The yogi asked: why study anatomy?

“The wise, by means of an inner concentration on the “âtman” (“adhyâtmayoga”), thinking him who is placed in the cavity (in the heart), whose abode is impervious, who exists from times of old, leaves both grief and joy.”
Katha-Upanisad, II.12.

As Humans, we have been driven by a need to understand ourselves on every level at pace with the exponential growth of our hyperactive cranium. This desire to know ourselves is exemplified in Yoga practice as we seek to discriminate between what fluctuations of our perception are attributed to outside sources, and what is really “us.” Using the prism of Yoga practice to filter stimuli and ultimately pare down the chaos of the mind in flux to a simple vibration of the self is a considerable challenge for every aspirant. Most of us just want to know if we’re doing the postures right.

On this path of Yoga practice which in itself is an exercise in concentration of the mind, we use the body as a tool to harness attention. The human mind, second only to outer space as the greatest unknown field still unfathomable in its potential, is wont to remain mysterious. But as we grapple with the first few rungs on the ladder of Ashtanga Yoga, we are given some slightly easier goalposts. It is possible to contextualise all the subtle neurochemical-spiritual complexity inherent in the struggle to reach dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, by starting with a contemplation of the gross.

The Yogi who studies human anatomy will find in her days of dissection an array of relationships. This process of semantic categorisation will lead to a satisfying level of understanding that becomes useful as we link up with other professionals in the world of healthy lifestyle. In studying anatomy, we’ll become better communicators. The etymology of anatomy is from the Greek, temnein, ‘to cut.’ In dissection, we cut up concepts into smaller parts, and later in the learning process it is the synthesis of these separate parts that becomes the stuff of real learning. Biotensegrity as a natural way for yoga practitioners to approach anatomy, as a holistic study of sacred geometry.

Synthesising discrete concepts is common in all fields as researchers look for the pattern that connects their retinue of little discoveries. Tying together the “big picture” could be a way of simplifying the astonishing range of human discovery so we can all talk to each other. Is it necessary to cut up a cadaver to make these discoveries? I don’t think so. There are many ways of dissecting, and only one of them requires an actual scalpel.

The Ashtanga Invocation refers to Patanjali holding a conch, a discuss, and a sword, where the sword refers to discernment. Dissection of human anatomy in any number of ways is one means by which the Yogi is constantly honing her faculty of discernment, realising the gross and subtle truths of what it means to have a human body both individually and in a world of other humans.

Studying human anatomy in a more academic context brings a highway of perception into the great map of understanding, and we will start to sound very clever. However, it is always necessary to review our purpose in learning anatomy as Yogis and how this study reconciles with the rest of the practice. Knowledge, even right knowledge, is in itself but a vrtti and actually just a story that plays upon the mind, creating its own traps.

For the anatomist becoming a bit too satisfied with herself, it is useful to check in with Yoga Sutras 1.5-1.11 that talk about the process of un-colouring your thoughts. Memorising structure names, learning spatial relationships, and becoming fluent in the language of western anatomical concepts is but a convenient game for honing the sword of discernment. In the end, our task as Yogis is to learn how to unlearn what we think we know.

As we process all this knowing, I like to think of studying anatomy as a means of paying homage to the body, lovingly learning all that I can and then letting it go. For me, that’s reason enough. But there are much more immediately practical reasons for a Yogi to learn anatomy, not least of which is out of pure curiosity. What is actually going on in there?

I strongly think it is important for movement professionals to have a background in anatomy, especially Yoga teachers, as we learn to connect our students with the services they require. For example, why keep a student reaching for the unattainable through pain when it is clear they need a physiotherapist, who can diagnose and help rehabilitate musculoskeletal issues. Repeatedly overloading the shoulders in chaturanga is a common example.

As Yoga teachers we are in such a crucial region of the health span in the lives of so many regular people. We have the opportunity to encourage our students to really listen to their bodies, which in itself hastens and accelerates change. Change can manifest as an “injury,” and these injuries often resolve themselves. Yoga teachers with a vocab in anatomy can help their students understand what is happening, and perhaps avoid panic. If an injury needs professional attention, a Yoga teacher with some understanding of common pathologies with be able to help identify the need for referral.

Going back to the curiosity factor as reason enough for a Yogi to study anatomy, I think that’s a nice way to tie this up. We get so caught up in our heads, with various and often conflicting instructions from different teachers for different reasons. It is crucial to listen to the teachers who have come before us, as their insight is worth years of research. But when there is confusion regarding the right way to do something on the mat, I think that simple curiosity is what leads us to studying gross anatomy, as we respectfully wonder why our teachers came to have their interpretations of what is the correct method. Find out for yourself!

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