Breaking Anatomy

I have noticed in the last few years the tendency of fellow yoga practitioners to go in one of two directions in asana. People seem to either get really obsessed with the anatomy story, or… not so much.

Practitioners, like myself, who have come through injuries, have had reason to get acquainted with anatomical terms and seek a deeper understanding of the underlying structure as a means of gaining some insight as to what exactly is going on under the skin. We might feel it gives us “an edge” on improving performance or preventing further injury in our own bodies and in those of our students. Some of us even get a buzzing satisfaction from learning about the muscles and bones, organs, physiology, and history of anatomy. Doubtless we feel pretty smug, whipping out instructions like “externally rotate the humerus” and “upwardly rotate the scapulae.”

And then there’s the other modus operandi in yoga, for practitioners who aren’t that bothered with origins and insertions or memorising anatomical structure. For them, its sufficient to think of asanas in a more holistic sense. Instructions tend to be more anecdotal, and in fact there’s less focus on language and more of an intuitive, hands-on approach. I have received some of the most profound adjustments from teachers of yoga whose decades of experience came through their hands so expertly that I had no reason to question their anatomical knowledge. As a long-term practitioner, it is these rare and extremely experienced teachers that I seek out and for whom I have the most respect as fully steeped in actual Yoga.

Teachers narrating classes in a sort of “anti-anatomical” style tend to use more poetic language and/or reference body parts in a colloquial way rather than a clinical way, as in “spread your wrist-thumbs” or “smile your collarbones.” Or maybe they just count the class in Sanskrit and leave out the chat altogether — in fact this is often the most rhythmically successful way to teach a led class for experienced yogis, especially Ashtanga practitioners. As you may have experienced yourself, the directionally-verbose method of instruction can be enormously effective or in some cases just ridiculous. That’s sort of the beauty of it.

In any case, as a card-carrying member of the Anatomy Camp, I would obviously tout the benefits of having a thorough education in anatomy before trying to become a professional yoga teacher. I think we have a responsibility as teachers of movement to put in the time and energy becoming familiar with the instrument of practice: the human body. That said, I am now coming to realise that memorising nomenclature and the so-called actions of muscles as pulleys on the levers of the bones is an out-dated mode for understanding human anatomy and movement. It is an Anatomy Story that we tell ourselves.


The real thing, and the 3D printed version. How do these things actually work together in space?

It would seem that one still has to start with learning anatomy that way, so keep ahold of your Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. And I think Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy will always be a classic for every yoga practitioner. But it is much more important for us to make the leap from the parts list to the interconnected whole. Otherwise, we will never get beyond the idea of the body as a piece of extra-complicated IKEA furniture discretely composed of individual parts that bolt together but never quite fit. Try and move it around the room more than once and the parts want to come apart rather than flow together synergistically. This mechanistic view can’t be a good metaphor for the human body, can it?

Biotensegrity is a study of the interconnected whole. I think it makes more sense for yogis to be looking for the pattern that connects us through our extracellular matrix (ECM), rather than the parts in isolation. As we continue teaching and practicing yoga into second and third decades of experience, it is much more relevant to intuitively understand the fluidity of the ECM than to keep throwing around Latin terms for muscles. Knowing some anatomy might make us sound smart, but often these words are actually just advanced obstacles in the way of our own understanding.

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