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Basic Anatomy for Teachers

Why should yoga teachers study anatomy? Find out some excellent reasons, beginning with an introduction to flexion and extension.

By Julie Gudmestad

It's fair for a yoga teacher to ask, "Why should I learn anatomy? I want to teach yoga, not anatomy. My students want to learn the poses, not anatomy. And it's hard to learn all the Latin names of muscles and bones. Sounds like a lot of work without much practical application."

I can definitely understand this point of view, and I remember all too well the challenges of learning anatomy when I was in physical therapy school 30 years ago. However, having taught my "Anatomy Awareness in asana" classes for several years now, I've seen and heard much evidence pointing to the value of this study for yoga teachers.

Practical Knowledge

For example, when you understand how a joint moves in a pose, your instructions will be much clearer. You'll be able to tell your students correctly which parts of their bodies should be actively contracting and which should be relaxing. If you need to talk to a medical care provider—your own or a student's—you'll be able to understand the structures being discussed, whether it's a rotator cuff or a medial meniscus. And finally, studying anatomy will help shed light on your own mysterious places, those parts of your body that are weak or injured or tight, which will inform your teaching with greater understanding and compassion.

Now that I have, I hope, convinced you to continue your anatomy studies, we'll begin by going back to basics. In the next several articles, we'll define the basic terms of movement in the traditional language of anatomy, followed by some examples from the yoga world. Then we'll all be speaking the same language and can build on that knowledge as we dig a little deeper into the workings of the body in yoga poses.

The Sagittal Plane

In traditional anatomy and kinesiology (the study of how the body moves), we describe all movement in terms of the three cardinal planes, viewing the body in the anatomical position (fully upright with the arms by the sides and the palms facing forward). In this column, we'll take a look at the sagittal plane, which is named after the sagittal suture, the seam on the top of the skull that goes from front to back. Standing upright, you might picture this plane as a vertical pane of glass that enters the center front of your body and comes out the back. That is, it goes from nose to back of the skull, from breastbone to spine, from pubic bone to tailbone. Any movements that occur in or parallel to this plane are referred to as either flexion or extension.

Flexion vs. Extension

As a general rule (there are always exceptions!), when two bones move closer together in the sagittal plane, the joint between them is flexing; when the bones move farther apart, the joint is extending. We can look at a couple of classic examples in your legs when you are standing. If you bend both knees, they are flexing, since the femurs (thighbones) and lower leg bones are moving parallel to the sagittal plane and are coming closer together. Similarly, if you stand on your left leg and bring your right knee up toward your chest, both the right hip and right knee are flexing. Still standing, if you lift your right leg straight up in front of you, as in kicking a ball, your right knee is extended and your right hip is flexing. When you are standing fully upright, your hips and your knees are in extension.

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Reader Comments

Jessie Luttman

Great info! Unfortunately not very many teacher trainings include/make time for anatomy.

John D

About the worst written article in this magazine.


This is great. But how about a few resources of where we can begin to deepen our knowledge and understanding of anatomy. I have many books, but many are all together overwhelming. What about mentioning a few books or resources to get started and grow our anatomical understanding.

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