Quick Question: Where is your calcaneus?*
Anatomy is a complicated subject. Many yoga teachers and students are intrigued by the names of the bones yet studying it in detail gets passed over in most yoga classes – if it is discussed at all. YogaCity NYC’s Margie Suvalle sat down with six experts to find out how they learned more about their muscles and joints, why it is necessary, and where to learn more about anatomy.
Why did you get interested in anatomy?
Paula Lynch: My parents’ heart disease. I had to learn a lot fast, so I studied the heart and cardiovascular system. From there, I started to study physiology and then the muscular system.
Jonathan FitzGordon: When I started doing yoga I had a lot of flexibility, but no strength. I got hurt and ended up having knee surgery. If I didn’t know how my body worked, then how could it heal?
Genny Kapuler: I took a class at NYU with Andre Bernard, Anatomy for Dancers, and I wanted a greater understanding of the body, so I continued to study for the next ten years with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.
Jason Brown: I got injured a few times early on in my yoga practice, either because of a teacher’s instruction or my own fault. As a teacher, I felt ill prepared to answer questions.
Amy Matthews: I was a dancer and we had a weekend on anatomy and I realized how much I didn’t know. I wanted to know how I use my body, the movement, the muscles and the anatomy.
Joe Miller: My interest started with artistic anatomy when I was painting and drawing skeleton positions and continued to expand when I started teaching yoga. I did several trainings that focused on anatomy and I ended up getting my masters in applied physiology.
Do you think the average yoga teacher knows enough about anatomy and how long does it take to learn the basics?
PL: People are more interested these days. The average training is just a starting point. But people need to pursue it on their own, really understand it. Are they interested? What are their students asking of them? How much do you need to learn? The process of learning is ongoing.
JF: No. You don’t need to know anything about anatomy to lead a class, but you do if you want to teach. How long does it take – everyone is different.
GK: Without knowing too much you can lead students and give them direction and guidance. But Iyengar, where I studied, teaches a certain amount.
JB: Absolutely not! There just isn’t enough time spent on anatomy during teacher training. It takes a year. I created a nine-month program where students meet for three hours a week and then can apply the knowledge to their teaching.
AM: No, because people come out of a 200 hour training with 20 hours of anatomy, which is only a taste. For each person, learning is individual. You can be a great teacher and not know a lot about anatomy. However, if you don’t know something, don’t say anything.
JM: You don’t need an anatomical background to be an effective teacher. You do need to pay attention and know the basics of human movement, the alignment of asana. The more you know the more it will enrich your teaching and give you more depth. The Yoga Alliance says a minimum of twenty hours gets you started, but you need continuing education and to study on your own.
Do you think that more anatomy should be taught in teacher trainings?
PL: During the 200 hour training there should be more integration of the information.
JF: It takes a lot of time to learn anatomy, so you need to be taught well.
AM: Yes, there should be more taught.
GK: The teacher trainer decides. Different people are drawn towards certain knowledge.
JB: Yes, that is why I started my program Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teachers.
What part of the body fascinates you the most?
PL: The respiratory and cardiovascular systems and the physiology mechanism and muscular housing of it all. Sensing more clearly, breathing.
JF: I am obsessed with the psoas.
GK: There is not one part that fascinates me because it is always changing. I guess right now it would be my sense of smell.
JB: The knee. It is my favorite joint to teach. It is weight-bearing and takes a lot of force, it is intricate, delicate and important.
AM: Embryology and the origin of tissue. It starts one place and ends up elsewhere. The muscles and the skin are closer than the muscles and the bones, so exploring movement from that place.
JM: The nervous system and relaxation.
What is the most vulnerable part of the body during asana practice?
PL: The lumbar spine is already compromised and vulnerable. We ask a lot of that area and weaken it and then add the stress of asana.
JF: The psoas.
GK: It’s individual.
JB: The knee is very delicate. The bones don’t support it, the muscles and ligaments support the soft tissue.
AM: It depends on the person and the asana. Where there is a lot of movement is the most vulnerable.
