Anatomy and physiology, as western medicine understands it, have not traditionally been a part of the Ashtanga Yoga system as it has been taught over many generations and centuries. But today, as yoga-related injuries are becoming more and more common and more people are interested in doing yoga, perhaps we need to reinvestigate the place that western science’s understanding of the musculoskeletal system has in the learning and practice of Ashtanga yoga today. This is not to say that Ashtanga teachers do not teach anatomy, as many do. Instead, it looks at how anatomy can be a potent tool in making the increasingly popular traditional Ashtanga practice safe and accessible to a modern and changing world. Sri Pattabhi Jois famously said, “Ashtanga yoga is for everyone.” Integrating anatomy into teaching will help to keep it that way.
Learn From The Source
Traditionally to learn and teach Ashtanga, one travels to Mysore for extended periods of time to practice with the living guru (the late Sri Pattabhi Jois or his grandson Sharath Jois) and learn directly from the source. When the guru sees that the student has sufficient understanding of the practice, they are given the authorization or, much more rarely, the certification to teach. This traditional way of learning yoga is called parampara in Sanskrit and describes the knowledge passed directly from teacher to student. This is a beautiful, traditional, and essential way to learn any spiritual practice, under the direct and intimate guidance of the guru, where information can be transmitted directly to the disciple.
Traditional Way Of Teaching
This method of teaching yoga has worked in India for thousands of years. And it does work very effectively if the student also conducts self-study (or svādhyāya in Sanskrit, one of Patanjali’s niyamas) outside of the practice of critical theory. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois always used to say Ashtanga is “99% practice and 1% theory”, as both will give us complete knowledge of the Ashtanga system. Most learning, or experiential knowledge, comes from simply doing the practice. But that 1% theoretical understanding of philosophy, scripture, and the anatomy of the body is just as important as they help to structure the knowledge derived from the practice.
This traditional and effective learning method contrasts vastly with the modern techniques of becoming a yoga teacher, i.e., the yoga teacher training course. Within a short period of time, sometimes even in just a few weeks, students are eligible to teach yoga. Contrary to the Mysore method of becoming a teacher, this method requires much less practice, but conversely, it often includes a lot more theory. Yoga Alliance requires that teacher training programs include a set number of hours of philosophy and anatomy lectures. Therefore modern yogis aspiring to be teachers are forced to learn about bones, muscles, joints, and how it all works together. Because of the general laxity of practice time requirement (Yoga Alliance’s requirement of 100 hours compared to Mysore’s standard of several years of practice), students in TTC courses (unless they have maintained a routine for years prior) typically learn less experientially and more theoretically.
For five years, people practiced Ashtanga yoga with many great teachers, none of which mentioned anything about anatomy. Then they did a lot of self-study from Gregor Maehle’s beautiful books on Ashtanga yoga to teach themselves about anatomy, and every time something hurt, they would turn to their books or the internet for answers. This is not to say that their traditional Mysore teachers didn’t know anatomy, but they probably were not taught to teach anatomy as a standard reference. But understanding something anatomically subtle and complex such as a sacrum nutation, will make or break (literally) your backbends. This is incredibly important, as such an injury can also break your practice. Learning anatomy can help with that!
It wasn’t until they began learning Ashtanga from Yogi Kamal Singh in Rishikesh, who strongly emphasized alignment and understanding the anatomy and physiology of what is happening to the body inside the postures, that they found a teacher who used anatomy as a vital teaching tool. Something as simple as the inner rotation of the thigh in most Primary Series asanas can prevent chronic back pain down the line. And learning anatomy can teach them to avoid injury in the future. Yogi Kamal Singh always says that the damage begins the first time we do the wrong movement, even if the pain follows months or years later. By teaching his students the intricacies and simplicities of anatomy, he has undoubtedly prevented and corrected many misalignments that would otherwise lead to pain or injury.
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Anatomy is essential because people are getting hurt while doing yoga. Particularly a yoga so dynamic as Ashtanga yoga. And though Ashtanga effectively brings us within and allows us to transcend our physical form in many ways, ultimately, our body is our temple, and it is our vehicle for that transcendence. In the same way that you would educate yourself on the mechanics of your car to ensure its function, we should also learn about and care for the vehicle that is our physical body.
Ashtanga Yoga And Anatomy
Ashtanga yoga is so alluring often because it is so steeped in lineage and rarely veers away from tradition. But why isn’t anatomy included in this tradition? There are many possible reasons why Ashtanga yoga or any traditional form of yoga was not often taught concerning anatomy. Aside from the obvious western versus the eastern medical view of the human organism, one hypothesis that an Indian teacher explained that people enjoyed was that, firstly, the Indian body is different from the Western body. And secondly that the average body from fifty years ago is different from the average body today. Until recently, Indians lived similarly to how they have lived for centuries; eating local foods without preservatives or processing, sitting on the floor, working jobs requiring them to be relatively active, etc. This, unfortunately, has all begun to change as Westernisation has spread around the world, accounting for more intake of processed foods laden with chemicals, desk jobs, western illnesses, etc. The average Indian body of the time when Jois was teaching in Mysore was relatively flexible, strong, and limber compared to the contemporary western body. Even the western body of fifty years ago, right around the time of industrialized food beginning to take over, was more lean and flexible. On average, the contemporary western body is stiff, weak, toxic, heavy, and supported by an unhealthy spine. Today, in 2022, western bodies are typically unhealthier than the Asian body and even the Western body that Jois taught in the 1970s. Food for thought.
So, how can we use Ashtanga yoga to heal an unhealthy body and spine without exasperating any imbalances or weaknesses? We can focus on anatomy and structural realignment of the body. Krishnamacharya was a great example of this when he taught the Ashtanga yoga system to a very ill and weak B.K.S. Iyengar in a way that healed and realigned his sick body. He did this by using props, focusing on alignment, and bringing awareness to anatomy and body dynamics. This method is what is now known as Iyengar yoga. But perhaps Ashtanga yoga today can learn a little from this critical example; otherwise, our vehicles may not reach their destination.
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