Why Anatomy Matters

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I’ll be brutally honest with you: when I did my first yoga teacher training, I didn’t understand the mandatory anatomy part. At all. For three long, painful days, I tried to concentrate really hard and write down everything the teacher was talking about, but to me it was a mountain of information in a foreign language (Latin! Even harder than Sanskrit!) that seemed overwhelmingly, impossibly vast. I have clear memories of muttering to myself, “Come on, Sarah, focus! You need to get this!” but to little avail. When, as a fully-fledged yoga teacher a few months later, someone asked me about their IT band, my stare was just this side of blank.

Anatomy and Accessibility

I felt badly about how little I knew, and guilty that I couldn’t do more for the students who had paid money for my teaching ‘skills.’ It motivated me to study on my own, so that I could better answer students’ questions and perhaps actually offer some guidance as to how to modify poses or take care of their bodies. The more I worked at it, the more all the pieces began to fit together into the shape of the human body. (But let’s be clear: this is a process that has taken several years, that is still ongoing, and that I expect will continue for the lifetime of my teaching career.)

I began to take more seriously the concept of “first, do no harm,” and recognize that not all poses fit on the myriad body types that come to class. I believe the real skill of a teacher lies not in how gymnastic their own practice is, but in their ability to give everyone something to do. “Just don’t do this pose,” has got to be the most frustrating thing for a student to hear, especially if they’ve come to class with special needs or an injury and are hoping you can help them.

Safety First

Speaking of injuries: did you know that over 5500 yoga-related injuries were reported in the United States in 2007? Given that statistic is almost five years old, I bet the number has grown since then (and I bet there are even more unreported ones). And here’s this gem from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website: “Common yoga injuries include repetitive strain to and overstretching of the neck, shoulders, spine, legs and knees.” Isn’t that just pretty much your whole body at risk? It’s vital, then, that as yoga teachers we truly understand what it is we are asking of the bodies that have given themselves over to our instruction, and we make informed decisions as to what those bodies should or should not do.

[With that said, there will always be the student that ignores your advice and does handstand on their rotator cuff injury. If you have clearly explained why that would be a bad idea, and they do it anyway, I’m of the belief that you’re not responsible for any negative outcome.]

Helping Your Students, Helping Yourself

Here’s the bonus: the more you know, the better teacher you become. You build a reputation as the teacher who is informed and educated, and your students have confidence in the choices you present to them for their practice (and they in turn become more educated about their own strengths and limitations).  This confidence will broaden the community that you can reach (and believe me, they’ll start to seek you out!) and you may even find that you’re interested taking your newfound knowledge into populations with special needs. It’s also entirely possible that you’ll end up loving anatomy so much, you’ll morph into the kind of bona fide yoga dork that teaches anatomy to other yoga teachers!

For a list of upcoming Yoga Tune Up® Integrated Embodied Anatomy trainings, click here.

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[Reprinted with kind permission from Teachasana.]

Sarah Court

Sarah Court is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Yoga Tune Up® Teacher Trainer, and the creator of Quantum Leap. She teaches public workshops, anatomy for yoga teacher trainings, and trains Yoga Tune Up® teachers worldwide. She developed and teaches her Quantum Leap continuing education program to make sophisticated movement science easy for movement teachers to understand and apply to their teaching. Sarah received her doctorate in Physical Therapy from Mount St. Mary’s University. She brings significant clinical experience to her teaching, attracting clients and students with a desire to move intelligently, regain mobility, or manage chronic conditions. Sarah is an award-winning graduate of Princeton University, and edited the Yoga Tune Up® blog for 5 years. She has been featured on exercise.com and The New York Times. Find her Yoga Tune Up® schedule here or go to her full website.

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Em

Thanks for this excellent post. So empowering and illuminating to dive into human anatomy. I suspect that the YTU training sankalpah “I am a student of my own body,” will stay with me for a lfietime.

