The Hip Bone’s Connected to the…

Anterior Hip Muscles

Image via Wikipedia

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.

4 thoughts on “The Hip Bone’s Connected to the…

  1. Richard Rossi

    This reminds me of some massage instructors we had. They believed massage was all about presence and feel and they didn’t have to be concerned with learning anatomy. I could never understand that since so many of my clients came in with specific problems. If I hadn’t known the muscles and how they worked I would never have been able to help them.

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    • Thanks for reading, Richard. It wasn’t really our teacher’s intention to imply that all we needed as yoga instructors was presence and feel (although I suppose that is part of it). I think he was pointing out that experience of the postures – knowing how they feel in the body when practiced correctly – would provide us with knowledge of how the muscles work and the bones move. That’s true to a certain extent, but I know my teaching would suffer if I didn’t know the names and the attachments and the actions. While I disagree with him, I respect his many decades of experience. If, in the West, we practiced as long as he did before we decided to teach, we probably wouldn’t need to study anatomy either….hmmm…good subject for a blog post. Why are we in such a rush to teach?

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  2. I’m horrified to hear of a senior yoga teacher telling a bunch of trainees they don’t need to study anatomy. In my opinion, without good knowledge of anatomy a yoga teacher can only gain an understanding of the body through trial and error – and you don’t want to put your own or your students’ bodies through that!

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    • I was surprised but it was the opinion of a teacher with four decades of training and experience. His training began as a teen and was far more intense than anything we learn in the West. His experience has provided an amazing understanding of the body, but it’s an experience new yogins, unfortunately, will never have.

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