Embodied Perspectives: How Do We Approach Anatomy as Yoga Teachers?

I’m always intrigued when I read teacher bios stating they are ‘anatomically focused’, an ‘anatomy enthusiast’, or a ‘passionate student of anatomy’. Many excellent and authentic teachers undoubtedly live up to these claims, but these phrases can also signal a red flag.

We want our classes to be alignment focused and our teachers to be blossoming experts in anatomy, don’t we? Well, yes and no. My question is always, what does alignment mean to you, and how does your knowledge of anatomy influence how you teach?

What about the many, many teachers who are intimidated by anatomy, feel more inspired by other elements of yoga, or those who believe their knowledge of anatomy will never be enough because it is such a vast, jargon-ridden, topic? We, as individual teachers and a collective yoga community, can get very, very bogged down in anatomy, but do we really need to be?

Undoubtedly developing the anatomy modules for the 200-hour and 300-hour trainings were some of the most challenging. Not because of the technical nature of the topic, but because I wanted to undo some preconceived notions about ‘yoga anatomy’ and make it as relevant and understandable as possible for yoga practitioners.

Many of the questions I used to guide the module development are ones I explore in this blog: how much anatomical knowledge do yoga teachers need? How should anatomy be applied in a yoga class? Can a teacher’s knowledge around anatomy act as a hindrance as much as a help?

This blog also works in tandem with and enhances upon the concept of embodied asana I explored in an earlier blog. If embodied perspectives on practice are new to you (or you hear this term as a yoga buzz word but are not clear on what it actually entails) then I encourage you to have a read of that blog too.

Is Yoga Anatomy Different from General Anatomy?

It may sound like common sense, but anatomy and yoga are two independent disciplines that intersect; however, there can be a tendency to smoosh them together in unnecessary or reductive ways. Really, there is only anatomy and having specific anatomical knowledge can enhance how we learn and teach yoga. 

One way to start considering the role of anatomy in your teaching is to consider how it aligns with the other qualities or niches that characterise your teaching. For example, Nourish’s vision is ‘foster a community of compassionate, informed and inclusive yoga teachers’ and therefore my engagement with anatomy, particularly when investing in learning resources, developing teacher training modules, and teaching classes is to make sure my approach to anatomy enhances upon this and fulfils our endeavour to be inclusive, joyful, and person-centred. Understanding your core values and intentions as a teacher will also inform how you learn and engage with anatomy knowledge. 

There are three main ways we learn ‘yoga anatomy’: an informed teacher (be that in person, online, or in books), anatomy models and images, and practice. There is a place for all of these, but also some limitations to them too.

Anatomy Models and Images

When learning ‘yoga anatomy’, skeletal models and images or animations of bodies in asana with an x-ray view of the muscles are usually what people think of. These models and resources are useful when it comes to the fundamentals: they show us muscle groups and are a good visual aid when learning about the properties of different tissues in our bodies. Above all, they can provide a window onto what areas of the body need to engage and work together to support a healthy practice — and conversely (arguably, more importantly), how certain motions or movements can have an unwelcome effect on other areas of the body. 

However, they are also rife with limitations. These models have been designed to make things as clear as possible. Separate muscles and tissues are clearly delineated, whereas in reality it is very hard to tell where one muscle ends and another muscle, tendon, or ligament begins. The bodies are idealised and symmetrical, and free from the anatomical quirks, deviations, and imbalances that everybody has. They are often default male whereas a majority of yoga practitioners are women or woman-aligned. Anatomy images like these are used to impose order on, to borrow Roxane Gay’s phrase, the unruly body

One of the most helpful ways of learning from these models is to consider what they don’t show us. How might someone with asymmetrical hip joints (as most of us have) experience a pose differently? What about someone who has had shoulder surgery? How might different lengths and shapes of bones influence what these anatomical models show us?