Laurie Streff Kostman

Thanks for this honest and direct article about what so many of us eventually have to face; LEARNING. Rather than teaching because we think we (already) know, it is in understanding and honoring the humbleness of knowing we need to really learn about our bodies to be a responsible teacher that takes us to a higher level of sharing our expertise. And I love how you point out that learning anatomy is a continuous process, another metaphor then for the very practice of yoga itself. Due to a cervical herniation, I have been one of those students who was told,… Read more »

Lauren

You are amazing Sarah. I relate so much to this blog. I was lost during the anatomy portion of my ytt which was barely any information. I started teaching shortly after and noticed myself repeating a lot of what I’ve heard other teachers say in class. As I continued to find my own voice and figure out the teacher I wanted to become, I knew that not hurting people was my main goal. I started noticing that the teachers that I was gravitating towards and taking class from were anatomists and so knowledgeable about the body. The desire to have… Read more »

Margo Brooke Pellmar

I have always been fascinated with anatomy, but not disciplined enough to sit down and teach myself. I am so lucky that the anatomy portion of yoga is built into the yoga training program. You bring it all to life, even though “the dead parts excite you”! I have in just two days, learned an amazing amount, that I will continue to delve into and develop a better sense of as I go on this journey as teacher/ student. Even in the ball tune up exercise, as I practice my script aloud, it is so helpful to say the names… Read more »

Stephanie Fish

It’s been a pleasure experiencing your passion and enthusiasm for anatomy this past week in Level 1 training. Seeing poses through directions of joint movements and agonist/antagonist muscles makes it so much easier for me to come up with intelligent sequences – which was a challenge for me in the past. It also really helps me understand how relevant Yoga Tune Up is to many more activities.

Elise Gibney

I love this post! Also, it’s reassuring to know that you were once at this place as well. I’m amazed by how much I’ve already learned in the Level 1 YTU training and am excited to continue on this journey. I can already see that this training will help me take both my teaching and my own practice to much deeper (and safer) levels! As a psychologist, I know that everything I say and do in a session should be guided by a treatment goal. Everything I do is an intervention for which I should be able to provide a… Read more »

Katie Fornika

And this is why so many of us are being drawn to Yoga Tune Up. As more of the general population is practicing yoga and more people are choosing to become yoga teachers it becomes even more evident that teachers need to elevate the level of their anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and compensatory pattern understanding. As Jill might say, we need too “shine a light on our creepy posture”.

Basak Gunaydsin

i just completed my yoga tune up week-end as part of my teacher training and I am blown away with the knowledge and information I received.. It was very intimidating at first and I thought I could not possibly get all this and what would I do with it? When I came home tonite and my fiancee complained about his pain on his shoulders and chest from playing tennis and I placed massage therapy balls under his rotator cuff and under his clavicle area and have him roll and watch him be amazed of the immediate relief he got.. This… Read more »

Kirsten

Taking my knowledge even further, I’m now finishing the level 1 training. After I read this blog, I realized that I commented on it already over 6 months ago when I was an embodied anatomy student with Trina. The more I learn, the more I know I want to learn more. I was having a conversation late last year with another YTU teacher in which the general gist was that it is our job to empower our students with knowledge of their body and movement patterns. It is not our job to dumb it down, when our students hear anatomy… Read more »

Amy Deguio

And this blog wraps up my week at the Level 1 YTU training – everything Sarah stated is exactly the tools and resources that Jill Miller has culminated into this training! It is all so motivating!

Elizabeth W.

You are lucky that there was anatomy in your YTT. I came through teacher training at a time when there was no required anatomy training. I managed to piece together information on my own and through various teachers I have studied with over the years. But truthfully, I am still a novice. I know some movements and body parts really, really well. However, the scope of my knowledge isn’t nearly enough and the learning curve is still steep. It’s daunting but I see how hard NOT having this information has made my job. My professional future depends on it. Thankfully… Read more »

Jimmy

Oh sheeeeoooot! I’ve been in class working crucifix(both arms crossed in front the body) while laying on the belly and have been asked what it was stretching out,”the shoulder” I replied, “what part of the shoulder?” asked the student-I gave a similar blank stare to him not really knowing exactly what part of the shoulder it was that we were trying to affect. I had to sit in my body real quick and notice which part of my shoulder was feeling it-the posterior deltoid. I told him “the back of the shoulder” I felt like an ass… But that said,… Read more »

Kate

I’m in my first teacher training, and luckily got a crash course in anatomy from some really amazing, awesome people. I didn’t quite understand why anatomy was so necessary, but now I can say it’s absolutely mandatory to understand what makes the body work, and how to make it a better body to live in. While the wealth of information I was given makes me feel a little discouraged (because there’s so much to know), it opened my eyes and makes me really excited and interested to learn more about the body. I even gave my boyfriend a massage recently,… Read more »

