Yoga anatomy covers the study of the body’s muscles, joints, tissues, membranes, cells, and more. These are parts of the body that awaken during a yoga class.
So, it’s in your best interest as a yoga teacher, or someone looking to take a yoga teacher training, to understand what you’re instructing and activating in your students’ bodies.
When teaching a yoga class, it’s important you’re able to understand the limitations of the body and its capabilities so that you can help your students get in and out of a pose safely.
This is where yoga anatomy comes in. And this is why it’s often seen as the ‘missing piece’ in yoga.
What is yoga anatomy?
Yoga anatomy covers the study of the body’s muscles, joints, tissues, membranes, cells, and more. It focuses on the body’s structure, while physiology looks at how these function in relation to each other. In yoga, you’ll not only need to learn both, but you’ll also become familiar with the physiology that focuses on channels of energy – the philosophical kind that gets activated by being in certain poses.
If you haven’t figured already, yoga is a holistic system that requires you to know your anatomy as a teacher.
Why is anatomy important in yoga?
Understanding yoga anatomy is crucial for all yoga teachers because it will increase the effectiveness of the asanas you teach and protect your students from creating injuries. You’ll also be better prepared to deal with any existing injuries safely and effectively.
Yoga anatomy is the information you need to know to connect with your body on an intellectual level. And it’s information that you build upon the deeper you go into your yoga practice as a student and teacher.
Be that as it may, many yoga teachers in training seem to have an aversion to learning anatomy. And if you find yourself in that camp, there’s no need to fret!
Yoga anatomy is usually only 10-20% of your yoga teacher training. If your YTT gives you the tools needed to teach a class, then this tiny component will teach you how to make it safe.
Luckily for you, as a yoga teacher, you only need to learn anatomy in the context of yoga. You certainly don’t need a Ph.D. in anatomy or physiology to instruct your students safely.
When students arrive at class, they trust you to keep them safe. If you’re unsure where to start, I’ve compiled the top 7 things yoga teachers need to know about anatomy. It’s a great starting point for your self-study and will inspire you to become well-versed in the study of yoga anatomy.
1. Joint function and limitation
Our bodies move in many different directions, and not necessarily in the same ways. So it’s essential to know the nature of each of the joints, their limitations, capacities (the load it can take), and how it needs to be corrected if you feel pain. Especially when you decide you want to hold a yoga pose for a long period of time. (How long should you hold a yoga pose? Find out here!)
This is extremely important to know. The shoulder has a ball and socket joint, meaning it can move in all directions. In contrast, the elbows are called hinge joints, where they can take only flexion and extension. It can be challenging to know this when looking at a pose without proper instruction.
Let’s take padmasana (lotus pose), for example. This pose is notorious for putting practitioners in a lot of knee pain.
When you look at this pose, it’s easy to think that you lead by twisting the knees internally and pulling the feet closer towards you. Not only is this incorrect, but it’s also wildly dangerous. The knees are hinge joints meaning their only movements are to flex and extend. The correct alignment of this posture and the only body part responsible for getting into padmasana safely is the hip joint. The hip is a ball and socket joint, meaning it not only flexes and extends but can also rotate. By externally rotating the hip joint, we create the space for our knee joint to flex and extend above the other leg. If a student cannot externally rotate their hips enough to create space for their knees to flex with ease, they should not attempt padmasana at all.
Even if they think they can.
2. What bones are involved (in yoga)
We have 206 bones in the adult body. While it may be helpful to know all of them, it isn’t necessary when teaching yoga. What you do need to learn is the basic structure of the skeletal system and which bones are in action. This will help you understand the structural frame of any given pose.
3. What muscles are in action (in yoga)
The anatomy of movement. Just like bones, we have hundreds of muscles in the body. These are grouped into three types; skeletal, smooth, and cardiac. When teaching yoga, you’ll want to be concerned mainly with the skeletal muscles as these are the muscles that are responsible for moving the bones and are under voluntary control. When studying the skeletal muscles, it will be handy to familiarize yourself with the following three functions for any given muscle; the origin, insertion, and key action.
A muscle origin describes how the muscle is attached to the stable bone (via tendons). The insertion describes the attachment of the muscle on the more moveable bone (e.g., the joints via ligaments). And the key action describes what happens during a muscular contraction when the bones are brought together or apart.
