As a teacher who loves to focus on the anatomy in yoga, I enjoy hearing questions from my students. Any kind of verbal feedback is great to get from students because quite honestly, you’re doing all the talking as the teacher and they’re listening. So, without verbal feedback, it can be hard to get a sense of where they’re at in terms of the practice.
Answering questions about anatomy can be a bit of tricky thing. We can’t “see” what’s going on in our students’ bodies so it’s really a bit of a guess. It depends of course, on what they’re asking, as some questions might have more of a definitive answer. So, let’s go through some high level questions about yoga anatomy that might come up.
What should I be feeling in this pose?
This is common and I’ve heard this a number of times. This shows a healthy sense of inquiry from the student and is a sign that they’re curious about what’s happening in the posture. I love to jump on these opportunities to share anatomy with students.
One thing to keep in mind when approaching this type of question is there’s the factual aspect of the anatomy at work and then there’s the more individualized aspect of that one student’s body and what’s going on there. We can’t know for sure what’s happening in their body and can only go by what they tell us but a good place to start with this question is the anatomy behind the shape.
It’d be impossible to go through all the poses and the anatomy in each one (although I do cover many of the key poses in my anatomy manual) but let’s take one example, Pigeon Pose, and answer this question as if it were posed by a student. I picked this because this question comes up a lot when I teach.
First, cover the anatomy in the pose; meaning, review the key muscles contracting and the key muscles lengthening. Then, cover the anatomical movements that are part of the posture, noting alignment as well.
For Pigeon (on the right side) this might look like this:
- Key Muscles lengthening: Psoas (hip flexor) muscle on the left leg; erector spinae in the back, as well as the quadratus lumborum in the lower back, gluteus maximus on the bent knee side
- Key Muscles contracting: Piriformis in the right (bent) leg, along with other external rotators of the hip (gemellus, obdurator internus and externus and quadratus femoris)
- Anatomical Actions: External rotation of the hip (on the bent knee side)
- Internal rotation and extension of the hip (on the straight leg side)
- Spinal extension
- Alignment: Center body towards the ground; create balance between right and left sides, align bent knee with hip
- Red flags: Bent knee pain
- Ways to modify if this occurs: Draw heel of bent knee closer to body
Once you’ve gone through this more factual, academic perspective, it’s time to find out from the student how they feel in the pose. Many times, students will point to their bent leg and grab their buttocks and say, “ I feel like something is tight here!” That’s a perfect opportunity to share that the gluteus maximus, which is a hip extensor, is actually lengthening in this posture and perhaps that’s what’s causing the sensation.
Sometimes students will point to the bent knee and wonder if they should be moving their shin up towards the front of the mat. Or, they might say that they feel some tightness or discomfort in that knee. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss the position of the knee in the pose; that while the shin can move side to side as it does here, the knee is better built to move front to back. You could also share that the ligaments of the knee are built more for stability, thus the resistance one might feel when moving the shin forward could be coming from moving the knee out of it’s normal range of motion.
Other general things to consider when answering student questions about anatomy:
- It’s ok to say you don’t know and you’ll check on it. This gives you a great opportunity to learn something new, build a rapport with the student and show you are accountable in following up with them. Chances are you’ll know the answer but if you don’t, it’s okay! Just find out.
- Remember that your role is as a yoga teacher and not a doctor. If their questions are related to having pain, radiating pain, impingement, loss of sensation or anything that keeps them up at night and prevents them from practicing or doing activities of daily living, suggest they see a doctor.
- Consider your role as a partner with the student rather than the “one with all the answers.” Make the student part of the experience by getting their feedback, asking them questions about their body and what they’re experiencing. I always have a number of questions for students when we have these conversations so in that way, we’re working together to come up with the answer.
- Have confidence! This can be hard for newer teachers but as you gain experience answering questions, your confidence will build. Look for opportunities with your friends and family to practice and have them ask you questions. Take online courses, be curious about your own body and always be looking for new ways to learn the anatomy of yoga.
If you use this approach, it can provide a framework for answering questions when students connect with you. As always, the basis for this interaction is knowledge of anatomy. Supplement your teaching time studying anatomy. One of the best ways to remember the concepts you study is to immediately implement what you’ve learned in your teaching. So, if you take an online course, or go to a training, bring concepts of your training into your teaching. This will help make it stick in your head.
My online courses are designed to focus on anatomy in yoga versus just the academic side of learning anatomy. You can check them out here.
My next webinar is January 18 at 6 pm EST and will be focused on anatomy based tips for teaching. You can sign up here.
Thanks for reading and keep up the good work!