Anatomy and physiology as western medicine understands it has not traditionally been apart 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 of course many do. It is instead to look at how anatomy can be a potent tool in making the increasingly popular traditional Ashtanga practice be safe and accessible to a modern and changing world. As Sri Pattabhi Jois so famously said, “Ashtanga yoga is for everyone.” Integrating anatomy into teaching will help to keep it that way.
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 then given the authorisation or, much more rarely, the certification to teach. This traditional way of learning yoga is called parampara in Sanskrit and describes the knowledge that is passed in succession directly from teacher to student. This is a wonderful, traditional and important way to learn any spiritual practice, under the direct and intimate guidance of the guru where information can be transmitted directly to the disciple.
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 practice of important theory. Sri 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 knowledge, or experiential knowledge, comes from simply doing the practice. But that 1% theoretical understanding of philosophy, scripture, and the anatomy of the body are just as important as they help to structure the knowledge derived from the practice.
This traditional and effective method of learning contrasts vastly from the modern methods 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 a lot less practice but, conversely, it does often include a lot more theory. Yoga Alliance requires that teacher training programs include a set number of hours of philosophy and anatomy lecture. 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 regular practice for years prior) typically learn less experientially and more theoretically.
Personally, a combination of these two learning methods, the traditional Mysore way and the modern TTC way, would probably be ideal. Recently Sharath Jois has started conducting teacher training courses in Mysore for those who are already authorized to teach, and though I have not personally taken this course I can only assume that he will be teaching at least some anatomy in addition to other theoretical knowledge. This, I believe, would be a nice balance between the two methods. But what does this have to do with anatomy and why is anatomy suddenly so important?
For five years I practiced Ashtanga yoga with many great teachers, none of which really mentioned anything about anatomy. I did a lot of self study from Gregor Maehle’s wonderful books on Ashtanga yoga to teach myself about anatomy, and every time something hurt I would turn to his books or the internet for answers. This is not to say that my traditional Mysore teachers didn’t know anatomy, but they probably were not taught to teach with anatomy as a regular reference. But understanding something so anatomically subtle and complex such 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 I began learning Ashtanga from Yogi Kamal Singh in Rishikesh, who places a strong emphasis on alignment and understanding the anatomy and physiology of what is happening to the body inside the postures, that I found a teacher who used anatomy as a strong teaching tool. Something as simple as the inner rotation of the thigh in most Primary Series asanas can prevent chronic backspin down the line. And learning anatomy can teach us to prevent injury in the future. Yogi Kamal Singh always says that the injury begins the first time we do the wrong movement, even if the pain follows months or even years later. By teaching his students the intricacies but also the simplicities of anatomy it is undoubtable he has prevented and corrected many misalignment that would otherwise lead to pain or injury.
Anatomy is important 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 functionally, we should also learn about and care for the vehicle that is our physical body.
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 so many possible reasons why Ashtanga yoga or any traditional form of yoga was not often taught with the reference of anatomy. Aside from the obvious western versus eastern medicine view of the human organism, one hypothesis that an Indian teacher of mine explained that I really 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 than the average body today. Up until relatively recently Indians lived similarly to how they have lived for centuries; eating local foods without preservatives or processing, sitting on the floor, working jobs that requires 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 industrialised food beginning to take over, was more lean and flexible. The contemporary western body is on average stiff, weak, toxic, heavy, and supported by an unhealthy spine. Today, in 2016, western bodies are typically unhealthier than the Asian body and even the Western body that Jois was teaching in the 1970’s. 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 system of yoga 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 the dynamics of the body. This method is what is now known as Iyengar yoga. But perhaps Ashtanga yoga today can learn a little bit from this important example, otherwise our vehicles may not make it to their destination.
In the six years I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga I have learned from a variety of incredible teachers: authorised, certified, unauthorised, Iyengar based, etc. And though I have hardly practiced with every teacher out there, I did notice a pattern that those who had studied primarily in Mysore or under orthodox Ashtanga teachers discus anatomy relatively less than those who are unauthorised, have studied with first generation Mysore teachers (such as Tim Miller and David Swenson), or those who have an Iyengar background.