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Chris discusses the importance of yoga anatomy for yoga teachers

How can yoga teachers benefit from knowing yoga anatomy?

alignment fascia health yoga anatomy yoga postures Jan 04, 2021

Oslo Yoga,  hosted a panel discussion on yoga anatomy as part of their international yoga festival on January 4, 2021.
On the panel were:

Mark Stephens

Anna Kristina Kavli,

and me, Chris Kummer

After an introduction to describe how we found our way to yoga anatomy and how this knowledge is useful in our lives, we moved to discussions around a number of yoga practice and teaching related subjects.
Read on for some of the questions and my thoughts about them. I keep the answers here in point form for clarity.

Q1 - Why is it important to know about anatomy as yoga teachers and practitioners? Is it not enough to know the postures and do them the way they are instructed in a class?

Yoga practice has worked quite well for hundreds of years without anatomy.
Now is a different time and different people are practicing - especially different teachers to the teachers of earlier days.
Most postures are described by their shape - and we all know not all shapes are accessible to all people. If it’s not about the shape - what matters? How to be in yoga poses - and as teachers - how to get practitioners into poses that have benefits?
We see lots of injuries. My clinic in Australia was full of yoga practitioners. In many yoga teacher trainings about half the upcoming teachers already had yoga injury.
Knowing anatomy and physiology - the structure and function of our bodies - helps us be safe, teach and practice, while actually getting benefits.
Yoga anatomy creates a framework for potential of movement, self exploration and teaching.
If yoga is not about making shapes, it’s about actions, right actions.

Q2 - What are some of the problems students could face when one type of instructions are given in a class and we know that our bodies are unique?
The general acknowledgement of uniqueness isn’t that long known in the modern yoga world. It used to be ‘go hard or go home’. Many teachers and some styles still teach the ‘one size fits all' model.
The problems arising from trying to follow unsuitable instructions are clearly injuries. Depending on the structure and weakness of the individual, those injuries could happen in almost any area of the body.
A main outcome would be stress and (self)doubt. The opposite of what we aim for when practicing yoga.
I see a lot of lower back complaints from practice intentions that are emphasizing bringing the hands to the floor in standing forward bends or heels down in downward dog, for example.
Any pose could have the potential to be greatly rewarding to one person and creating damage to another, if not practiced in the way that suits the individual

Q3 - How can we make our yoga practice functional (rather than just aesthetic)? And why should we care about this?
Why should we care? Ultimately it’s about surviving the practice, our health, and making best use of the benefits of yoga rather than following a prescribed set of movements.
Functional could be simply practicing to your body’s current abilities. Functional also means enriching the body’s potential.
Everyone can passively bend or straighten a knee, round the spine, bring an arm up etc. But, can we do that in a way that minimizes effort, that has the most calming effect on the system, that keeps all joints protected and prepares us to remain in the flow of action? Can we keep the nervous system at ease at the same time?
Meditation brings stillness to the mind, asana brings stillness to the body.
Anatomy, especially modern fascia anatomy helps us understand and practice this better.

Q4 - What is the purpose of all the common types of yoga cues we get in our classes, e.g. "align your heels"", square your hips" etc. Are some of these cues actually harmful?
Most cues are inviting to ask two questions: why? and for what purpose?
Once we ask these questions, or as a teacher understand the answers, most alignment cues make more sense.
When we look at purpose, or reason, we can come to the conclusion that maybe it’s not about the placement of body parts. A knee or shoulder on its own can actually feel quite vulnerable or unstable in certain positions.
Once we realize this, we can come back to the action, the engagement that makes movement and stability happen.
Actions and cues that lead to separation with only apparent alignment can certainly be harmful. An emphasis on squaring the hips for example, without bringing the leg into a congruous position, has led for too many friends to hip joint problems and pinched lower backs.

Q5 - It seems as if these cues focus on bone alignment mostly, what other parts of our bodies should we be mindful of when we practice? How do we offer instructions to invite other areas of exploration? (i.e. breath, nervous system, fascia, energy, etc.)
Any area that helps us create greater awareness, a deeper insight into ourselves would be fair game for teaching cues.
Alignment is largely overrated. Teasingly I often say: There is no wrong alignment - only insufficient engagement.
Engagement is about muscle action and fascia force transmission. So, from my perspective of seeing the functional body, focusing on engagements, engagement directions and patterns can lead to a more connected and stable practice.
A way to change cueing, which I encourage, is to firstly cue outcome oriented. Saying lift your arms immediately has the follow up question: how high? Even straighten your leg or knee causes confusion as to what a straight knee or leg is. Frequently that’s a hyperextended knee, not a straight one. Engage your leg, or firm your leg might not give you the straightness either, but it stabilizes and protects the knee.
Cuing from more specific themes, such as breath or fascia can be wonderful, however it requires a higher level of understanding in the student, which we can not always assume.

Q6 - Have yoga teachers got sufficient anatomy training to teach classes after about 200 hours of yoga teacher training? How do we keep up to speed with all the new research on anatomy that is out there?
Do yoga teachers have sufficient knowledge to teach classes in general after 200 hrs? Proportionately, I see anatomy hours increasing, because the value of functional anatomy is recognized.
However, a lot of time can be spent on learning names of bones and anatomical terminology that is often irrelevant to yoga teaching. The question to ask would be “are yoga teachers getting taught the relevant anatomy and physiology in their 200hr training?”
Keeping up with the research, and finding out about the relevance of studies for practice, that is the teacher’s responsibility.
There is a quickly increasing body of more movement and fascia oriented research that helps us understand how to teach to movers of all ages and abilities.
It is the student’s responsibility to understand that 200hrs of education is not all there is to being a yoga teacher. Experience comes from practice and teaching. Along with it go further learning, inquiry and critical evaluation.

Q7 - Are we too focused on injury prevention which leads us to over complicate the way we cue postures? People generally put on a pair of trainers and go running without being told exactly how to land on their feet, the correct distance between feet etc etc.
The often quoted phrase ‘practice and all will come’ is quite misleading.
Runners have lots of knee, ankle, hip, low back, plantar fasciosis or shin splints problems. That’s what happens when you simply put on a pair of trainers and run. Of course you can run, but what are the results?
11% of runners get Achilles tendon problems within two years. (Weesenbeek et al. 2018)
61% of college athletes get ankle problems despite good coaching.
My careful estimate is that over 50% of yoga teacher aspirants have an injury before they even become teachers.
Practicing with inappropriate technique or instructions will destroy all. Much of the yoga world is stuck in perception and repetition of false dogma.
Practice is hugely important. But please make it intelligent practice. How can someone who just did a 200hr course have the tools or knowledge to confidently give absolute instructions?
Learn more about the modern principles of movement and support, fascia based anatomy, and find a way to simply and clearly uses your language to share the practice in that light with your students.


Interested in learning more? Start with module 1 of the Yoga Anatomy Certification Course


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