Anatomy Training for People Who Don’t Like Anatomy (Yet) !

Anatomy of Yoga Course Manual
Anatomy of Yoga Course Manual

This year Movement by Design founder Luke Bryan and I have partnered to create and facilitate a new kind of anatomy training for yoga teachers.  Rather than asking teachers to memorize muscle origins and insertions or scripted alignment cues, we challenge teachers to think critically about what good movement means and how to achieve it.  We focus on teaching movement principles that hold true whether you are extending into a backbend or diving under an olympic lift.   So how did an Olympic Lifting coach and a yoga teacher meet and decide to develop training together in the first place?  Well, funny you should ask.  Here’s our story…

I met Luke Bryan when I was attempting my first deadlift PR. I was a novice lifter and I probably weighed about 50kg. I had managed to pull the 70kg bar off the ground but it felt so heavy and for a moment I seemed to be stuck in mid-lift. And then I heard a voice behind me yell, “Hips!” and I thrust my hips forward and completed the lift. My first feeling was elation (deadlift PR!) and my second feeling was confusion. “Who the hell was that strange dude yelling at me?” And, “How had he known exactly the right cue at exactly the right moment?”

When somebody can assess movement that quickly and skillfully, it gets my attention. Later we struck up a conversation and I discovered that he was studying to be an Osteopath and that we shared a passion for anatomy. We had both played multiple sports and were curious about how different ways of moving contributed to different aspects of developing the body and mind. When I later decided to pursue Olympic Lifting, I asked Luke to be my lifting coach.

Luke coaching a lift
Luke coaches a lift

While at the gym, I watched other lifters. And I started to appreciate that something I thought was all about strength actually has a significant mobility component. You cannot access your full potential in a lift without a certain amount of range through the ankles, hips, and shoulders. Lifters lacking mobility cannot squat low enough to get the full power of their hips. I thought, “A few yoga classes could really help some of these lifters shift more weight.” By contrast, my innate flexibility and years of yoga meant I had no problem dropping down into a deep squat with a bar in my hands. The problem was I couldn’t stand it up quite as easily! I had ranges of motion where I lacked coordination and control and this was putting more wear and tear on certain structures and leaving me weaker in other areas. I reflected that as yogis rather than pursuing endless flexibility we might stay within ranges where we can coordinate and control the movement, balancing strength and flexibility. In order to strike this balance, however, yoga teachers and students need a more comprehensive and practical grasp of anatomy. Since I facilitate yoga teacher training, I often hear from my students that anatomy either bores them or scares them. And I can relate. Upon completing my 200 Hour Yoga teacher training in 2004, I still knew next to nothing about anatomy. As an athlete, I had moved all my life so I had an experiential and instinctual understanding of what good movement looked like and felt like. But I was hired to teach in gyms and yoga studios with very little grasp of how to help my students move well. I experimented with movements and sequences and tried to find an order and structure that made sense. But I didn’t really have any framework to build on. Without an understanding of the body, I was just moving people around based on what this expert said about how wide or narrow the hands should be in plank or what that expert said about whether the glutes should be switched on or off in backbends. Everyone had opinions. Everyone claimed a lineage or guru with superior knowledge. But, none of them explained the anatomical intelligence behind their rules and methods and I didn’t have the courage to ask. After all, what did I know? Then I learned about Paul Grilley. He was speaking the language of anatomy in an accessible and relevant way – challenging his students to ask, “What changes in the body when you put your hand here or your foot there? And is it the same for everyone?” Instead of speaking in absolutes, Paul suggested we should look at the variation in the human form, acknowledge that we might need some freedom to adjust a pose according to our unique needs, and encourage people to feel sensation in a target area rather than conform to a one size fits all approach. Studying with Paul gave me the confidence to begin deconstructing yoga postures and asking, “What is the intention behind this pose?” rather than, “What should this pose look like?” Since then I have designed my own anatomy studies course, including training with Tom Myers and a human cadaver dissection with Gil Hedley and each new layer of understanding about the body adds another dimension to my teaching.

Training with Luke was like returning to those early years with Paul in the sense that it was a totally new and refreshing conversation about movement that once again shifted my perspective and changed my teaching. I was learning from Luke’s process of breaking down Olympic Lifts for me and I was translating those ideas into helpful cues and progressions in yoga. And Luke was seeing potential in the movements of yoga to assist his clients with greater mobility and body awareness. We got so excited by the ways were experimenting with movement in our training sessions that we thought, “What if we could teach anatomy for yoga teachers in a way that’s more like our conversations about movement?” We started to envision what that might look like and how our different perspectives and experiences could shape a training that talks about the body as an integrated system so that teachers can see how tension in a student’s arms might be originating from her feet. We felt that while respecting that each individual yogi is unique, we could identify and explain why certain areas of the body are weaker, tighter, or vulnerable to injury for many modern yogis. And we thought, “If we teach anatomy as a way to recognize and unlock someone’s full potential rather than just memorizing muscle and bones, it could change the way people respond to anatomy training.”

Because Luke and I like to go for things, we decided to go for it! We got to work developing an anatomy module and delivered it as part of The Yoga Social’s 200 Hour Teacher Training which graduated 15 amazing new hatha yoga teachers in July 2016.  In their final exams, each of these teachers was able to write and deliver their own yoga sequence with a clear intention and a coherent structure based on their understanding of functional anatomy.  These sequences were creative and diverse – from a pre-surfing warm up to an end-of-day unwind for stressed office workers.

Based on our work with The Yoga Social, we became part of the teacher training faculty at MOVE, delivering our Anatomy Module for their 2016 Flow Yoga Teacher Training which just graduated 13 more dedicated yogis who are thinking more critically and holistically about movement on and off their mats.

In teaching Anatomy for Yoga, we both start from the premise that there are no simple answers and that how you are performing a movement – whether it’s down dog or an olympic lift- should be determined by why you are performing the movement. Luke and I try to look past symptoms (“I have a bad back”) and consider what is happening upstream or downstream in a movement chain that might “break” the chain and overload weaker structures. Whether you are watching someone pull a heavy weight off the ground or arcing into Natarajasana if you understand functional anatomy, you can see the way a head is thrust forward or a low-back over-arched to compensate for tight shoulders. You can see how a shortened achilles tendon influences the position of the whole spine. Luke and I want to help yoga teachers understand the anatomy of asanas so they can look at someone in a pose and ask, “What doesn’t move enough? What is moving too much or in the wrong direction? What would these compensations mean for this student’s body over time? How can I redirect the energy in this pose so that the movement is fluid, coordinated, and connected? Ultimately, we see anatomy not as the study of bits and parts but a framework for understanding how to move through life with greater integrity.

Jennifer Balances in Vasisthasana
Jennifer Balances in Vasisthasana

Luke and I are currently developing movement training informed by Luke’s clinical experience, our combined experience teaching and coaching movement, and our passion to help people towards movement quality rather than movement quantity.  Watch this space to learn more about what we’ll be offering!

Luke and Jen