They target the oblique muscles on the sides of your belly, the intercostal muscles between your ribs and the quadratus lumborum along the side of your lumbar spine. Gate pose also stretches the muscles on the sides of your hip, including the gluteus medius and tensor fascia latae. When you reach your arms overhead in a side bend such as Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, or Revolved Head-to-Knee pose, you're stretching the rhomboid, trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles of your back.
- Yoga Anatomy; Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews
- The Key Muscles of Yoga; Ray Long
Joe Miller started writing professionally in 1991. He specializes in writing about health and fitness and has written for "Fit Yoga" magazine and the New York Times City Room blog. He holds a master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, Teacher's College.