I just finished leading one of my teacher training programs on the Anatomy of Yoga. Every time I teach this topic, I tweak the way the information is presented. I’m always looking for ways to make the learning process as interactive as possible because anatomy can be, at times, very detailed. It’s easy to get lost in all the details and find that at the end, you’re overwhelmed. This can lead to paralysis when it comes to applying what you’ve learned to teaching.
The other challenge is that there is SO much to learn about the human body. It’s an ongoing process and there is always new information out there, many times, about the same muscles, joints, movements and related things and yet when they’re presented in a different way, they can finally hit home. For that reason, the other challenge when teaching anatomy to yoga teachers is to be able to hone in on just what is the most critical for them to know so they can start right away applying the information. By the same token, the challenge is to provide this information in the most interactive way as possible so they’ll remember it.
To that end, here are what I believe to be several key concepts about the Anatomy of Yoga. Again, reading this information might not be completely sufficient but hopefully it’s a start.
Apply the basics of Anatomical Position to every pose. As we stand up tall, arms by the side and palms facing forward and feet at hip width, we’re in Anatomical Position. The qualities of this position are many, including a centered head, shoulders externally rotated, a level pelvis, inner thighs slightly rotating back and feet at hip width. Although the shape of each pose is different, we can look for qualities of this position in each pose. It might be the feet are hip width, it might be that the knees are facing forward, or the pelvis level or relaxed shoulders. Even if you didn’t know anything about muscle names, just knowing the qualities of Anatomical Position can give you clues as to the student and where they have tightness in the body.
Rounding the back can increase the pressure on the discs between the vertebra. As we bend from the hips and fold forward, the spine can often round. This would be mitigated if our hamstrings are flexible but even if they are, there’s still a slight rounding. As we round the back and fold forward, the vertebra of the spine pinch in the front of the body and push the disc’s soft inner area to the back of the body. Done over and over, this can weaken the joints between the vertebra and weaken the discs. In extreme cases, the disc material can begin to come out of the disc itself, which is known as a herniation. The key for teachers is to help students minimize rounding of the back in any pose where they are folding forward. This can be done by bending the knees and simultaneously lifting the sitting bones.
Bending the knees can provide general relief in all forward folding poses. The tighter the hamstrings (back of the leg), the more rounded the forward fold will be. Generally, bending the knees allows the pelvis to tilt upward and as a result, creates more length in the spine. This also works in Downward Dog.
The middle of the back (thoracic spine) is the part of the spine with the least movement. The neck (cervical) and lower back (lumbar) have a great deal more flexibility than the thoracic spine. This means that as we ask students to bend their spine, they are limited in the middle part of the back but can leverage the upper and lower back. As a result, excessive movement can occur there and very little movement will occur in the mid-back. To correct this, watch for overarching of neck, over arching the lower back and suggest corrective movements like relaxing the chin and drawing the belly to the spine. Also, provide twists to loosen the mid-back and cue students to draw shoulder blades together in backbends on the belly and the back.
Generally speaking, when someone has a tight muscle, the opposite movement will lengthen it. Even if you didn’t know the exact muscle that was at issue for a student, asking them to move in the opposite way will stretch the general region they’re concerned about. For instance, tight hip flexors generally can be stretched by extending the spine (Poses like Bridge, Wheel, Locust, Bow, Airplane). Someone with tight shoulders may be assisted by externally rotating the shoulders, as in “less hunching” more opening through the chest. A simple movement for this is to interlace the fingers behind the back and squeeze the shoulder blades together. Upward Dog, Bow and Locust are also good.
Sitting in the joints or locking them is generally unhealthy for the body. Everyone comes to yoga with a different sense of coordination and awareness of their body in space as it moves through yoga practice. As someone experiences struggle in a pose, they may lock their joints as a way to try to get leverage and steadiness. Someone that has a great deal of flexibility may sag into their joints without even noticing it. As a teacher, look for signs of either of these extremes and cue to bring a healthy amount of both stretch and steadiness.
Externally rotating joints (shoulders/hips) is an opening movement. Internally rotating is a closed movement. When we think of how most of us spend most of our day, we’re hunching forward. This is generally a closed position, with the shoulders internally rotated. So, in yoga practice, taking the opposite movement is healthy for students because it works the opposing set of muscles. Internal rotation, especially through the legs can be a neutralizing, grounding movement and therefore, is helpful to create steadiness in poses.
One closing thought: Even if you didn’t know anything beyond the qualities of the body as it is in Anatomical Position, that would be a great base from which to build your anatomical knowledge. As you’re teaching, look at your students and cue from what you see, versus what you might have learned in the abstract. Everyone’s body will reflect how they hold their muscles and joints most of the day. The effort to create more balance is an effort and for many, seems unnatural. As a teacher, look at what’s happening in the room and use cues that will have the most impact.