Whenever I teach yoga anatomy teacher trainings, the first question that I always ask my students is: Why should we even care about studying anatomy at all?
As yoga teachers, does it really matter if we know and understand the inner workings of our muscles, bones, connective tissue, and beyond?
Is there value in knowing how to eccentrically contract the quadriceps? Does it help your teaching skills to understand the primary role of the IT band or the stability of the SI joints?
I’d argue that there are countless reasons that yoga teachers should study (and continue to study) yoga anatomy. Not only does learning yoga anatomy help us to better understand the human body and how it works and moves, but it also helps to make us more informed, helpful, articulate, and compassionate teachers.
These six reasons just graze the surface of why yoga teachers should study yoga anatomy, but they are incredibly powerful and important reasons to dust off your old anatomy books and brush up on the amazing wonder that is the human body.
Of course, one of the main reasons to learn about yoga anatomy is to be able to teach safe yoga practices. No yoga teacher wants to harm or injure their students, so having a basic understanding of anatomy can help to keep your classes safe and appropriately sequenced.
With just a general understanding of human anatomy, you can create yoga sequences that intelligently build and progress to keep your students safe and always prepared for what’s coming next.
This understanding will also help you to teach practices that effectively build toward something so that your students feel empowered and accomplished in your classes.
And of course, you’ll then also know how to appropriately regress at the end of practice so your students walk away feeling balanced.
When you sit down to build a yoga sequence, how do you create an appropriate warm-up and cool down? How do you work toward the peak part of your practice? How do you choose which postures to include and which postures to exclude?
In order to teach in a safe and progressive way, we have to truly understand the mechanics of what’s going into the equation. You likely wouldn’t start your class in headstand because you intuitively know that that posture is challenging and could be straining to your students who aren’t properly warmed up and ready for it.
But how do you prepare the body for headstand? Which muscles need to be strong and stable? Which muscles need to be open and mobile? How can you help to facilitate this in your class as you work toward headstand?
In order to effectively reach large “peak” poses like this, you need to know what to prepare and how to prepare it. How do you stabilize the rotator cuff? How do you engage the serratus anterior? These are all important questions to consider, and of course, you’ll need to have a firm grasp on yoga anatomy to be able to answer them.
Nobody wants to walk out of a yoga class feeling scared. Our students come to yoga to relax and unwind—not to feel afraid of movement. The absolute last thing we want to do is scare our students about moving their own bodies!
Very well-meaning but often misinformed yoga teachers typically use fear-mongering language in an effort to keep their students safe. They use broad generalizations like, “Make sure your knee stays aligned over your ankle to protect it” or, “Keep your spine lengthened so you don’t compress your discs.”
While these cues may be safe and effective for a specific population, they do not necessarily need to be applied to the entire population. And when they are, they instill a sense of fear in practitioners who aren’t as well-versed in yoga anatomy. And they may take this fear of certain movements off their yoga mats as well.
Our bodies evolved to move, so we don’t need to fear movements.
For many years, I walked around the world afraid to let my knees move past my ankles, thinking that that action would damage my knees. In reality, our knees move past our ankles all the time when we move about in the world! (Seriously, check your knees next time you’re walking up stairs.)
Our bodies evolved to move, so we don’t need to fear movements and we don’t need to teach our students to fear any movements—either on the mat or off of it. Of course, we do want to teach safely, but that does not need to include the use of fear-based language.
Every single student will have different needs in a yoga practice. Some may need postures modified to accommodate less mobility in the hips. Some may need postures modified to accommodate excessive mobility in the hips. Some may need modifications for a shoulder injury or osteoporosis or pregnancy. The list goes on and on.
As teachers, we’re expected to know how to adjust and modify and vary postures for different populations and different needs. But this can feel extremely overwhelming if we’re not sure about what is happening anatomically in the posture to begin with!
Rather than memorizing a million different ways to practice one particular asana, you can use your yoga anatomy knowledge to determine what the posture is offering from an anatomical perspective.
Does this posture stretch the gluteus medius? Does it engage the rectus abdominis? Does it isometrically activate the triceps? If you can break down the poses to understand their anatomical purpose, then you can easily modify any pose in any way that you need.
You might know that a simple modification for chaturanga dandasana (or a low yogic push-up) is to simply practice the same shape with your knees on the floor. Why? Because it still targets the same musculature but it lessens the load on those muscles.
But what if your student wanted the same benefits of chaturanga but they’re unable to bear weight in their wrists at all? How could you modify chaturanga without any weight-bearing in the arms to specifically target the triceps? How do you activate the triceps at all?
With a clear understanding of yoga anatomy, you could easily and readily create modifications and pose variations to suit the needs and wants of all of your students.
As just previously mentioned, every student will have different wants and needs from the practice and from each posture individually. Because every student has a uniquely shaped and structured anatomical form, then every posture will both look and feel different in their unique bodies.
This means that there is no such thing as universal alignment and universal alignment cues have no real value in the yoga classroom. So how can you cue at all if you don't regurgitate steps one, two, three, and four for warrior III?
With a clear understanding of yoga anatomy, you can modify each posture to suit the specific practice that you're teaching that day and to the specific population of students in front of you.
You can teach intelligently from an evidence-based and informed place rather than simply repeating phrases that you’ve heard your teachers use before.
You can teach triangle pose to bias the external rotators of the hip. Or you could teach triangle pose to bias the medial hamstrings. Or you could teach triangle pose to bias the obliques. And so on and so on.
There are so many different ways that you can practice any given pose so that you can effectively teach each pose differently every single time that you teach. This will not only keep your classes fresh and interesting, but it will keep your students coming back for more every single time because they never know what they will get!
To effectively work toward peak postures, you’ll need to emphasize specific movements and engagements in various poses. Truly understanding yoga anatomy will help you to finesse your cues to effectively target whatever you’d like to.
This will make your classes more interesting and will also help your students to access musculature that was previously dormant, and therefore, access postures that previously felt unattainable.
As yoga teachers, we all know that yoga is far more than just asana. However, in a modern yoga practice, asana takes up a great deal of class time so it’s important to know and understand the intricacies of asana and how this relates to and manifests in different anatomical bodies.
Every student is unique and different so it’s important to apply this knowledge to our teaching so that we can teach the most effective, safe, intelligent, and empowering yoga classes possible.
So brush up on your anatomy skills and learn the key features of yoga anatomy so that you can teach with confidence and assurance, and most importantly, the happiness and well-being of your students at the forefront of it all.
Join Nomad Yoga for a completely self-paced and Yoga Alliance accredited 20 Hour Online Yoga Anatomy Training and learn from the comfort and safety of your own home while still receiving a high-quality education.