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Table of Contents – Eagle Pose Alignment and Anatomy:
The alignment of yoga’s eagle pose (garudasana) is an inherently confusing topic. 🙂
In this pose, we intertwine our arms and legs as we sit back into a single-leg squat.
This results in a tangled assortment of limbs that can easily confuse our movement eyes!
Am I right or am I right? 😉
To help demystify this confusing yoga asana, I’ve created a full eagle pose alignment and anatomy tutorial here.
And to offer a mixed-modality approach, I’ve shared this information here in both written format and in video format!
This way, you can consume this content in written or video form (or both, to have the information reiterated in more than one way!).
Our anatomical areas of focus in eagle pose…
In eagle pose, the main anatomical areas of interest are the shoulders and hips – so these are two specific anatomical areas we’ll focus on in this tutorial.
What do people think is happening anatomy-wise in eagle pose?
When I was planning out this tutorial, I decided to ask my social media audience what they thought was happening in both the hips and shoulders in eagle pose. Here are the most common answers I received:
As I’ll explain below, the hips and shoulders are actually not in internal or external rotation in eagle pose – they’re in neutral rotation!
And while adduction definitely plays a role in both the hips and shoulders here, technically, “adduction” is an incomplete anatomical description for this position. There’s another anatomical direction of motion that more accurately describes what’s happening here – read on for the full scoop!
Hip Joint Alignment and Anatomy in Eagle Pose
When it comes to the lower body, the hip joint is the main area in which the movement action happens in eagle pose, so that’s the specific area we’ll focus on in this section.
The Eagle/Gomukhasana Comparison
When analyzing the alignment of eagle pose, I often see the yoga pose gomukhasana used as a reference because it has some obvious similarities with eagle pose. In order to understand the anatomy of eagle pose itself better, I think it’s helpful to take a little detour down this eagle/gomukhasana comparison path. So here we go!
Gomukhasana is a seated hip-opener, and here’s what it looks like:
(Side note: I’m only demonstrating the lower body portion of gomukhasana. There’s also an upper body component that’s often included (one arm up, one arm down, and the hands reach toward each other behind our back) – but we’ll ignore that part for today!)
Here’s a statement I often hear when the anatomy of eagle pose is discussed:
“The hips in eagle are in internal rotation because eagle pose is basically a standing variation of gomukhasana, and gomukhasana is an internally-rotated hip opener.”
Let’s take a closer look at this statement, because dissecting it a bit will help us learn a lot about both gomukhasana and eagle pose!
Are the Hips in Gomukhasana Internally Rotated?
First of all, despite common claims, the hips are not actually in internal rotation in gomukhasana. They’re in external rotation!
I know this may be a bit tricky to see, but the inner thighs have rotated up toward the sky in this gomukhasana while the outer thighs have rotated down toward the floor. This is a position of external rotation!
If that’s not clear to you, let’s compare gomukhasana with another classic seated hip opener in yoga: double pigeon pose. Double pigeon is a pose in which both legs are in a pigeon position and they’re stacked on top of each other. It looks like this:
We all know and accept that double pigeon is a position of external hip rotation, right? (It’s technically a combination of hip abduction, flexion, and external rotation.)
Let’s now look at a visual depiction of transitioning from double pigeon (a pose of obvious external rotation) into gomukhasana (a pose that many people confuse for being internal rotation when it’s actually external rotation!).
Watch how I begin in double pigeon (external rotation) and I maintain that external rotation as I simply slide my legs across each other so that they stack, arriving in gomukhasana:
In both of these seated hip openers, the hips are externally rotated. But whereas double pigeon is a position of hip abduction + external rotation, gomukhasana is hip adduction + external rotation.
So let’s bring this discussion back to our actual asana of focus: eagle pose. We’ve now established that gomukhasana is not an internally-rotated hip-opener – and therefore, eagle pose probably isn’t as well.
So… Are the Hips in Eagle Pose Externally Rotated Then?
This is a natural next question on our path toward clarifying eagle pose hip alignment. If gomukhasana is a position of external rotation, and if eagle pose is like gomukhasana, then are the hips in eagle pose in external rotation? They are, aren’t they?? 🙂
As it turns out, the answer to this question is… no.
While it’s true that gomukhasana is an externally-rotated pose, this doesn’t actually mean that the same is true for eagle pose – because there’s an important distinction between these two poses that we must point out. In gomukhasana, we are sitting on the floor, while in eagle pose, we’re in a standing position. And this affects the hip rotation in each pose differently!
Just to refresh your memory, take a look at gomukhasana and eagle pose, both pictured from the front:
Because of our seated position in gomukhasana, our feet are grounded on the floor on either side of our thighs, which angles our tibias (shin bones) out laterally, and this leverages our hips into external rotation.
But by comparison, in eagle pose, our seat is much further away from the floor. Whereas in gomukhasana, our tibias angle out laterally, in eagle, they point relatively straight down toward the floor. This means that our hips are not externally rotated in eagle like they are in gomukhasana.
(If that’s tricky for you to picture based on this written description, just know that I demonstrate this distinction visually in my video, and I think this explains the point more clearly. Feel free to jump to the video and watch it!)
But the bottom line is: even though gomukhasana and eagle pose have an obvious similarity in their “crossed legs” appearance, their anatomical positions are not the same.
So what is the hip joint alignment in eagle pose?
Are you ready for the final answer on this pressing question? 🙂 Here it is, and it’s actually quite simple!