Murray Arnott

I posted earlier today on what I see in tens of thousands of people doing yoga every day in ways that put their body at risk. I appreciate the statistic on injuries. It is simply more evidence for what I observe. And while all YTT programs offer anatomy, my sense is that many pay lip service. While other professions that teach movement education also may not have the grounding in anatomy to fully understand and appreciate the risk that yoga can pose (not pun intended) if not done safely, we as YTU teachers owe it to the profession to advance… Read more »

Sharon

Thank you for your article Sarah. I am a yoga teacher, yoga alliance 500. So I had some anatomy in my 200 hour training (what I consider not nearly enough) and 5 days worth in my 500 hour training. The more I learned about anatomy the more I realized how little I knew! I considered myself a very safe teacher but soon realized that I was really lacking in the anatomy department and questioned how safe I really could be as a teacher. I was introduced by a friend and fellow yoga teacher to Yoga Tune Up, first in a… Read more »

Tiffani

Well said Sara! We Have a responsibility to keep our students safe. I agree the 200hour trainings don’t even scratch the surface of the knowledge needed to keep ones body safe. YTU is the most accessible program I’ve come across for teachers to deepen their skills. I’m scared for those you have little body awareness and put so much trust into potentially unqualified teachers . Hopefully YTU is a step in the right direction for better regulation for yoga.

Fariba

Great article! The first week of Level 1 training has past, and I believe anatomy is the hardest part. I felt I would never be able to understand and memorize all the details. After reading about your experiences, I feel more confident and persuaded that it is possible to learn anatomy and apply it to my practice. Thanks!

David ibrahim

Nice article Sarah, there’s a lot if great points brought up and as Yoga teachers we really need to have an in depth understanding of anatomy which is a complex subject and sometimes like anything holds contradicting information. Like static stratchng vs dynamic and when should we be stretching and how often and also when have we stretched too far and now need to strengthen. I love YTU because of how it is an out of the box experience and includes so many dynamically stretching poses.

Nicolette

I’ve never been so thrilled to admit I don’t know as much as I thought! Being in the level 1 training this week, just 2 days in I realize that it’s not just about knowing the names of the often repeated, commonly cued bones/ joints/ muscles, but a comprehensive grasp, an ongoing thirst to learn, the why/what/hows of a pose, and the ability to find a modification that will help even the most limited student is so very important. Anatomy, after my first teacher training seemed to be a TON of information that I only digested part of, some by… Read more »

Kirsten

Thank you so much Sarah! I must admit when I first started teaching, I was caught off guard by how much I didn’t know. The YTU Embodied Anatomy has got me all dorked out with Anatomy and I can’t wait to be that geeky teacher for my students!!

Barb Voss

The lesson I learned having just finished Jill’s Yoga Tune-up training is that continual growth is imperative to becoming the teacher that lives within us. Teaching is a dynamic state. How we teach in our first year may be completely different than how we teach in our second year. The anatomy basics and fundamental movements of the body we explored during our training will lead me toward a new and deeper level of teaching and expression. I know it will take time for all the teaching we encountered to truly become ingrained in my being and understanding, but I so… Read more »

Dana

Our body has been with us our entire life and most of us don’t know how or why we work. The complexity or our bodies are amazing. It is a very important job to educate our clients/students about what, where, why & how to help them be safe in their practice. I know I don’t always have the answers, but I do know where to look & then maybe incorporate that into the next time I work with them.

nicole

Knowledge of the human body is so important for any movement educator; this is the only way we can keep our students safer, and it’s really embarrassing when a student asks a question that I can’t answer. This has motivated me to really brush up on my anatomy, and continue to educate myself. Yoga Tune Up training has been an huge help, and I have already learned so much by the third day!!

Christy

Anatomy is essential for me as a yoga teacher and massage therapist. It is key for me to know what I am working with so that I can educate my students and clients when I found trouble or blind spots with them. I have used the knowledge I have gained from yoga to share with my massage clients and the knowledge of massage into my classroom all through understanding anatomy, directions of motion, and specific exercises that will target their needs. I find YogaTune Up an immense tool to pull my two worlds together and I am so grateful for… Read more »

Tracy

Hello Sarah, thanks for your reassuring blog about anatomy. It can be a very overwhelming subject, indeed. I too have studied it many times over– in high school, in college twice, in massage school, in previous yoga trainings three times–and still I feel like I am just scratching the surface. One of the things I particularly enjoy about the YTU approach is the immediate physicality of it. Look at it, talk about it, roll around on it, use it in a pose. Now THAT is the way to really learn something. How refreshing, how exciting, how practical. Anatomy is a… Read more »