Yoga Anatomy Experts

There are a few very influential yoga teachers that have carved out their reputations as anatomy experts. When I am looking for a reputable source of knowledge or ‘expert’ (in any field) the first place I turn is their credentials; what makes this individual uniquely qualified to teach anatomy? What is their educational path? And did they train in an anatomy related field before or after they started teaching yoga?

One thing that stands out to me is the number of self-proclaimed anatomy experts who have no in-depth formal training in anatomy. That’s not disregarding the ability to self-teach, but it’s important to evaluate these people with a highly critical lens. Most people who are considered anatomy experts have completed close to a decade or more of education to become an MD, physiotherapist, osteopath, or similar — and as they actively practice in their field, they are required to stay up to date or conduct research themselves. Importantly, they are (hopefully) free from a bias that may distort how they interpret information. Understandably, people who have found a flair for anatomy through yoga may go on to do further anatomical training, but are they able to put yoga aside as they learn or are they twisting their anatomical training into a yoga paradigm?

You can undoubtedly have excellent anatomy specialist yoga teachers, but it’s important not to solely take people’s word for things and make sure they are worthy of their reputations (I have written before about the importance of self-regulation in yoga). Ask questions, are they open to being challenged, can you find an opposing perspective and determine what is most true for you?

Some yoga anatomy teachers I respect are Bernie Clark and Judith Hanson Lasater. Before she was a yoga teacher, Judith was a physical therapist, and her teaching style extends well beyond an anatomical focus. Bernie Clark falls into the self-styled anatomy whizz camp, but, in my opinion, he holds up to the scrutiny, and his research challenges much of yoga’s alignment and anatomy lore.

Learning Anatomy through Practice

Anatomy, particularly for yoga teachers, matters most when we use our own bodies and guide students in how to use theirs. Undoubtedly our practice can become enlivened when we can integrate it with anatomical insights. A significant way to learn anatomy is by exploring the body through physical touch, such as palpations, and movements, such as asana. 

Group settings are great for learning anatomy because everyone has a unique body and will have a unique experience of the pose. We can begin to evaluate why one student feels ‘barely anything’ in a pose, and another winces at the intensity (and why this isn’t a mark of physical or moral prowess). Or why our ranges of motion vary so much, and we can make informed speculations as to why this may be the case — is it to do with soft tissues, the shape and length of bones, or a medical condition? 

Palpation on ourselves or a consenting partner (or animal!) can give us a hands-on experience of the aforementioned anatomical models. Not having the x-ray view and relying on learning through our hands is important because we don’t have a privileged view of our own or our student’s internal tissues and bones. Touch helps us understand physical landmarks and how they shift during movement. 

We can start to use props and alternative asana in an informed way to enhance our experience and comfort level of a pose. We can break down the dogma surrounding poses, and unravel the experiences we have had in the past that have made our bodies feel lesser — that poses you are told that if you just keep practising you will ‘achieve’ them, maybe you never will or maybe you need to practice in a completely different way. Or, the pain or discomfort you have experienced in asana that is ‘correctly aligned’ but actually isn’t for your unique anatomy. Perhaps a teacher has adjusted you in the past in a way that makes it feel like you are being corrected, or, in a way that feels intuitively wrong for your body, perhaps even resulting in injury. That is not a critique of the weakness of your body; it is a criticism of the teacher’s hubris and limited anatomical perspective.

The anatomy we learn should enable us to become more attuned to our own bodies and practice, and how they are unique. We can then better teach our students because we have an idea of variation in the body. The acknowledgement of variation, recognising that we have limited insight as yoga teachers, and owning the fact that we are considering anatomy in the context of yoga, are constituent principles of embodied anatomy.

How Much Anatomy Knowledge Do I Need As A Yoga Teacher?

Some of you will be relieved to read, less than you may think. 

