As yoga teachers, knowing your anatomy matters
Or put another way, understanding how we are designed to move matters.
Or put another way, teaching from the absolutes of our biology matters.
Or put another way, moving those we teach towards health, ease, decompression and away from tension, dysfunction, compensation and compression matters.
I work in professional football so obviously it matters there. But for all of us, it matters. It matters for your muscular-skeletal health, your physical health, your emotional health, your psychological health, and your energetic health. It matters absolutely. And here’s why.
Most of us are teachers of hatha yoga. You might teach Ashtanga, or Iyengar, or vinyasa or yin or whatever, but these are all variants of hatha: asana, pranayama, meditation and cleanses. The yoga of the body. If I turn up at your class, I won’t expect you to get out ancient texts for a study session, or to go out doing good works. I will expect you to be instructing my movement and my breath. So if you are going to make a physical intervention into my body (no matter whether your purpose is emotional or energetic or physical), then I’d really like to know that you know what you are doing. That you have an awareness of at least what is generally ok for me as a human being. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.
You are amazingly, beautifully, breathtakingly extraordinarily designed. You are designed to move with elegance, efficiency, with minimum effort and the absence of compression and tension. These are the guiding principles of our anatomy and should be the guiding principles of our teaching. What we need as teachers is to teach so that what needs to be lengthened is actually lengthened – and only by the right amount. So that what needs to strengthen so we can hold ourselves without compensation, is actually strengthened. So that what needs to be stabilised to allow efficient movement, is actually stabilised. So that areas of compression are reduced – not increased. So that we move more and more how we are designed to. But we need to understand that design in order to teach it.
Say it quietly, but yoga is not the answer to everything and our teaching can and does misalign and injure people. Not dramatically or acutely, but usually slowly and chronically so it can be hard to notice the creeping impact of our teaching. Hanging out with physios who work with a yoga clientele is a profoundly humbling experience – and I know because I have been profoundly humbled by the ignorance (and often arrogance) of my teaching. So we need to understand our human design and teach so that - and here comes the standard yoga-injury hit list - knees and elbows are not hyper-extended, distal abdominals not over-lengthened, hip flexors not shortened, lumbar spines not compressed, lumbar-thoracic junction not made hypermobile, femoral heads not shoved into forward translation, groins and acetabulum not inflamed and impinged, pelvic stability not discarded, scapulae not destabalised, rotator cuffs not frayed, sciatic nerves not over-lengthened and overall tension and reactivity not increased.
All movement is somatic. There is no possible movement that is not mediated through our entire emotional experience because that is how we learn to move. And emotional experience can result in dysfunctional movement patterns, laid-down as a repeated, preferential patterning. It probably protected you at the time, but once it becomes a chronic response then it is harming you and is way passed its sell-by date. As teachers we can gift our students the experience of awareness and the experience of how moving better feels. This is the beginning of any somatic journey. But we have to understand it to gift it.
You are spirit made flesh. You are energy made into matter. Body, soma, psyche, mind, spirit, aura are all different reflections of the same energetic being: namely You! What happens at one level happens at every level. So if I impinge and over-compress your lumbar spine (right up there on the yoga injury list) then compression is compression. But if I teach you to articulate spinal movement then local blood flow increases, metabolic waste washes away, tissue tethering and gluing decreases, hyaluronic acid flow quickens, electric potential unblocks, energy moves and prana flow is freed. But you’ve got to know it to teach it. Our path to the body energetic is through the body human.
We make physical interventions – we change peoples’ bodies. That may also be a journey of mind, energy and soul, but we work via this body physical. So know it, feel it, understand it, teach it, gift it. Knowing your anatomy matters – beautifully, profoundly, life-changingly.
Sarah Ramsden specialises in teaching yoga in sport and for postural health. Her Yoga Alliance Professionals accredited courses "The Body Athletic: Teaching Yoga in Sport" and "The Body Aligned: Teaching for Postural Health" are on her website.