Why do yoga teachers need to know about anatomy and physiology?

by Andrea Newman

Expanding our knowledge and understanding of anatomy and physiology can be a game-changer in terms of maximising student safety as well as offering a higher level of transformative and experiential learning for our students.

As yoga teachers, we ask people to do things with their bodies, and students trust and follow. This is quite a responsibility. Proficient yoga teachers always use their existing knowledge and skills to optimise the health benefits of yoga and to minimise the chance of negative effects for their students.

Developing a sound understanding of what human biological systems do, how they do it, and how they interact with all the other systems of the body as an integrated whole, allows yoga teachers to teach with confidence, and to support a diverse range of students who have very different bodies and lived experiences.

What is anatomy and physiology?

Anatomy is the study of the structure and organisation of living organisms. Understanding anatomy is crucial in yoga teaching in order to appreciate the physical body's movements and limitations. For example, offering a variation of a practice for a student who has an injured shoulder requires a basic knowledge of anatomy in order to suggest an appropriate, safe and helpful practice for that student.

Physiology is the study of how living organisms work in terms of the science of cells and tissues at a microscopic level. In the context of yoga, it refers to how the body responds to the practices and actions. For example, knowledge of the mechanism of the body's neurological and hormonal stress responses can inform the teaching of relaxation. 

Anatomy and physiology work together to allow the body to function. For yoga teachers, expanding our understanding of both anatomy and physiology deepens our understanding of the implications of the practices we teach, enhancing the experience of our students.


How much do I need to know?

If you find the subject of biology challenging, you will be glad to know that you don’t have to be an expert in anatomy to be a good yoga teacher! Observational and experiential learning counts for a lot. 

You may get the bug and want to learn more and more about this fascinating subject. But if it’s really not your thing, then it’s important to ensure that you at least know some key basics in order to keep your students safe. 

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Learning about the human body and how it connects with the transformative and healing practice of yoga, empowers us as teachers to guide our students with confidence and compassion. Ongoing anatomical study can be part of our commitment to student safety and learning, and can also be an important part of our own professional and personal yoga journey.

Learning more about anatomy and physiology will elevate your teaching

Here are 10 reasons why:

1. Injury prevention and management:

Clearly it’s crucial and good professional practice for yoga teachers to ensure that they possess a general knowledge of anatomy and physiology so we know how to protect students from injury.

Ensuring proper alignment in practice and integrity in movement reduces the risk of strain or injury on vulnerable areas, and this requires knowledge of the musculoskeletal system. Understanding the respiratory system informs safe teaching of pranayama and breathing practice.

2. Adapting for injury and ailments: 

Yoga teachers can use anatomy and physiology studies to gain a better understanding of health in general. Familiarity of anatomical terms allows teachers to research and assess medical implications of students. 

Learning to recognise anatomical limitations or restrictions present in students with injuries or ailments helps teachers to adjust the practice effectively so that everyone can take part. 

Without a foundational understanding of anatomy and physiology, teachers may inadvertently encourage students to persist with postures that could worsen their symptoms, for example with conditions such as arthritis, back pain or digestive issues.

3. Assessing students:

Understanding general human anatomy enhances teaching by improving the quality of observations and assessments of students. A basic grasp of the ‘norm’ within the diversity of human anatomy creates a baseline from which to observe students and to know what to look for while observing students.

A higher level of knowledge can offer more targeted cues and provide appropriate guidance based on students' individual needs to help them refine their practice.

4. Effective lesson planning:

Imagine a situation where you are preparing to teach a class of people including some with lower back pain. You want to plan a well balanced lesson for everyone, while also minimising discomfort for those with back pain and sidestepping postures that could potentially worsen the condition. 

Knowledge of the muscles and structures in the lower back, hand in hand with your practical knowledge of the implications of different yoga postures on the body, will enable you to design an appropriately ordered and adaptable sequence of practices for a mixed ability group, while helping to alleviate pain and enhance mobility for those experiencing back pain.

5. Increased confidence:

Having a strong foundation in anatomy and physiology gives yoga teachers the confidence to answer questions and address concerns from students. 

Being familiar with the language of anatomy and physiology also enables yoga teachers to communicate effectively with healthcare professionals if necessary when working with students who have medical conditions or injuries.

6. Enhanced professional credibility: 

Yoga teachers who demonstrate a solid scientific appreciation of anatomy and physiology gain credibility among their peers and students, establishing themselves as knowledgeable and trustworthy instructors who continue to study and learn.

7. Wholistic approach: 

Understanding how the body functions as a whole is essential for a wholistic approach to yoga and health. In order to grasp this, you first need to know the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how the different body systems function and interrelate.

By incorporating anatomical and physiological knowledge, teachers can guide students towards a balanced wholistic approach, including physical health alongside the mental, emotional and energetic aspects of the practice.

8. Continued learning: 

Learning anatomy and physiology has no end point! It’s an ongoing process that you can take as far as your interest leads you. 

A sound grounding in basic anatomy and physiology provides a foundation to enable yoga teachers to read and understand more advanced books and articles with ease, and to maximise learning in more advanced anatomy trainings and yoga teacher training courses. 

Staying up to date with the latest research and developments in the field of health allows yoga teachers to provide their students with accurate and relevant information, which is much appreciated by students.

9. Personal growth and professional development:

Delving into the fascinating field of anatomy and physiology contributes to personal growth, professional development, and a deeper understanding of the profound interconnectedness of the human experience. 

It is through this wholistic approach, and by applying knowledge to practice, that yoga teachers can optimise the transformative potential of yoga and guide their students toward physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

10. Inspiring students: 

Knowledge of anatomy and physiology enhances a yoga teacher's ability to explain the benefits and limitations of each posture, helping students to deepen their understanding and practice. 

Teaching nuggets of anatomy and physiology in yoga classes can inspire students to ask questions and explore connections between their bodies and their practice, developing a sense of curiosity and self-discovery.

Foundational learning

Having a basic foundation of anatomy and physiology under your belt helps you to make the most of your own reading and study of the subject. This means that you aren’t continually having to stop to look up the meanings of words, or missing anything your tutor is talking about because you lack the fundamentals. It also helps you to better understand scientific literature and course materials.

'Essential Anatomy & Physiology for Yoga Teaching' is an online course I created to provide a sound foundation in anatomy and physiology, in an easily accessible way. Information is presented in the context of yoga teaching and course content takes a wholistic approach. 

The course is perfect for those who are about to embark on a yoga teacher training course, and is ideal as CPD (continuing professional development) for yoga teachers who wish to brush up on their A&P knowledge.

Check out the course curriculum here