The hips in eagle pose are in… horizontal adduction! That’s right: they’re in horizontal adduction – and that’s it! There is no hip rotation happening in this pose (internal or external). The hips are neutral with regard to rotation.
If you’re new to the anatomical direction of motion of horizontal adduction, here’s the deal.
When we move our thigh toward our midline in the frontal plane, this is called adduction. (Not “horizontal adduction” – just regular old adduction.) It looks like this:
But there’s technically another way to move our thigh toward midline, and that is in the horizontal plane (the plane of movement in which we look at the body from a bird’s eye view). In this direction of motion, we first flex our hip to 90°, like this:
And then we move our thigh toward midline, like this:
This combination of hip flexion + adduction is known as horizontal adduction. If you take a look at eagle pose viewed from the front, you can see that the hips are flexed to about 90° and they adduct. So this is a perfect example of horizontal adduction!
The next time someone asks you, “Hey! What’s the alignment of the hips in eagle pose?”, you now have your answer. The hips are horizontally adducted in this yoga asana – it’s as simple as that!
For more anatomical info on the lower body in eagle pose…
In this write-up here, I just focused on eagle pose alignment. But what about muscular activation/engagement in the lower body in this pose? In other words, what muscles are working in eagle pose?
I cover this topic (with visual demonstrations) in the video version of this guide! See the video for the full scoop on eagle pose muscular engagement.
Shoulder Alignment and Anatomy in Eagle Pose
Now that we’ve covered what’s happening in the lower body in eagle pose, let’s turn our attention to the upper body! What anatomical position are the shoulders in in eagle pose?
First of all, just to specify: in this guide, when I talk about shoulder alignment, I’m referring to the actual shoulder joint – a.k.a. the glenohumeral joint, which is a ball-and-socket joint just like the hip joint. (I talk about the overall shoulder joint complex in more depth in the video version of this post – watch the video for more on this!)
You may recall from the introduction to this guide that I surveyed my social media audience to find out what they thought the alignment of the shoulders in eagle pose was, and the most common answers I received were:
As I’ll explain below, the shoulders are actually not in internal or external rotation in eagle pose – they’re in neutral rotation!
But before we get to that, let’s first look at the question of adduction in this pose.
Eagle pose shoulder alignment: adduction isn’t the whole story
If you’ve studied anatomy at all, you’ve surely learned about the directions of motion for the shoulder (glenohumeral) joint
These include abduction (moving the arm away from midline) and adduction (moving the arm toward midline):
In eagle pose, because our arms cross and intertwine with one another, adduction seems like a pretty obvious direction of motion involved here!
But technically, “adduction” is an incomplete description for the position of eagle arms.
There’s another direction of movement that more accurately describes what’s happening in eagle arms, and that is horizontal adduction.
Horizontal adduction takes place when our shoulders first flex to 90° and then they cross the midline. (The same is true for the hip joint, which we covered in the hip joint section of this guide!)
Here’s a picture of what this looks like at the shoulder. (And just note that even though from this camera angle, it kind of looks like my elbows are bent and I’m giving myself a hug :), my elbows are actually straight! This position is basically “zombie arms” that have crossed over one another. )
While “regular” adduction takes place in the frontal plane (movement that happens when we view the body from the front/back), horizontal adduction takes place in the transverse plane (movement that happens when we view the body from above, as in a bird’s eye view).
In eagle pose, our arms are first lifted out in front of us (i.e., 90° of shoulder flexion) and then we intertwine them. And this is a position of horizontal adduction!
Eagle pose shoulder alignment: internal/external rotation
But what about internal or external rotation in eagle arms?
It’s commonly believed that our shoulders are in internal or external rotation in eagle. But in reality, our shoulders are not rotated here at all – they’re just horizontally adducted. That’s it!
To see this more clearly, here’s a quick primer on what shoulder rotation looks like.
In this picture, I’m standing in anatomical position (a.k.a. “neutral”) with my elbows bent. Here, my shoulders are in neutral rotation (no internal or external rotation):
In these next two pictures, I’m demonstrating what internal and external shoulder rotation look like.
In internal rotation, my forearms angle inward. And in external rotation, they angle out to the sides (away from each other).
Now let’s return to that first picture, in which my forearms point forward and my shoulders are in neutral (no rotation). We can affectionally think of this arm position as “robot arms.” 😉
In order to come into eagle pose from here, we simply lift our robot arms up (shoulder flexion of 90°) and then we cross them (horizontal adduction):
Do you see that in terms of rotation, there is none to speak of here?
The anatomical position of the shoulders in eagle pose is horizontal adduction – and that’s it!
The next time someone asks you, “Hey! What’s the alignment of the shoulders in eagle pose?”, you now have your answer. 🙂 The shoulders are horizontally adducted in this yoga asana – it’s as simple as that!
Wait – I’m still confused!
If you’re still a bit confused (which I would totally understand, because like I said in the beginning of this post: eagle is a confusing pose! ;)), just watch the video version of this post!
I give lots of visual demonstrations and more thorough explanations in the video, and it will help make all of this even more clear.
And in addition to the topic of eagle pose alignment, in the video, I also cover muscular activation/engagement in the upper and lower body in this pose. In other words, what muscles are working in eagle pose? (Hint: because our arms and legs are held in place by simply being interlocked, we aren’t working our muscles as much as is often believed!)
Video version of The Complete Guide to Eagle Pose Alignment and Anatomy