Do yoga teachers need to study anatomy?
I recently heard a well-loved and respected teacher with decades of experience give this answer before a group of trainees: “in my opinion, no.” He believes we learn everything we need to know about the body through a strong asana practice.
Is he right? Maybe.
A finely tuned practice, after all, strengthens our understanding of how we move, how we function, our strengths and restrictions. Why do we need to know the muscles used for breathing? Why do we need to know how the bones join together at the knee?
Because when a new student enters our studio and tells us they’re a few months past a lumbar laminectomy, or that last year they had meniscus surgery, or they’ve recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis – we should know what that means and what the implications are for their yoga practice.
And so, in my opinion: yes, yoga teachers should study anatomy.
The teacher continued with his points:
“You don’t want to take up class time explaining the muscles…”
He’s right. I don’t use class time for anatomy lessons. But when a student asks why they feel Ustrasana (camel pose) near their hip crease I can move beyond “it’s because you’re tight there” and explain the hip flexors and their function. I can explain how they become shortened and other ways to lengthen them.
And when a student’s knees are no closer to the ground in Baddha Konasana (seated cobbler’s pose) than they were when they began their practice five years earlier I can explain how each skeleton is different. I can reassure her that it has little to do with flexibility and more to do with how the femur sits in the acetabulum. Knowing I can do this – knowing I can guide my student toward an improved understanding of their body – increases my confidence as an instructor.
Furthermore, when a student needs help modifying a pose or if they’re unable to assume “correct” alignment my understanding of anatomy informs the choices I make to help the student – whether it’s a different verbal cue, using a different prop for support or suggesting a different asana.
Do I know the name of every muscle and bone? Of course not. But by studying anatomy I’ve been given an amazing gift – a sort of “x-ray vision.”
Every body is unique. Knowledge of anatomy helps us see these differences. And since we can’t step into our students’ bodies to experience an asana as they do, having a good understanding of the body – knowing that the rectus femoris is a two joint muscle and might explain why the front of the hip hurts when the knee is drawn back in Natarajasana (dancer’s pose) – well, if I can’t experience what my student’s feel first hand, then knowledge of anatomy is the next best thing.