Anatomy & Yoga

The first time I was injured practicing yoga it was when a lead teacher ‘adjusted’ me in a standing pose. I was practicing Bikram yoga, and the only required anatomy training my teacher had taken was having read a book on anatomy that was discussed for one week during her Bikram Teacher Training. While telling the class that these poses had been practiced for thousands of years (a myth not based in reality/history we get into later) she insisted that every body must conform to the conventions of the pose insinuating mimicking these poses was not only doable for everyone at any point in their life, but that the only way to access the full potential of yoga was in forcing the body into them. This lead teacher roughly adjusted my own position in Triangle Pose causing me to tear my pelvic floor beginning my own quest for the truth about anatomy, teacher training and yoga.

anatomy, yoga
Don’t let your yoga teacher experiment on your body without any real training in anatomy: find a style, or instructor, that requires anatomy training. The more guru-driven styles of yoga can emphasize violent physical adjustments without requiring their teachers to learn basic human anatomy. Image: Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt – Anatomy lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer, 1617

Now, I am a yoga teacher and as part of my teacher training I picked a rigorous, science-based University-level teacher training program accredited by Yoga Alliance. Before even beginning the program, I was also certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a personal trainer so that I would have a stronger background in anatomy and the principles of exercise science. I’m not suggesting that every yoga teacher needs my exact same background just emphasizing the need for understanding whether the style of yoga you practice requires any in-depth anatomy training especially if the teachers give physical adjustments in standing poses: where the majority of yoga injuries from adjustments occur.

How Do I Find Out Whether My Yoga Teacher Has Even Studied Anatomy?

Their are different styles of yoga that emphasis alignment of one’s anatomy over the conventions of a pose. In fact, the majority of yoga teachers outside of the Bikram and Ashtanga traditions aren’t trained to give rough physical adjustments. After all, the fundamental principles of yoga include listening to the body’s internal sensations, not mechanically pushing oneself towards an external goal and allowing the yogi to inhabit the asana and a comfortable physical experience in the same moment.

Start with the tradition of yoga you are practicing to learn more about whether your teacher was trained in anatomy and to what extent.

For instance, Iyengar yoga has extremely high standards for their teachers in terms of what they are expected to know about alignment in the poses and human body. Getting into and out of a pose in a safe, calculated manner is the defining quality of Iyengar yoga.

However, if you are taking an Iyengar yoga class that doesn’t mean your teacher was necessarily certified by the Iyengar organization founded by B.K.S. Iyengar. If you teacher listed herself as a CIYT yoga teacher (shorthand for Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher) then you know she was in fact certified through the Iyengar organization vs. a teacher who says in her bio that she is a certified yoga teacher specializing in Iyengar. Studios that call themselves Iyengar yoga studios are required to only hire teachers certified by the founding Iyengar institution.

When you are reading your yoga teacher’s biography check to see if she attended a teacher training program accredited by Yoga Alliance. For instance, if she lists herself as a RYT-200, RYT-500 or RYT or any higher level, it indicates that her training was through a Yoga Alliance program and that after completing it she spent the extra money to register with Yoga Alliance to put that acronym after her name. The difference between attending a RYT-200 yoga teacher training and calling oneself a RYT-200 instructor is whether the individual paid the extra fees to Yoga Alliance to officially register with their organization but in both cases the teacher training received is the same. There are also various continuing education requirements for different levels of RYT instructors.

Yoga Alliance requires all their teacher training programs to include a substantial percentage of the program on yoga anatomy. Bikram is not a form of yoga that is aligned with Yoga Alliance. Teacher training programs affiliated with Yoga Alliance require a minimum of 200 hours of yoga teacher training (some offer much more) whereas there are yoga teacher certifications one can buy on the internet for $30 and call oneself a certified yoga teacher.

What Are Red Flags Concerning Anatomy, Yoga and Physical Adjustments?

The majority of yoga teachers are well-intentioned and give adjustments with a light touch. However, it is extremely important to recognize that not all teachers favor giving gentle adjustments and when the teacher’s ego becomes involved in the process the results can be dangerous for the yoga student. While yoga is a beautiful practice, and can be a journey into oneself it is also a physical practice and knowing the risks along with the rewards can help prevent such injuries.

The yoga world exploded with internal controversy in 2012 when a New York Times science journalist William Broad published an excerpt entitled, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” from his non-fiction book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. Some yoga teachers feared would-be and current students would be turned off yoga after learning the downsides of their beloved yoga practice. The article details yoga teachers and practitioners various injuries, and is even critical of the most-acclaimed B.K.S. Iyengar’s stringent instructions on several asanas causing a lot of turmoil within the yoga community.

The red flags that Broad lists in his articles often begin with ego and abandoning one’s own internal sensations (pain itself a red flag) to prove one can master a pose. Giving up one’s agency over to a teacher who insists the pose needs to be performed in a specific, manufactured way without honoring the unique anatomy of each individual is a recipe for injury.

There is a guiding concept in yoga called counterbalance. While often used in the context of sequencing asanas that work opposite muscles, I like to think of it as a way of seeing the benefits of yoga (the light) alongside the risks/darkness. Remember, you can always tell a teacher if you don’t want an adjustment. Recognize your body’s internal sensations and set your intention to listen to your experience to prevent your own unnecessary suffering.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Victoria Kamerzell is a Certified Yoga Instructor with an MFA in Writing. All her classes tell a story, and she loves the empowering potential of movement. She received her 200-Hour Yoga Alliance Teacher Training from Avalon Yoga International and is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer. Visit her website: victoriakamerzell.com or Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SiliconValleyToning/ for yoga asanas and tips.