JM: There is not one part. However, the most common ones are the knee, the shoulders, the wrists, the lumbar and the cervical spine.
People constantly complain about lower back issues. What should a yoga teacher do when someone comes into class complaining of back pain?
PL: Ask a lot of questions and listen. The more information you have, the more you are able to help your student. From the information, figure out which poses to avoid and which ones will stretch and strengthen.
JF: Instruct them to stop tucking their pelvis because it is compromising the ligaments and IT joint.
GK: If the SI joint is thrown out, then sync the hips in and keep the lumbar spine vertical.
JB: It is usually caused by tight glutes and hamstrings. Show modifications.
AM: Back pain can be caused by many things. Ask question about what kind of pain the student is experiencing. Knowing the sensations can help them identify what it is and how weight travel in the spine.
JM: Think about long-term health, how are your movements creating the problem. Is it extension or flexion? Don’t push through the pain, find modifications and ask for help.
What role does anatomy play in the classes you teach?
PL: Anatomy is integrated into the whole class. It is the environment, not the backdrop. It is unavoidable because the body is the classroom.
JF: It is everything. My classes are hard because I pound it to the ground, how it all works and more.
GK: It is the main idea that I use.
JB: Anatomy informs the sequencing and alignment cues in my classes. It is under the surface.
AM: Anatomy is the jumping off point. It is something physical to check in with in all of my classes.
JM: It enriches my teaching and creates an understanding of alignment and instruction. It is always clear and accurate.
What three books do you most recommend?
PL: The books by Dr. Ray Long, an orthopedic surgeon and long time Hatha Yoga practitioner. “Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology and Asana,” by Judith Hanson Lasater. It is digestible and specific. Lastly, “Light on Pranayama,” by BKS Iyengar because it is poetic and really explains the respiratory system.
JF: “Taking Root to Fly”, by Irene Dowd, “Human Movement Potential” by Lulu Sweigard and “Rolfing”, by Ida Rolf
GK: “Atlas of Human Anatomy”, by Frank Netter, “The Thinking Body”, by Mabel Elsworth Todd and “Primary Anatomy” by John V. Basmajain.
JB:“Kinesiology: The Skeletal System and Muscle Function“, by Joseph Muscolino.
AM: Netter,“The Body Moveable”, by David Gorman and of course “Yoga Anatomy,” which I co-wrote with Leslie Kaminoff.
JM: Netter, Judith Lasater’s “Yogabody”, “Yoga Anatomy” and “Anatomy Trains”, by Thomas W. Myers.
Paula Lynch is a YogaWorks Certified Instructor and is affiliated with the YogaWorks Teacher Training programs. Her teaching style is influenced by the meditative flow and heat of Ashtanga yoga and the precision and playfulness of Iyengar yoga. www.yogapaula.com
Jonathan FitzGordon has been teaching yoga since 2000. He is a Level II Reiki practitioner and the creator of the FitzGordon Method, a core walking program.
Genny Kapular has been teaching yoga for over 30 years. She is a Intermediate Junior III IyengarTeacher. As well as a practitioner of Body-Mind Centering. Before teaching yoga, she was a modern dancer for many years.
Jason Brown is the creator of Zenyasa Yoga, which synthesizes Zen Buddhism, vinyasa yoga and mindfulness-based conditioning exercises.
He teaches classes at the Zenyasa Yoga Studio on the Upper West Side, as well as Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teachers & Movement Professionals.
Amy Matthews is a certified Laban Movement Analyst, a Body-Mind Centering Teacher an Infant Development Movement Educator and a yoga therapist and yoga teacher. She teaches an Embodied Anatomy & Kinesiology course at The Breathing Project.
Joe Miller has been teaching at OM Yoga since 2000. He is on the OM Yoga Teacher Training faculty and is the Dean of OM Yoga anatomy studies. He has his Masters in Applied Physiology from Columbia University. Joe recently started an anatomy-related blog: Yoga Physiology.
*Calcaneus is your heel bone.