Anatomy and Teaching Yoga: It's Critical.

Opinions surrounding yoga vary just as much as the postures themselves. Mental practice versus spiritual practice versus physical practice? Strict tradition and history or modern interpretation? Headstands and shoulderstands: yes or no? Ashtanga or Vinyasa or Hatha or Kundalini or Bikram?

Every teacher, every studio, every school has an opinion and a belief to back up that opinion. And one place we have widely differing opinions is related to training programs, certifications, and what they should include. Without getting into the discussion about the validity and value of Yoga Alliance as a governing body, let's state a fact for the purpose of this discussion: they accredit studios and yoga schools to provide training to teachers. One of the requirements for accreditation is that the teaching of anatomy is mandatory in a teacher training program.

Still, many studios and teachers disagree with this mandate. They use unqualified teachers to teach anatomy, gloss it over, and even completely skip it (just don't tell Yoga Alliance that). Why?

There's the argument that yoga is an ancient practice that was taught long before the anatomy was understood the way it is now and that we should honor that ancient practice. Or that teaching from an anatomical perspective takes away from the spirituality and subtle body-mind-spirit connection of yoga. Or (my favorite) that there's no proof that learning anatomy as a teacher prevents injury in your students.

While I believe that the people that share these viewpoints do not intentionally intend to cause harm or damage, there is a growing body of scientific research, anecdotal evidence, and well informed opinion to support the exact opposite - that in today's world, learning anatomy is not only important as a yoga instructor, but that it is critical. 

The participation of people in the practice of yoga nearly doubled from 2007 to 2012 and currently stands at over 36 million Americans practicing yoga. Yoga related injuries were seen in hospital emergency departments almost 30,000 times from 2001 to 2014, with one study citing that 75% of those incidents were seen in the last five years (implicating a rise in yoga injury). This is the science, the numbers, the black and white. 

Okay, but so what? There's risk of injury with every type of physical activity. What makes yoga different?

Yoga is an ancient practice, one that is deeply rooted in spirituality. The history and tradition is extremely important to keep while teaching yoga in a modern world. But yoga was originally designed for young (pre-teen and teenage) boys. Boys of that age began doing rigorous yoga asana practice daily. Their bodies were more flexible, more malleable, and quicker healing than the modern man or woman who steps on their mat. And the anatomy of the two groups is different. To instruct a 20-30-40 something typical American into a yoga posture and try to make it look like the photo of Iyengar doing the same posture is dangerous (and, quite frankly, stupid). The modern student has different functional anatomy. They may have the same bones and muscles but the alignment of the bones, the health of the connective tissue, and the strength and flexibility of the muscles is very, very different. 

In addition, we live in a culture driven by social media. There's no sense in denying it, especially when it comes to yoga, people are hooked on networks like Instagram. And who can blame them? There's a bevy of attractive, fit, freakishly flexible, and enviably strong men and women doing inversions, backbends, and arm balances in some of the most beautiful places on earth. People see that, they walk into a yoga studio, and they want to do that. The problem lies in the fact that they want to do the end pose without doing the work. Those poses take hours upon hours of dedicated practice. In a culture of instant gratification, people want that now (and this doesn't even begin to account for the fact that anatomy is individual and many people won't ever be able to achieve some of those poses).

And so it becomes easy for an under educated, under experienced yoga instructor to fall into a place where their teaching can become physically harmful. Without understanding basic structural anatomy of the systems of the body, biomechanics (the physics of the body), and functional anatomy (how the anatomy actually works, both in yoga postures and in daily life) even the best intentions can go astray. Complicated sequencing, poor verbal cuing, inability to properly verbally or physically adjust students, lack of knowledge of modifications, and lack of ability to hold students back (and to require them to build an appropriate base) are all too common.

You don't have to teach like an anatomy professor - you never have to use the word "metatarsal" (you can say "foot") or tell people to "externally rotate" their thigh (you can say "rotate outward"). Your teaching style can still be spiritually focused and steeped in yogic tradition. But you do absolutely need to understand the anatomy. 

As for my favorite argument? Why should we wait until we do have to have evidence to prove that knowing anatomy as a teacher prevents injury? That means that not knowing anatomy caused enough injury that we were forced to publish studies about it. That's a critical failure. And, if I'm not mistaken, feels quite like the opposite of the first and foremost goal in both yoga and medicine - ahimsa, non-maleficence, or do no harm.

 

 

*The author of this article holds a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Northeastern University with over 8 years of clinical practice. In addition, she has been a yoga practitioner for over 13 years and currently holds RYT-200. She teaches anatomy courses for yoga teacher trainings and is finishing a handbook and workbook titled Critical Anatomy. She also hosts anatomy certification courses for yoga instructors and leaders of yoga teacher trainings.