I can remember many years ago, when I actually still bought magazines ( this was pre-Facebook, mind you) when I’d buy Martha Stewart Living. Her magazine was like gold to me. She took even the most simple thing, like salt, and would explain in painstaking detail all the different kinds of salt that you could use, their composition and different techniques and recipes in which you could use salt. I gathered her magazines up in wicker storages baskets and eventually had hundreds of them.
The study of anatomy reminds of this story. There is so much detail in the anatomy that you can get lost in the trees. I did a training this weekend for new teachers and one of the students said she loves to buy books on anatomy but all it serves to do is confuse her. This is a common experience and one to which I can relate. I no longer collect MSL but I can definitely say I collect anatomy books!
So, having said that, what do you do if you want to bring some anatomy into your classes but have yet to drill down to learning all the nitty gritty details? Well, first off, I would suggest you recognize that you do not need to know every nitty gritty detail in order to share anatomy with your classes. I would suggest that you have a good working knowledge of the following things:
Major Movements of the body: In order to understand movement in yoga, we have to understand movement. Things like “planes of the body” and “anatomical movements” are key to developing a baseline of understanding.
Major bones of the body: Do you need to know every one of the 26 bones in the foot? Probably not. Might one of your students have a foot problem and might that be the catalyst to you doing some research? Most definitely. But in general, understanding major bones of the body is most important.
Major joints and types of joints: It’s going to be important in yoga that you understand the difference between your knee and your shoulder, even if it’s just at the level of what kinds of joints both those parts of the body have. It most certainly will have an impact on the poses you offer, the cues you give and how you assist your students. So, as such, understanding the different kinds of joints that exist in the body and how they move is important.
Major muscles of the body: Do you need to know that the psoas inserts on the lesser trochanter of the femur? Not really. Do you need to know that the muscle runs from the vertebrae in the lower back to the top of the femur? Most definitely. There’s a level of detail that is nice to know but not crucial for teaching. By the same token, the muscles themselves, the hundreds of them we each have, are all great to know but I’d suggest that there are major muscles of the body that are most helpful for movement professionals. I can’t give you a list here (even that would be a lot ) but suffice it to say they are muscles of the neck, shoulders, truck, abdomen and legs.
The structure and composition of the spine: Do you know why the term “flat back” makes no sense? Do you understand why keeping some of the natural lordotic curve in the neck is important in Shoulder Stand? This knowledge comes from a good understanding of the structure and function of the spine. Certainly in movement practices like yoga it’s important we know this, as well as how spinal discs are comprised and the impact on the discs as we move in yoga.
Muscles in action in yoga: One of the hardest things to do in the study of anatomy is move from the book to the body and start to apply that knowledge. So, once you establish the baseline of knowledge above, it’s time to look at some poses and speak to the muscles that are creating the anatomical movements you learned first. This exercise works great with major poses and can be done by calling out the movements and then the muscles creating the movements.
Understanding alignment that can put the body at risk: One of the final applications of this musculoskeletal knowledge is applying it to your teaching in terms of being intentional about what you suggest for your students in terms of poses and sequencing. I mean, that’s the whole point, right? To understand anatomy helps you to provide safe but challenging sequences and when working one on one with a student, helps you to customize the practice even more. It’s when we don’t understand anatomy that we present sequences we were taught by others (who may not know either) or suggest things that we like to do in our practice that work in our body but might not work so well in other people’s bodies.
The study of anatomy is a life long endeavor. One of the things I like to challenge myself with is applying the knowledge I have already by coming up with new ways of sharing it. So, if I’ve done a sequence for a while, I might try to come up with a new sequence with a different emphasis. I also look to professionals in other movement areas, like personal trainers, and look for techniques they are sharing with their students and find ways to bring these concepts into yoga. I also ask my students if they have questions and am always open to going to find out what I don’t know.
Once we let ourselves off the hook to a certain extent to “having to know everything” about anatomy we can start to be more specific about what we DO need to know. I would suggest the categories above, which are indeed more focused on the musculoskeletal system, are a great place to start.
If you’re interested in these topics and finding out more about them, you may want to check out my latest release, “The Bare Bones Yoga Guide to Anatomy.” From now until 11/11, it’s priced at an introductory price of $49. After that, it goes up to its regular price of $65.
You can check it out here:
Also, if you want to dive into some of the details, check out my PDF’s for teachers on several muscles in the body:
Interested in receiving a 3-PDF Teacher’s Yoga Anatomy Kit? Click here!