A great place to start would be to learn the four most commonly used muscle’s in yoga:
- the Psoas
- the Serratus Anterior
- the Hamstrings
- the Piriformis
4. Pain and injury don’t always correlate
When a student arrives to class knowing there is a pain in their body, they will get immediate feedback when they’ve pushed themselves too far. A person with an injury can differ slightly. Most injuries like tissue damage aren’t captured by nerve endings and won’t signal the brain that danger is near. Yet, it’s important to know how to accommodate this. At the beginning of the class, asking students if they have an injury, will allow you to offer variations of poses and provide them with a safe experience.
5. Know the anatomical terms and positions
Anatomical terms, aka the language of movement, is a commonly agreed-upon terminology that allows us to work on the same page when discussing the anatomy of yoga. While it’s not helpful to use anatomical terms when teaching a yoga class, you must be able to demystify the anatomical terms and positions to your students to help cultivate more awareness and precision within their practice.
The language I’m referring to, and a few examples of their terms are;
- Anatomical positions – anterior/posterior, medial/lateral, superior/inferior, etc.
- Planes of movement – transverse, sagittal, frontal
- Joint action – flexion, extension, abduction, lateral tilt, rotations, etc.
- Movements of the scapula – retraction, protraction, elevate, etc.
6. Alignment is not all it’s cracked up to be
Alignment is somewhat of a phenomenon in yoga. There are plenty of myths circulating the concept of alignment to prevent injury and increase the benefit of the pose. Well, that’s not exactly true.
When working with human bodies, there are so many variables to consider that could be affecting someone’s alignment; physical, social, emotional, and mental factors. By forcing your students into ‘correct’ alignment, you may increase whatever tension they are already experiencing that prevents them from ‘correct’ alignment.
A reality to consider is that our bodies can adapt to become stronger in response to whatever load it experiences. Suppose we’re talking about squatting 300lbs, then yes. In that case, alignment is crucial to reduce injury and correctly strengthen the muscles and tissues to withstand such a heavy load. In yoga, however, the load is not significant enough to cause substantial harm. It’s well within our capacity to withhold (considering the joints are completely healthy and happy, and we aren’t talking about inversions). Allowing for a slight ‘misalignment’ in yoga can lead our bodies to better adapt load in this position, ultimately making us stronger in various ways.
All that isn’t to say you should stop guiding your students into traditional alignment. Instead, treat alignment as the posture that allows the student to expend the least amount of energy in a pose. This will foster a sense of body awareness in your students and encourage them to feel a deeper connection between the mind and body.
7. The good ol’ spine
Any exaggerated or sudden movement of the spine could quickly destabilize the protective muscles surrounding the spinal column. Which could, in turn, lead to spasms in and out of the class. Incorporating your anatomical knowledge in your sequence will prime your students for any kind of spinal extension or pose you have coming up, which will minimize the risk of further injury.
Being the central axis for all human beings, having an awareness of the spine can help you lead safer classes in so many ways. You can safely target those areas and bring relief to your students (sometimes without them even knowing). You’ll also empower your students by guiding them to sense their spine so that they know how deep to go in their poses. As well as be able to recognize the different levels of tension in the muscles.
It’s important to know that the spine doesn’t exist in isolation. Disengaged core muscles could throw off the spinal alignment and strain the spine. Just as breathing “incorrectly” (from the upper chest and neck musculature) can lead to many physiological changes that affect the spinal column long term. All of which is useful to know when guiding students in a yoga class.
By extending your study of yoga anatomy beyond your yoga teacher training, you’ll add much credibility to your teaching career. In turn, you will enjoy teaching your classes that little bit more, and your students will walk away feeling seen and supported. The goal is to keep your students safe and healthy, and with the above information, you’ll be able to do just that.
See how you can become a trained yoga teacher and leave with extensive knowledge of yoga anatomy and muscle activation. Read about Blue Osa’s Yoga Teacher Training Here.
About Yogi Aaron
Yogi Aaron is the owner, operator, and lead yoga facilitator at Blue Osa and of the yoga teacher trainings.
Creator of Applied Yoga Anatomy + Muscle Activation™ Yogi Aaron brings three decades’ worth of study, mentorship, and experience into his teachings, with a strong emphasis on yoga therapy and alignment.
The Muscle Activation Yoga Classes is an exploration into your body, its muscles, and to learn how to improve its function through using Applied Yoga Anatomy + Muscle Activation™.
Find out more about yoga teacher trainings with Yogi Aaron at Blue Osa Yoga Retreat + Spa.