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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Sarah Nelson

I absolutely believe that anyone who teaches a movement practice MUST learn at least the basics of anatomy. For me, it totally opened up the portal to “bona fide yoga dork” land and I really enjoy learning about the human body – in all its variations!

Markella

I had a really hard time understanding anatomy in my first teacher training too, and yet here I am well on my way to becoming a bona fide body nerd teaching it other teachers. I think part of why it was really hard to retain was because I’ve never been great at memorizing things and I’m super visual. I’ve started paying close attention to how people effectively teach anatomy in a way that can be more retained because its being understood rather than memorized.

Katherine Streeton

One of the things I loved most about the Yoga Tune Up® Level 1 Teacher Training was the comprehensive anatomy part, especially since it was taught by none other than Laurel Beversdorf. As she told us, it’s not something you will get overnight, rather it requires repetition and studying a little bit every day. As teachers we must never stop being students.

Katie Alba

The only class I failed in high school was Anatomy. Funny that this is the route I’ve take so many years later. Thank you for making anatomy less scary, overwhelming, and dare I say, fun? What an amazing teacher you are.

Holly P

Wonderful article, that I believe, many can benefit from reading – student, and teacher alike. I can totally relate with this. A 110%! There was a time where I felt very confused, unaware, and uneducated about the human body (who knew there was so much going on to keep us functioning). It is so hard to learn the human anatomy over the course of a 200 hour yoga teacher training, there is just so much to cover! I agree that it is important to seek further education in human biomechanics, or find other ways to further knowledge of the human… Read more »

Nancy

My first exposure to anatomy was in a 12th grade physical education class. I was fortunate enough to have a compassionate and inspirational teacher who’s teaching of movement allowed all body shapes and sizes to walk away feeling confident within their own tissues. I realized as I moved through University, teaching and coaching that this was not everyone’s experience. The importance of a positive experience in movement regardless of body type cannot be emphasized enough. As a Yoga-Tune Up teacher I pride myself in making modifications available. Modifications, designed by Yoga Tune Up and the ones I create allow my… Read more »

Jessica

So important! We often first learn as teachers that to teach a pose, we should teach a shape, and many teachers (including some very popular teachers!) teach that way their entire careers. But anatomy knowledge helps us understand that rather than putting our students into shapes, we are putting them into positions that can help them be in their bodies. And since their bodies are all different, the shapes will be different for each of them. (I think it’s so strange that this idea was once news to me!) Understanding how to read each student’s body as their personal map… Read more »

Devon

Being a dancer my entire life I was very fortunate to have a sister who is a Physical Therapist and an Anatomy Teacher for college students. When I got to college and continued dancing and began taking yoga, I soon realized that I wanted to know how my body worked so I could use it properly. I’m so thankful every time I’m in class, that I have the education in anatomy that I do. I cringe when I have a teacher who clearly doesn’t know what he/she is talking about in respects to anatomy. That’s how people get seriously injured,… Read more »

Stacy Jackson

Thank you Sarah for writing this great article! This is the very reason I decided to take the YTU Level 1 training. After I finished my yoga 200 hour teacher training I realized that I really didn’t learn enough about anatomy, I felt like something was missing from my new skill set. I had that same feeling, what if a student came to me about something that was going on in their body, I really didn’t have the understanding to know how to help. Now that I have gone through the YTU training I’m just starting to see how important… Read more »

Michelle Clemens

Sara, I can totally relate to this blog. Even though I understand anatomy going through level one, its because I’m a massage therapist. But, I can say, I understand it so much more clear since taking a few days of level one training. I’m able to fully understand the relationship and limitation of our muscles and joints in yoga. I started my yoga teaching with the injured population. I just assumed that they couldn’t do many poses, so I was much more of a restorative practice. But with YTU and changing pose orientation, I feel like I can teach a… Read more »

Deepa Dravid

Thank you Sarah!!!! I felt exactly same after my first TT and 2 years down the line after Yoga Tune Up® level 1 training, everything has changed..Teaching has never been the same. ‘ 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. ‘ resonates very much in my mind so it was a total pleasure reading this article. Brightened my day..Thank you..