Ada-Reva Spae

Thank you for your post, I think anatomy could lead to true yogic enlightenment.. I remember the anatomy taught in my 200 hour training, or do I? I was also taught alignment but the alignment and the anatomy never correlated. The functional anatomy I am being taught in YTU teacher training surpasses even my college level Anatomy. I am learning about muscles in action, how alignment relates to specific muscles, muscle groups, skeletal and connective tissue. This knowledge can only make my teaching stronger. I will now close my eyes and visualize the piriformis abducting the hips

Almaz Hayet

Such a critical piece of education to yoga asanas, and if we do not understand how exactly the parts of the body move safely then it is like giving the keys to a car that may not be in a good mechanical condition and un-clear directions, to somoen who has never driven before, and hoping that they and the car will safely make it.

Danielle

Our Yoga Anatomy weekend was great! Looking back on it now, it is incredible how much I absorbed, and how much there is still to learn!. I’m happy I also furiously scribbled in my notebook. I am looking forward to learning more about the fascinating machine which is the body. “I am a student of my own body!”

Annie F.

Stay on your own mat!!! Continue to learn the anatomy and become an expert, so important to be a resource to your clients.

Kate Kuss

Thanks so much for putting this out there. I am a new yoga teacher with a little over a year of teaching under my belt. All I want to do is learn more anatomy. With the anatomy knowledge comes the asana. I am currently taking Yoga Tune Up Level 1 training and it’s so much, it is so much. But it’s exactly what I need to jump start my anatomy journey. I am operating with a whole new set of tools and I can’t wait to put them in action. Thanks for your post.

Annie F.

Thank you Sarah. It was a ton of information in just 3 days. It’s going to be so important to review and study this information again and again. I want to be a resource to my clients, and help them work within their own bodies. My takeaway, stay on your own man, work with your own unique body, and learn something new each day about your body, it’s a process.

Amanda Tripp

Sarah, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said here. I found Yoga Tune Up when I was asked to teach the asana component in a 200-hour level teacher training program. I knew there was a huge gap in my knowledge of anatomy that needed bridging before I could serve these students well. Yoga Tune seemed like the solution to this problem – offering up some pretty fun and digestible techniques for retaining anatomical information. If you’re going to ask people to put their bodies in strange, even potentially dangerous positions, someone is bound to ask the dreaded question ‘why’ –… Read more »

Cari Devine Bjelajac

You are so right! And good for you to immerse yourself in the language of the anatomy. Although it seems like “Greek to me” at first, the more you delve in, the easier it becomes. Inferior, Superior, Medial, Lateral, etc., are ways to start classifying and really understanding what’s even more exciting than anatomy… kinesiology!

jillianfalzone

so true! After my yoga training I wanted more anatomy that specifically related to certain yoga poses. I felt i NEEDED to know more in order to safely instruct my students. Thats why i love the yoga tune up system, it finally brings light to embodied yoga anatomy!

Taylor

I’m baffled by the number of fellow teachers that have little to no interest in learning anatomy. And, on the contrary, I find that the teachers who are most in tune with their own body’s needs, differences, & abilities, are that much more open and willing to dive into the needs of their students. I guess it all goes to show the importance of embodiment. And of beginning with our own breath, on our own mat – ready to explore our OWN body that’s so often ignored.

brooke thomas

Great article! It’s true that many people who are learning to work with bodies will somehow, amazingly, learn very little anatomy (yoga teachers and personal trainers are the two most obvious examples). This sets their students up for a significantly increased risk for injury, especially when you consider that no one ever comes to us “unscathed”, as everyone has already had their fair share of injuries and chronic pain patterns that need to be adapted to when doing yoga or working out in any other way. That’s what makes YTU great! Hooray for teaching teachers how to really understand the… Read more »

Lauren

After learning anatomy from you all weekend, I figured I would go ahead and read your blog post, which I resonated with a great deal. I felt like I was in medical school, learning so much about the body. This aspect of teaching intimidates me in its breadth, depth and importance. I understand how important it is to know the body in order to direct people. In fact, when I think about teaching, privates seem more intimidating than groups since there is less detail involved. All in all though, I am looking forward to a life time of learning the… Read more »

Nadine

Thanks, Sarah, for this article. I totally agree with you that at leat a basic knowledge of anatomy is crucial for being a good yoga teacher. I’m also grateful that you talk about the issue of yoga injuries. I broke my big toe last year when falling out of an arm balance. Everybody who heard it – and mostly not practicing yoga – was making fun of me because they thought that yoga was so “harmless” that injuries were impossible.

