In response to our recent survey of Friends of Yoga teachers, participants highlighted that Anatomy & Physiology is the area in which they feel they most need further training.
This is something I can understand, even after four years of anatomy education during my training as an Osteopath at The British School of Osteopathy and 10 years as a yoga teacher I am still always learning more with every patient and every class: you could spend your whole life dedicated to the study of the human body.
I would encourage everyone to invest time and money learning more about the human body.
So where to begin? As an osteopath, the obvious place seems to be the spine and a discussion on low back pain, but this is a complicated subject and there are no ‘off the shelf’ answers as each body is different.
My first caveat would be that if during a yoga class someone is in pain, they should stop what they are doing and adapt their practice so that it is pain free. If it persists or if in doubt seek advice from an osteopath, physiotherapist or a yoga therapist.
Next work with a health care professional; ask their advice and feedback to them. If you are a teacher it will help to build your relationships with other professionals and may also result in referred clients. From my experience if a yoga teacher contacted me about one of their students I would definitely be more inclined to refer other patients to them as it shows that the teacher is aware, safe and confident to seek help when things go beyond their expertise.
So let’s revise the basic anatomy of the spine or the vertebral column, and just a side point here that we are working with “text book” anatomy; please bear in mind there are ALWAYS exceptions and anatomy is variable and dynamic. We are starting from the very beginning here (almost page one in Gray’s Anatomy) and we will build on this each month.
The Vertebral Column 1.0 - Back to Basics
There are in total 33 vertebrae, depending on the region they are located in the number, structure and function varies.
7 x cervical vertebrae
12 x thoracic vertebrae
5 x lumbar vertebrae
5 x sacral (fused together as the sacrum)
4 x coccygeal vertebrae (fused as coccyx)
The vertebral column has several functions:
Supporting the weight of the body
Transmission of forces via the pelvis to the legs
Carrying and orientating the head
Helping to move the arms
When viewed from the side or laterally, (also known as the sagittal plane in medical terminology), the vertebral column has a number of curves. The curve in the lumbar spine is known as a lordosis and in the thoracic spine the curve going the opposite way is a kyphosis.
A healthy spine should be able to maintain the essence of these curves in different positions. This is important to note as yoga teachers as it is a good indication of altered function in your students if they struggle to maintain these natural curves in certain asanas. Observing these functional changes in anatomy in an asana should prompt you to ask the question, why?
Downward dog is a common asana where we see this loss of lordosis in the lumbar spine quite regularly.
Generally (but not always) it highlights a muscular imbalance with the muscles which attach to the pelvis, specifically (but not limited to) the hamstrings restricting anterior rotation of the pelvis and rounding the lumbar spine.
What we want to see is fluidity of the spine in this pose, coming from a light floating up of the pelvis towards the sky. Ultimately allowing the vertebral column to lengthen; being able to flex and extend the spine within this specific placement of the body on the mat and then settling into a comfortable asana where the beautiful curve of the spine is recognisable. What I commonly see is a pushing of the body forcing the heels to the floor and this creates tension in the vertebral column.
If downward dog is a challenge then think about adaptations; adjusting the position of the hands and feet, bending the knees or elbows and most importantly not doing as much. A gentle reminder to your students that they don’t have to look like a stereotypical version of an asana, walking their own path pain free and tension free and nurturing the space this creates.
Aimee Newton is Training and Standards Officer and Tutor for Friends of Yoga, she is also a qualified Osteopath and has been teaching yoga for 10 years.