As yoga teachers, we have a wonderful opportunity to help yoga students learn about their bodies and how all the separate bones, joints, and muscles work together in harmony to create yoga poses. Using the correct anatomical names for body parts can simplify and streamline this process immensely. However, some yoga teachers rarely make anatomical references because it doesn't fit their teaching style, or because they have little training in anatomy. Other teachers clearly enjoy talking about anatomy but don't want to risk students being bored or lost in a technical discussion. By including just a bit of anatomy in each class, it is possible to strike a balance between too much information and none at all. The following suggestions will help clarify your instructions and make them more accessible to your students.
Show and Tell
First, I think it's important to remember that the average yoga student isn't interested in studying anatomy. Don't get me wrong—some people are fascinated by the structure of the body and how it functions in yoga poses. However, most students come to class to do yoga, not to struggle to understand Latin names and complicated muscle interactions. So our challenge as teachers is to use our knowledge of anatomy to help our students deepen their work in a pose and to stimulate their interest in their bodies, without overstimulating their thought processes.
Many lay people don't have a good understanding of locations of structures; even basic words such as hamstrings, sacrum, and scapula are a bit mysterious, to say nothing of the names for any deeper body part, like psoas. If you just mention the body parts in passing while explaining a pose, students may struggle to translate your words into actions in their bodies. Therefore, when you use an anatomical name in class, I recommend that you start out by showing students where the body part is and how to find it on their own bodies. If you're going to talk about the sacrum, for example, have students find their sacrum by putting their middle finger on their tailbone with their palm on the back of the pelvis, at which point it will be covering their sacrum. Are you planning to talk about the hip joint? Most people don't know that the actual ball-and-socket joint is in the front, very near the surface. The left hip, for example, is a just a few inches to the left of the pubic bones (do your students know for sure where the pubic bones are?).
Remember to Follow Up
After your students have located the body part you're referencing, give specific instructions about it in the following pose. In fact, if you refer to it again in a few poses during the same class, chances are good that the information and kinesthetic knowledge will be stored in their long-term memories.
Let's say you'd like them to relax their upper trapezius muscles. After demonstrating that they're located between the base of the skull and the upper scapula (shoulder blade) on the back of the neck, have students feel that these muscles contract when they lift their shoulders up toward their ears, and they relax and lengthen when students release the shoulders back down. They can first apply this knowledge in sitting postures and standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Remind them consistently to lengthen the upper trapezius during the standing poses as they hold their arms up and parallel to the floor. It's more challenging—and vitally important—to perform the same action, which lengthens the neck, when upside down in Sirsasana (Headstand). With your reminders to be aware of the upper trapezius plus the practice of relaxing these muscles during class, your students are more likely to remember the exercise during their practice at home, and even when they're sitting at their desks at work.
Enhance the Practice
While there are unlimited opportunities to call your students' attention to anatomy, it's especially important for yoga students to have a feel for and understand a few specific parts of the body. The tilt of the pelvis, which can be experienced easily by students on hands and knees or lying on their backs, is important because it determines the arching or flattening of the lower back. The balance between lifting the arch of the foot and grounding the first metatarsal head (base of the big toe) can be practiced both in standing poses and non-weight-bearing positions. Most yoga poses use external rotation of the shoulders, which is especially important in inversions. Do your students know what that means, and how it feels, including when the shoulders are flexed (with arms overhead)?
If you want to use anatomical language to help deepen your students' practice and understanding of the poses, work with only one anatomical name, principle, or movement per class. If you go into more than that you risk having it all turn to mush in your students' minds. And unless you're very well practiced in anatomy yourself, review the material before you present it in class. Your instructions will be clearer, and—you never know—one of your students may be a health care provider like me, who will appreciate your hard work to integrate yoga and anatomy.
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.