The anatomy we learn should be useful to our practice, and it is unlikely that being able to name all six muscles of the external hip rotators will make you a better practitioner or teacher. However, understanding what the external hip rotators do and how they interact with other anatomical landmarks of the hips and pelvis, will undoubtedly enhance how you teach many, many asana.  

Informed speculation is the most we can (and should) aspire to as yoga teachers. We are not orthopaedic surgeons or physical therapists. Or, perhaps you are, but when you are teaching a yoga class (particularly a group class of mixed bodies and abilities), you are first and foremost a yoga teacher. In a yoga class, we have a restricted insight on our students’ unique anatomical goings-on, and that restricted insight is not a limitation — it is all we need to be able to teach safely, well, and inclusively.

An encyclopedic knowledge of every bone and muscle may be of interest to you, but it’s unlikely to help your students in any way. An embodied approach to yoga encourages us to teach through sensation, guiding our students into space, a journey of connection with their own bodies, as well as being safe and empowering. Clarity, language that welcomes every body, and space for adjustment and awareness of the body, are the hallmarks of a teaching style that is underpinned by embodied principles.

How Do I Learn and Teacher Yoga Anatomy in an Embodied Way?

Start With You

Learning the nuances and quirks of your body, will help you to appreciate the nuances and quirks of your students’ — even if you have no apparent physical similarities. 

For example, when I started to consider how my body accords to and bucks against both ‘traditional’ perspectives on alignment and anatomical models this allowed me to develop a practice that worked with and for my body. I am taller than your average woman, and bigger than a majority of people you see in yoga images (although I fall within the average dress size for women in the UK). In my practice, I have learned to make space for my body; I step wider and add props to suit my proportions. I also have hypermobile joints, although some may celebrate hypermobility in the yoga community because it lends itself well to complex ranges of motion, it also leads to pain and injury (and I want to have a functional, mobile body 30 years from now). Asana feels most supportive and welcoming when I am working on strengthening, lifting, expanding, and extending. 

I emphasise internal sensations, as opposed to outward appearances, aiming to feel juicy, spacious, and supported. These adjectives capture how I like to experience asana, but everybody will have their own experiential language that captures what a pose feels like for them. I’m also acutely aware of when things feel sparky, crunchy, overworked, or vulnerable — sensations I then move away from by modifying the pose in some way or skipping it entirely.  

When I adjust asana based on sensations, I am not questioning whether I’m doing it right or if the correct muscles are engaging, instead, I am present in my practice and responding to my needs, which vary from practice to practice. Focusing on sensations is more akin to how we experience the body; we don’t intuitively register a set of contracting or relaxing muscle groups, (although we may learn to identify these sensations once we have built on our anatomical knowledge).

Understanding your own body acts as a gateway to appreciating your students and how their bodies diverge from your own and unlearning unhelpful ideas of asana.

Recruit a Friend or Animal

Once you have explored your own body, it is helpful to get to know another being to enhance your knowledge of anatomy through palpation and touch. Scoping out the shape and size of somebody else’s shoulder blade and tactically learning how the landmarks of their hips vary from your own can help you integrate concepts of anatomical variation. A gentle quality of touch, whether you are touching your own body or someone else’s, is always more valuable. Too much pressure or moving too quickly can end up numbing your fingers and diluting your awareness, two qualities we are hoping to cultivate in this exercise. 

Before you begin, have a conversation about consent and explicitly state to your partner what the touch and palpations will involve, and make sure they have time to ask questions and are comfortable. As you explore their body keep the conversation going, consent is an ongoing process and can be withdrawn at any time — no questions asked. If you are working with an animal be mindful of the wriggles, noises, and movements and stop if they are resisting or uncomfortable in any way.   

Palpations and exploratory touch is not something that you will have time for, or that is appropriate in a yoga class, but is instead a learning tool.