Bruce Peterson

I’m currently taking an anatomy course from Trina Altman. The course is giving me an honest interest to learn about anatomy; something that hasn’t been interesting to me at all before. I’ve been teaching for 2 years and a quote from our manual really resonated “As a teacher, being able to transmit not only the art but the science that underlies yoga…..” . When I read that I had that epiphany moment that said “It IS important for me to be able to speak intelligently about the muscles and sturctures of the body affected by the poses”.

Maya Gil-Cantu

Anatomy is amazing, but extremely difficult to understand from one teachers training. It definitely takes time, and a serious personal investment to begin to not only understand what the anatomy is, but how it works within individuals bodies and poses. I agree that the more you know the better teacher you become. I feel like I am currently beginning to experience that transformation within myself as I work through my Yoga Tune Up® Level 1 Certification.

Courtney K

Sarah touches on points that have felt very prominent to me throughout my TT so far. In addition, she instills knowledge throughout this article that I actually have been very fortunate to hear from teachers already. The relatable feelings include being overwhelmed by the influx of teachings and vocabulary that is being tossed around as well as the understanding of wanting to be prepared to teach others. What I like about this article is that it is realistic; it emphasizes that in order to be the best teacher you must start from within. As a teacher you are only going… Read more »

Lou Shapiro

Apparently, in hospital Emergency Rooms, yoga is found to be the number 1 culprit of ALL sports related injuries, even more than football & other aggressive sports. … Yes, you’re right. It’s not really yoga, it’s the ego or mis-information of those practioners who don’t listen to their bodies, & who press beyond their bodies’ healthful limits. This is exactly where Yoga Tune Up training is brilliant. The intriguing, inciteful, innovative ways to hone & nurture the body are completed by the ‘ahimsa’, non-harming charter of the lineage. Thank you, Sarah.

Linh Taylor

It’s essential for yoga instructors to know why we teach a certain pose and how does it affect our body anatomically. Our teachers have been telling us that downward facing dog is a resting pose, then we go out in the world and tell our students the same thing without hesitation, without research, without questioning. Anything has a power to heal, will also has a power to destroy one’s body. I wish we have learned more anatomy in teacher training so we would understood better the boundary of the body and directions of movement and why they’re important. The more… Read more »

Gary Carlisle

And when one realizes that life being a process of continuous learning as Sarah points out in her teaching, we realize that we are always learning in every moment of life.

Sometimes it is difficult to accept that one would be better off not doing a pose until a misalignment or unbalance is address is
a most difficult learning experience.

Ariana

Hear! Hear! I could not agree with you more. I think it is imperative for yoga teachers to embark on an ongoing study of anatomy. Ongoing because it really never ends. The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. But I am cool with that because what I have pieced together so far has informed how I teach. I actually love learning anatomy but I understand how it can be overwhelming for new teachers. I am trying to be extra sensitive to that as I create an anatomy curriculum for my first teacher training this winter. Wish… Read more »

Barbara Treves

Your observations are right on Sarah. I walked out of my 200 hr Yoga Teaching Training feeling like I had just graduated kindergarden. That was almost three years ago. Since then I have completed an anatomy course at SMC, a 9 month comprehensive Pilates training, TRX certification and now my first Yoga Tune-up training. I now feel like I have officially graduated grade one!! The amount of anatomical knowledge still to be absorbed feels overwhelming sometimes but I know that in order for me to be the best teacher I can be, I need to keep pushing forward. As Jill… Read more »

Marisa

I took my first anatomy class over 10 years ago and hated it. Since becoming certified to teach it is now something that inspires me to learn more. I started following yoga and fitness professionals who emphasis anatomy and biomechanics in their teachings. The more I learn the more I know I need to learn.