Anatomy and Physiology for yoga teachers: Fundamental Foundations

Anatomy and Physiology for yoga teachers: Fundamental Foundations

Deepening your knowledge of anatomy and physiology

We all know the positive effects yoga can have on our physical and mental health. And we love it because it’s one form of exercise that doesn’t discriminate – anyone can do yoga, from young to wise! But what if we thought about each individual’s body during their practice? What if we thought about their injuries, medical status and goals in coming to yoga? What if we understood enough anatomy and physiology to really help our students?The exercises we pick and the sequence that we teach them in can have a profound impact on our bodies.

By deepening our knowledge of anatomy and physiology in relation to common injuries, we can turn a simple yoga sequence into a way of treating the body. Certain joints within the body are designed to do certain things depending on the way they are built. For example, the shoulder (or glenohumeral joint) is a ball and socket joint (imagine a golf ball sitting in a tee), which means it has a lot of mobility but not much inherent stability. It therefore relies on the muscles, ligaments and other soft tissues to keep it stable. Thus, the way we work the shoulder to develop a balance between strength and mobility is different to what we would do with the knee. Having a greater understanding of this allows us to pick exercises that suit certain people or modify exercises to suit different injuries.

When I first happened upon yoga, I needed it! I’d just opened my own Physiotherapy practice and was working a crazy number of hours a week (and stressing out for many more). Stress was my middle name. A friend suggested I try yoga – an exercise that was equal forms physical and mental. The only problem was, as a physio, yoga made me think too much! I’d focus on the person in front of me, thinking “oh gosh, if only you knew the pain you are causing your patellofemoral (knee cap) joint by allowing your knee to drift so far inwards in your Warrior II”. It was after a few months of this nonsense that an opportunity to do a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training course became available and I jumped at the idea. I was excited to learn how to quieten my mind and change my focus within my personal yoga practice. However, the more I studied and the more I tried my hand at the practical side of teaching, the more I realised that my anatomy knowledge and understanding of pathology became my secret weapon. I found that it allowed me to unlock better outcomes for those who came to my classes. And for me personally – I suddenly embraced the chatter in my head and changed it to focus on my own bod, allowing me to feel my own restrictions – both physical and mental.

Where to begin

I personally feel the best thing you can arm yourself with going into teaching, or even for your own practice, is to have a basic knowledge of anatomy. Start with the joints – know the type of joint it is, how that then allows it to move (which gives you a sense of what it likes and doesn’t like) and one or two key muscles around that joint. For example, the knee – it is a hinge joint (much like on a door), which means it is most comfortable moving through flexion and extension (bending and straightening) and less comfortable with rotation. Two key muscle groups around the knee are the quadriceps and hamstrings. Therefore, when someone comes into your class and mentions they have knee pain, your mind should go straight to thinking “well they will probably be comfortable with a Warrior I movement because this relies on bending and straightening the knee and works the quadriceps, but they may be less comfortable with revolved half moon pose.”

Use your own body as an experiment. If you’ve had a past injury – let’s say a hamstring strain – try a few poses within a class that might work your hamstrings – for example, downward dog, triangle and wheel. In your practice, monitor for any pain and discomfort. If your body can differentiate pain from discomfort (a ‘worked muscle’ feeling) then you will be better able to explain this feeling to your students, or to work within your body’s limitations and avoid further injury.

The next step is to grasp some understanding of common pathologies within the body and how this might impact a person’s practice. For example, those with hip pain may cope well with most exercises but struggle where the hip joint is put at it’s end range of movement – for example in malasana squat or half pigeon, even though these are often given as good poses to loosen up the hips.

Finally, learn to understand pain. If you’re a teacher, be aware that for a lot of people, especially those that have limited understanding of their bodies, pain can be a scary thing. Taking the time to walk around at the beginning of a class and talk to your students, asking them if they have current pains or niggles, can be a great way to break down barriers and let them know you’ll be looking out for them.

Teaching tools

Within my own classes, I try to create a focus at the beginning of the practice. I start with a short meditation and within this I tell students why I might be focusing on a certain joint or group of muscles that day and then give them a couple of facts about these. For example, if we are doing work around the calves, I might inform my students about the anatomy – that the calves are made up of two muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius runs across the back of the knee, so to stretch it you have to have the knee straight. The soleus on the other hand, does not cross the knee joint so to stretch it you have to bend your knee. Immediately, you’ve educated them with two facts that they can walk away with and use in a practical sense without overloading their brains.

A lot of people come to yoga to switch off, but I find that giving them something different to think about (rather than work emails or the grocery shopping) you can relax their mind in a slightly different way.

Simple ways to improve your anatomy and physiology knowledge

  • Try a Yoga class with a Physio. Physiotherapists are starting to appreciate the benefits of yoga and incorporate it into their routine. In Sydney, try The Studio in Rozelle. In Melbourne, try Universal Practice and if you’re in Newcastle – feel free to pop in and say hi to me!
  • Study online. La Trobe University offer an online Anatomy and Physiology course as do University of New England
  • Read a book. Netter’s Clinical Anatomy is highly thought of.
  • Download an app. Complete Anatomy and Essential Anatomy 5 are two that I would recommend.

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