Gather Resources and Seek out Teachers

A variety of perspectives can enliven how we learn essential anatomical concepts. Ultimately, finding a teacher(s) and resource(s) that speaks to you most directly is the most helpful (and enjoyable) way to learn anatomy. However, it is important that there is nuance and variety in what you are taught; be willing to ask questions and even challenge a teacher or idea. ‘I don’t know’ is an adequate answer because it is honest. You may also disagree with a teacher you otherwise respect, which is also fine — as long as you understand your reasoning. Of the resources and teachers I turn to most often, I tend to have an 80/20 relationship; I agree with 80% of what they say, but there is around 20% on which I have a differing opinion.  

Bernie Clark’s books ‘Your Body, Your Yoga’ and ‘Your Spine, Your Yoga’ are some of my favourite yoga specific anatomy resources. These books excel at cutting through anatomy myths, emphasises learning through sensation, and offers an inclusive range of anatomical variations. 

You can also look beyond the yoga world for resources. ‘The Trail Guide to the Body’ is a textbook for osteopaths and physiotherapists and is a great, largely accessible, and non-dry way to learn anatomy, particularly through touch and palpation. The approach of softness and not pushing suits asana perfectly. 

Challenge Yourself

By this, I do not mean physically pushing yourself to a limit. I mean, challenge your previously held beliefs, be willing to update your knowledge, and recognise that this is a natural progression in any learning journey. 

The cliche is true; the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know. This perspective suits yoga teachers well when it comes to anatomy; a majority of yoga teachers are not qualified to become anatomy experts. A little humility and a generous approach to your learning journey will both take the pressure off yourself and broaden your perspectives as a teacher.

Re-evaluate your Teaching Style

One of the lovely things about teaching embodied anatomy in class is it naturally encompasses so many qualities that can improve our teaching overall. Embedded into embodied approaches to teaching is inclusivity, in terms of how you approach asana, what variations you offer, and what language you use. 

It’s important to note that yoga teachers are not there to diagnose their students. By moving away from ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ anatomy and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ asana, our instructions will naturally become descriptive rather than prescriptive, and inclusive rather than about limits. 

As a teacher, you may know the tissues and dynamics that facilitate certain feelings, but being able to articulate your experiential knowledge of anatomy into felt experiences will help guide your students and allow them to develop an embodied, experiential, and ultimately safer and more joyful, asana practice. 

Although you may care deeply about anatomy, and know all the technical anatomical terms, every origin and insertion of every muscle, and all the bones of the foot, this won’t necessarily help you when teaching a class. Our intention as teachers is to be understood and provide our students with a framework through which they can embrace themselves. They are more likely to be put-off than wowed by your jargon prowess, and unless it offers meaningful clarity it is unhelpful. 

You may also find you use physical adjustments less. There are many reasons why manually adjusting a student is tricky territory, but when it comes to an embodied approach, the way you guide a class is through language that encourages students to be aware of their body, feel in, and adapt accordingly. If you focus on how to successfully communicate a pose or anatomical concept that makes sense from the experiential dynamics of the pose, then your need to demonstrate (except variations, and principles) and almost certainly a reliance on physical touch is diminished. The reality is that many physical adjustments focus on arranging the body in a way that accords to an idea of how a pose looks from a limited outside perspective. You cannot know what is going on in a student’s body, but encouraging your students to get a feel for where there is stickiness or space, lack of awareness or the brightness of engagement, means they get to adopt an inside out perspective to asana. 

What is Your Intention?

How do you approach your own and your students’ bodies? Is it pushing and overriding, or honouring and softness? Is it achieving the image of an asana you have in your head, or is it creating nourishing and supportive embodied sensations? 

Our intention as yoga practitioners is to cultivate humility and awe for the body, not master it. An embodied approach to anatomy capitalises on this sentiment, and also makes anatomy more approachable and useful to yoga practitioners.

I would love to hear your opinions on anatomy as yoga teachers. How much does it influence how you teach? Is there anything in this blog that surprised you? Has your relationship to anatomy evolved over the course of your yoga career?

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