Lisa Salvucci

The anatomy portion of teacher training was a blur for me as well. I was too busy trying to understand Sanskrit and the poses, let alone all of the anatomy being thrown at me in three days. The lack of knowledge hits the first time a student comes up after class and asks why a certain muscle or joint hurts and you have absolutely no idea. The Tuneup training is helping immensely because I can now focus on the anatomy and also to realize that you are never going to know everything…just keep learning!

Marc

I can recall my first teacher training having a very brief anatomy paintbrush approach. Blurry at best, the most basic of information and very few ideas and concepts to drag them all together into one. Even the many Private trainer certifications and workshops seemed to skim or not quite hit the target. I look back and think it not so much a lack of trying on their part (although they could have stressed the need to go and know more) but rather the difficulty in presenting such vast information in so little time. My experience with Yoga Tune Up finally… Read more »

Vrinda Eapen

As I grow my studies in Yoga tune up and Anatomy in general, I attract intelligent and curious students. I was worried that my regular flow students might turn away from the practice as I slowed it down and broke it down…and YES!- some of them did but I attracted a whole bunch more due to my authentic and embodied teaching.

Victoria

Sat Nam Anatomy Lovers It is so true how important it is to know your Anatomy as a yoga teacher. And it’s quite alarming how many newly trained teachers are certyfing other teachers. In my opinion the Yoga alliance makes it way too easy for teachers to have a yoga school. There should be stricter guidelines. Even with all the training I have had over my yoga journey MS Exercise Physiology, 200 hours of Anatomy with Tom Myers Anatomy Trains and on and on, sometimes I don’ t feel qualified. I guess there is always more to learn. Also not… Read more »

Marisa

Thanks for sharing. As a student I really appreciate when a teacher shares anatomy tips and tricks to become aligned and not hurt myself. If I have a question about something that concerns me, regarding injury etc, I feel trust with the teachers who have valuable suggestions for what do do and what not. Even if they don’t know, the willingness to help me find out and not just shrug off the issue really makes a difference. The more you know of the body, the more confident you will also be to say “I don’t know but we can find… Read more »

Annelie

Interesting to read a blog post about the importance of anatomy and correct alignment from a teacher with experience from different schools of yoga. In my mind “safety first” and modifications based on the students bodies doesn’t mean that the practice become less spiritual or enlightening. On the contrary, it may be easier to feel that post savasana bliss if your body is not aching from performing an asana that wasn’t right for you.

Lisa

Thanks for sharing! Although just in the beginning in my TTC I early realised that this is a learning process until the last breath! You just have to njoy the ride! 🙂 it helps with great inspiring teacher as Jill with so much experience. I am happy to have started walking this road and thankful for everyone that started before me (and all the ones coming after! ) I also think it is à good debate now ongoing about injury risc in yoga, motivates me to really learn the anatomy and to get to know my own body after 30… Read more »

Lotte Hain

Having had my first anatomy class I feel like an analfabet. It’s a relief to read your blog!
Namaste

annika marköö

Just starting my studies to become a yoga teacher and have been given lots of good reason
to learn more about anatomy from this articles by Sarah Court . Thank you

Debbie Harrell

I couldn’t agree with you more – the more I teach the more I am presented with the variety of challenges that are in each group of students. I love to study anatomy but it doesn’t stick in my brain very well. – I think it is the responsibility of every teacher to continually study anatomy, kinesiology and asana. We need to back off of the idea that every one need to stretch stretch stretch — lots of students need to focus more on the strength. Stretching for the sake of stretching is what leads to”… over-stretching of the neck,… Read more »

Sarah

Hi Wendy! There are tons of great anatomy resources both online and offline – here at YTU we’re fans of all of Joe Muscolino’s books on anatomy and kinesiology. Online resourses that I like include Katy Bowman, Eric Dalton and Kelly Starrett (all with their own websites and some with weekly newsletters/blogs). Best of all you can take a weekend and study the Yoga Tune Up Integrated Embodied Anatomy program with me or one of the other IEA teachers – search under ‘Classes and Trainings’ to see when one is coming to your area!

Wendy Dulin

Could you recommend a book or better yet, an online anatomy program I could do in my free time?