Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Knowing Anatomy

Yoga teachers, in general, do not know a lot about anatomy. That's a controversial statement, for sure, but hear me out. Many people become certified to teach yoga after a weekend workshop. The vast majority of us become certified after 200 hours, many of which are spent learning how to do asana, and sometimes learning about the other seven limbs. Anatomy may be discussed, but I would doubt even ¼ of yoga teacher training programs have a skeleton in the teaching room and whether there is in-depth discussion about how muscles, bones, ligaments, and fascia interact.

When I was new to yoga, I used to ask my yoga teachers for help before and after class with various injuries. With my current injury, long before it became surgery-worthy, I asked a world-renowned teacher for some ideas. Granted, he spent five minutes with me instead of longer private sessions, but at no point did he say, “you might have a disc issue.” Even after my 20-hour Anatomy for Yoga class, I had no idea what I was facing.

And perhaps that is the lesson.

One of my pet peeves with lawyers who represent children, or do any work with families, is that they often say, “I’m a lawyer not a social worker” when asked to help clients through the mess that is both juvenile and family law (emotional mess, not necessarily system mess). But I remember my great uncle once telling me that, as a lawyer, he had to know his clients’ businesses better than they knew them themselves. How else can you properly advise them? In other words, we lawyers have to understand our clients on the deepest levels. There is no other way to be a proper lawyer.

And perhaps this is the lesson yoga needs to learn from law. Yoga teachers not only have to know asana (the law), they have to know the scientific anatomy as well. We may not be doctors, but we have to know the body incredibly well. As yoga takes the country by storm and becomes a multi-billion dollar industry, there are a lot of discussions we need to have. There is a lot of talk about whether yoga is, at its roots, religious. How much of “true” yoga is lost in the gym culture? Do we really have to chant? Do we really have to know Sanskrit? What about this meditation? And you want me to “live” my yoga off the mat? What does that mean? Those are all really important questions, and I have struggled with all of them myself in my life and on this blog.

But at the end of the day, the vast majority of people at least start with yoga as a physical exercise. I did not, and it took me a long time to recognize that other people do. Most of them.

So perhaps the most important question, if only to keep from hurting people, is “how much should yoga teachers understand about the clients we serve?” I was talking to a fellow yoga teacher friend the other day and opined that perhaps my current injury is really an opportunity to share these issues with others going forward. I will never teach a yoga class the same again. I had a doctor spend two hours with me the other day, and much of that time was an explanation of how and why spines get weak, why discs herniate, and how that affects the rest of the body. Prior to that discussion, I had read a ton on sciatica, studied yoga anatomy, and read my own books, but what she told me was news – a new way to look at this issue. And it made a lot of sense.

So, what are we really doing in yoga? I am not always pleased with the current specialization of professionals in our culture. My spine surgeon cannot explain medications to me. A pain doctor cannot explain anatomy to me. But the bigger issue facing yoga, and perhaps the law, is that we simply are not willing to take the next, and most important step. As yoga teachers, we have to know the body better than anyone. We cannot say, “I’m a yoga teacher not a doctor.” (For the record, I have not heard anyone actually say that except to say they cannot diagnose.)

There is absolutely no question that the huge benefit of yoga is the ability to turn inside and know our bodies intuitively better. That is amazing and wonderful. But it is not the entire picture, certainly not in a 24/7 culture where as soon as class ends people are back on their cell phones. Living in an ashram, we would have the time to truly and fully know our bodies. And for people who choose that path, thank you! But for the rest of us, let’s use the information we can from modern science. We can look at x-rays and MRIs and understand the body on an entirely new level. Together, intuition and science can give us the insight about ourselves to truly heal.

This multi-billion dollar industry has brought us cute pants and cute slogans, but has it brought us health? We can argue ad infinitum about whether yoga has lost its true essence because of this explosion of people participating, and my answer would be yes. But I think there is an area where we can all agree yoga teachers, and the yoga industry, need to step up their game.

If we are going to be sharing this with the masses, we need to understand the masses better. We need to know the bodies first. We need to know them intuitively, as the yoga masters have for centuries, and we need to know them in a way in which we can speak to a modern audience, to the people whose only time to themselves may be on the yoga mat. We need not take out the other seven limbs to do this. This is an addition, not a subtraction. And for the people who take classes, our clients/consumers, whatever word you choose, you need to tell us to step up our game. You need to ask your yoga teachers what they really know about anatomy. It is, after all, your body. 

What do you know about anatomy? How do you share that with yourself and others?


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, Knowing Anatomy, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I think this line really sums it up:

    "Together, intuition and science can give us the insight about ourselves to truly heal."

    I am a hospital social worker by day and can appreciate your comments about the fragmentation of our healthcare system.

    In my yoga teacher training, we spent whatever yoga alliance requires studying anatomy--skeleton and all. We also went to a cadaver lab at a hospital. I thought that was really neat.

    Even with all of that, I feel a tremendous need to continue to learn about anatomy, perhaps in a healthcare environment to truly understand the complexities of the human body so that I can truly teach a whole person.

    I really enjoy your blog.

    1. Thanks! And that's amazing about the cadaver lab. How interesting!