How to Avoid Misusing Anatomical Language


By Julie Gudmestad  |  

It’s with a mixture of amazement, amusement, and sometimes sadness that I listen to yoga teachers and students discuss anatomy in the context of asana practice. Sometimes I’m amazed and impressed by a teacher’s understanding of anatomy and movement, and by his or her ability to describe it in clear and engaging terms that highlight the students’ experience in the pose. Sometimes an anatomical description is enough off course to make a laugh-out-loud image. And sometimes it’s just plain sad that we, as teachers, are squandering a learning opportunity for our students by disseminating erroneous information, when we could be helping them deepen their understanding of not only the yoga poses but also their own bodies.

Know the Difference Between Injury and Anatomy

Often when teachers make an anatomy mistake while describing a pose in class, they’re simply repeating a common misunderstanding. Some of my favorites include body-part names that have become synonymous with injuries. These include using “rotator cuff,” which is a group of four muscles that help move and stabilize the ball in the socket of the shoulder joint, to mean a rotator cuff tear. Or “TMJ,” which is the temporomandibular (jaw) joint, to mean a TMJ problem or injury. So I may have someone approach me to report that “I have TMJ” or “I have rotator cuff,” and I have to stifle the temptation to say, “Oh really? I have two of them.”

Describe Movement Effectively

Other common mistakes I hear teachers make involve the incorrect use of terms to describe movement. There is actually a fairly simple, straightforward system that anatomists and kinesiologists use to describe human movement and joint positions. However, most people need to invest some time and practice in order to learn it and use the descriptive words correctly. In yoga teaching, the word “extension” seems to cause the most problems, as teachers want to use the word to describe opening, lengthening, and uncompressing a body part. In anatomy, the word describes precise movements and positions. For example, shoulder extension occurs when the arms reach back behind you, as in Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand): the shoulders are flexed when the arms stretch up overhead. Hip extension occurs when the thigh is in line with the torso, as opposed to the thigh angling forward, as happens when we sit in chairs. In a spinal extension the spine arches, as in a backbend. So if you ask me (or other medical professionals) to extend my spine while standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), I will lean backward into a backbend, risking compression in my lower back, which is probably the opposite of the intended uncompressing of the spine.

Be Clear

Another common category of confusion for students is the location of frequently referenced body parts, including muscles, joints, and bones. In general, deeper structures such as the psoas and piriformis muscles and the kidneys tend to be the most mysterious, but students can even be stumped by more superficial structures like the sacroiliac joints, the scapula, and the trapezius muscle. As I mentioned in my last column, “Anatomy Lesson,”it’s always a good idea to have your students find the structures in their own bodies before you give instructions about how to position or move them. Otherwise your students may try hard to comply with your instructions but really have no idea what you’re talking about.

Make Sure It’s Anatomically Possible

Probably my biggest concern has to do with teachers asking students to perform actions that a muscle can’t do, or can’t do in that position. To me, that sets up a disconnect between the verbal, cerebral understanding of the action/position and what is actually happening in the body—in effect, the student learns that they can’t trust their own experience. For example, I’ve heard a teacher ask students to “Relax your neck” in sideways standing poses such as Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) and Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). In those poses, practiced to the right, the left neck muscles are actually contracting to hold up the weight of the head against the pull of gravity. If the neck muscles relaxed, the head would hang down. While we do want a long neck (maximum distance between the ears and shoulder blades on both sides), the neck muscles are not truly relaxing. Other interesting but, sadly, not physically possible instructions I’ve heard are: Move the psoas to the right or left; relax your abdominals (but don’t allow the lower back to over arch away from the floor) in Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Leg Lifts); and release and relax your serratus anterior muscles as you stretch your arms overhead. One of the most unfortunate instructions involves asking tight students, whose fingers don’t touch the floor as they hang down, to relax their hamstrings in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). With no support from the arms, the hamstrings are actually contracting to support the torso and prevent falling to the floor. For these students, who desperately need to learn to relax and lengthen their hams, they are learning from their teacher’s words that “stretching” is actually contracting.

Ideally, as yoga teachers, we can use language to help our students deepen the connection between body and mind, ears and muscles, as teachers and students alike grow toward wholeness. Sometimes, that growth requires a bit of study by teachers to improve the clarity and accuracy of our instructions.

Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.