When I teach anatomy to yoga teachers, I usually preface some things I say with, “This is from my perspective.” I say this because even though anatomy and the study of anatomy seems to be a matter of “fact,” in some ways, some things are more a matter of perspective and another important factor: degrees. This can be very frustrating for new teachers. They usually want to know the right answer that applies in all situations to every person. That’s the way many new teachers think (and even some experienced ones). But what you find the more you study anatomy and yoga is that there are a number of variables that come into play that can negatively or positively affect the outcome.
We know that anatomy is indeed the study of the structure and function of the body and as such, much of it is factual. It is a fact that you have bones, muscles and nerves. It is a fact that your upper leg bone is your femur and that if you draw the femur closer to your belly, you’re flexing your hip. It’s a fact that when you bow forward the soft material in your disc gets compressed anteriorly (in the front of your spine) and that when you straighten your legs fully, your knees (may) hyperextend. These are the facts and as they say in the law (and in the movie “A Few Good Men”) “they are not disputed” (if you get that movie line reference, you’re a big movie buff like me).
However, once we take the facts of the body and apply them in the context of a movement practice like yoga, things can get a little more challenging. That’s due to a number of factors:
- the age and body composition of the subject;
- the frequency with which the person practices yoga;
- the level of awareness (proprioception) the student has when practicing around matters of the body;
- any underlying illness, injury or disease process, either manifest yet or not;
- the degree to which the student is in any posture around factors like stretching, twisting, pushing or compressing.
There are most likely other factors as well, but these are some major factors that come to mind.
Let me give you an example, using something I referenced earlier. For many years, most teachers would refer to coming up to standing as “rolling up to standing.” Then, there was a shift and some articles that suggested, as I mentioned above, that instructing in this way creates anterior disc compression that over time, could lead to a disc herniation. So, when I share this information in teacher trainings, often I hear, “But I hear “roll up to standing” all the time in classes I take! Why are people teaching it that way then?”
One thing to keep in mind is yes, anterior disc compression happens when you roll up. But it also happens to some degree when you come up “with a longer spine” ( as is my preferred way to instruct this movement). Does “rolling up to standing” always lead to disc herniation? No. Could it? Possibly. If you had a job that required you bend up and down a lot, if you were also very heavy, if you had little body awareness, if you were attending vigorous yoga classes daily, if you had an underlying disc problem that was just looking for the right scenario in which to pop, then yes, perhaps. But every time for every person? No.
Here’s another example that recently came up for me. I never ask students to hug their knees into their chest after backbends and actually gently suggest that they refrain from doing it if they start to hug in after a series of backbends. My feeling is taking the spine in two extremes (flexion and extension) immediately is a bit drastic. Now, does it mean that I’m right and the other teachers are wrong? No. But many times, students will say after class, “How come you teach to refrain from hugging in and other teachers suggest it?” I explain that it’s a matter of degrees. Could it create a problem? Maybe. Does it always? No. My feeling is conservative is best.
We can’t see what’s going on under the skin of our students. We don’t know their medical history. We can see their level of body awareness if we’re watching as we’re teaching. We can also watch for their alignment and if we understand anatomy, can look for actions that are more risky than others. We can also suggest postures that have a high benefit/low risk ratio over poses that have a high benefit/high risk ratio. This is all a matter of teaching preference, teacher knowledge and experience.
Let’s take one more example. I recently read in an anatomy book that the glenoid fossa of the scapula is structured such that the head of the upper arm bone, the humerus, sits slightly forward in the socket (called “anteversion”). This means that the resting, comfortable position for the arm when you are in anatomical position (the “home base” of the body, standing, arms at sides, palms forward, shoulders relaxed) is slightly forward. But many times, myself included, we may instruct students to bring the shoulders “back and down.” Think of it as “erasing the hunch.” So, is it incorrect to instruct “back and down?” No. It is a matter of degrees, as I was mentioning earlier. If students shove their shoulders back and down, this is not good. However, if they engage their rhomboids, the muscles in the back that draw the shoulder blades together, they will naturally erase the hunch and stretch the pectorals. But if they are in a shape like Upward Dog, and they use a tremendous amount of force to press down into their palms and shove their shoulders back and down, this can create a problem.
The longer you study anatomy and apply it in your classes, privates and other experiences with students (and your own body and practice) the more you will appreciate the subtleties in something that is quite factual by its nature. You’ll begin to see that every scenario is different and includes factors that are multiple (longer than the list above). You’ll start to realize that due to its individuality when applied, it’s amazing that we even attempt to teach groups of students at the same time around the same movements when every BODY is so different! This seems almost crazy when you think about it but again, this helps make the case for good instruction, good training and experienced teachers.
My approach to all of this is to continue to study anatomy as much as I can in as many mediums as possible (reading, trainings, videos, etc). To also teach with eyes wide open, answer questions fully, look things up when they don’t make sense or I don’t know the answer and to teach anatomy as much as possible and continue sharing anatomy information in my writings. It is through multi-dimensional learning that we grow as students and appreciate the subtleties in a complex subject.