Does Studying Anatomy Make Yoga Safer?
published in the March 2012 issue of Yoga Therapy Today.
In 2009, I attended the Council of Schools meeting at SYTAR and wrote a perspective for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy about some of the issues surrounding the creation of standards for Yoga Therapy. More recently, I posted a blog piece that was critical of some common misrepresentations in the yoga industry regarding yoga teacher certification, and the New York Times published an article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”
In all the discussions and comment threads that have ensued, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that one of the reasons there are so many ill-trained teachers and injurious classes is that yoga teachers do not study enough anatomy. The supposition is that what makes a yoga teacher more qualified and the yoga they teach safer is knowledge of the anatomical sciences.
After more than a dozen years specializing in therapeutic yoga practice, working with a broad range of people and conditions, I am confident about the protocols I employ. Consistently favorable outcomes have convinced me that my methods are safe and effective. When I decided to start a training program and offer a foundational 200-hour certification in teaching therapeutic yoga, frankly, studying anatomy was not high on my list of essentials. Although I have studied anatomy to some degree, it has never been my focus and certainly does not form the basis of what is making my classes safe.
This admission may be blasphemous to some, but if science is going to be the rubric then it bears mentioning that, as of yet, there is no research or evidence to support the theory that studying anatomy makes yoga safer. In fact, a strong case can be made that, in many instances, studying anatomy is not helpful in the development of a person’s practice or teaching of yoga.
I realize that such claims, coming from someone who is not rooted in science, might easily be considered less than credible. So I decided to reach out to several prominent teachers of anatomy for yoga instructors and solicit their expert opinions. I sent them the following three questions:
1. Does studying anatomy make Yoga safer? If yes, how? If no, why?
2. Is anatomy (and the teaching thereof) open to interpretation? Explain.
3. Are there instances when studying anatomy is not useful to a yoga practitioner’s or teacher’s development? If so, when?
Leslie Kaminoff, coauthor of Yoga Anatomy (yogaanatomy.net), says: “Anatomy, like any acquired knowledge, is a tool. Tools can be used to help, or to harm. [Studying anatomy is not useful] when you use it to beat yourself or your students up. I generally do not use anatomical terms when I teach. It engages the wrong hemisphere of the brain. I’m trying to give people a three-dimensional experience of their bodies and breath, and they won’t get that if they’re trying to understand and apply anatomy to their own bodies while they practice.“
Amy Mathews, coauthor of Yoga Anatomy (embodiedasana.com), adds: “If studying anatomy helps to illuminate the incredible number of 'right' ways to do an action, terrific. Unfortunately, the study of anatomy can also become an imposition of limitations on possibility in a search for what is ‘anatomically correct’.”
In his response to the New York Times article, Kaminoff also points out that yoga forms do not exist as empirical objects, in and of themselves. Yoga asana only exists when a human being attempts to engage them. It is impossible to make generalized statements about the technicalities of an asana form divorced from this essential context.
Not all people respond the same to the study of anatomy. When anatomy piques someone’s interest and inspires inquiry into experience, then the study is useful. However, for the budding teacher who is not academically minded, examining the body through an anatomical lens often leaves that person feeling fearful.
Neil Pearson, clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and the chair of the Pain Science Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association (lifeisnow.ca), believes that learning anatomy runs the risk of generating a fear-based approach to yoga asana practice: “When I teach Yoga teachers who are training to be yoga therapists, it is apparent that, for most, their knowledge of anatomy is interspersed with precautions and red flags for ensuring the students are safe in class. This knowledge has not allowed them to teach from their heart, it has created a practice of teaching from fear.”
Furthermore, Pearson explains, the human tendency to try and explain things from a mechanistic perspective, as if we make things more real when we can describe them in terms of something physical, easily turns yoga into asana, and asana into a primarily physical practice. Stressing that anatomy is the key to safety reinforces the view that the physical is most important.
Even if we limit ourselves to the physical, there is a lot about studying anatomy that seems open to interpretation or sensibility. Sure, there is no arguing that a femur bone is anything but a femur bone, but not everyone agrees on the benefits and/or contraindications of headstand and shoulderstand. I have heard credible anatomical justifications to support different views.
Judith Hanson Lasater, author of YogaBody (judithlasater.com) agrees that imposing a medical model on yoga “does not take us anywhere new,” but she asserts that a strong foundation in anatomy is important nonetheless. In her ineffable way of reframing the question, though, she says, “Anatomy is not enough.”
Pearson concludes: “In the end, it is not Western scientific knowledge of the human body that will make Yoga safer. Changing the students approach to the discipline of yoga and the practice of asana will create the greatest shift.”
In the training I conduct, I emphasize a set of safety protocols that center mostly on the teacher–student relationship, scope of practice, and the role that yoga plays in someone’s healing and life. Although I do also instruct on how and when to modify poses and sequences to adapt to specific situations and conditions, learning these modifications and understanding how to employ them does not require more then a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy.
I am of the same opinion as Matthews, who says that studying anatomy is not essential to the practice or teaching of yoga. There are many safe and excellent yoga teachers who provide an invaluable service to humanity and are not talking about anatomy. Moreover, as Matthews also states: “if someone is going to use a discussion of anatomy as a teaching tool in a yoga class, they'd best know what they are talking about—and not just be repeating some of the over-simplified and dangerous things that are often blithely said.”
Regardless of what importance is given to anatomy in the training of yoga teachers or yoga therapists, there was overwhelming consensus among the teachers I polled that anatomy study alone is insufficient to ensuring safe yoga practice. Instead of looking to anatomy as a panacea for what ails the yoga profession, perhaps we do better to foster a different mentality around the physical work of yoga practice that minimizes any potential risks and encourages smarter choices.
When it comes to training teachers, most of the professionals I have spoken to agree that the key to teaching yoga safely boils down to the sensitivity and adaptability of the instructor, his or her capacity for dialogue with and responsiveness to a student, and the humble confidence of knowing what you know and what you don’t know.