What is the difference between teaching anatomy and teaching alignment?

When I was taught to teach yoga, I was trained on a number of things. Much of the physical instruction focused on the shape of the poses and the cues to provide.

I was impressed by the way the instructions and cues were centered around what we call “alignment”, that is, how the body should be positioned so that the practitioner feels safe and steady, and can experience the benefits of a pose.

As I became more familiar with anatomy, especially in the context of yoga, I started to distinguish between teaching alignment and from an anatomical standpoint. Both are great; it is not meant to say one is better than the other.

I find it interesting to start exploring what happens when we teach from an anatomical perspective. Here are some examples:

Knee over the Heel

Alignment: “Stacking the knee over the heels”

Anatomy: Keep the knee above the heel to avoid increased pressure on the patella

As the knee moves beyond the heel, pressure increases on the kneecap due to the convergence of all four quadriceps heads on the patellar tendons.

The fingers are interlaced behind the back.

Alignment: Interlace your fingers behind the back

Anatomy: “Interlace your fingers behind the back, and squeeze the shoulder blades.”

The key is to focus on the shoulder blades being adducted (drawn together) rather than the interlacing of fingers in order to increase pectoral stretch.

Cueing on Plank

Alignment: “Come to your toes and lower half way down”

Anatomy: “Come to your toes and lower half way down. Do not dip shoulders below the elbows in order to protect the rotator-cuff.”

Rationale: Avoid shearing forces on the rotator cuffs by only lowering to halfway before entering the Upward dog.

Come into Wheel Pose

Alignment: “Set your hands by your head with elbows in. Press down on the feet and come up.”

Anatomy: “Push down on your feet with your elbows, and keep them straight. Then, come up.”

Justification: Leaving aside all other cues, the mention of the position of the foot allows students to use their gluteus maximus without its external rotation action, which compresses the sacrum during backbends.

Find the balance between alignment and anatomy.

In my first years of teaching and the years that followed, I concentrated primarily on alignment. It’s good to know that learning a healthy alignment will cover a lot of what is needed from an anatomical standpoint.

When I taught alignment, I didn’t think about “why” I would teach the posture that way. It was evident for some poses. If you stack your shoulder over your hand in Plank or Side Plank, you can be more stable than if you don’t.

Why would we want our feet to be straight when doing Wheel? Why would we avoid dipping our elbows below the shoulders in Low Push-Ups? These are some of the questions that I did not have because I was focused only on the skin and the shape of my pose, not what was underneath.

Learn the why behind your teaching.

The more senior teachers know about the “whys,” the better they can impart to new teachers.

They can then become independent and think for themselves rather than just repeating what we say. They can then answer students’ questions about the alignment with “why” rather than just “that’s how I was taught.”

Consider the things you present when you teach. Ask yourself, “Why do I always teach this way?”

You can create more complex sequences using sound processing if you have a better understanding of anatomy.

Remember that teaching anatomy is a delicate balance. Please don’t talk to your students and overwhelm them with information.

Let them hear their breath as they process what they are doing. Keep in mind that if anatomical teaching doesn’t resonate with you, you shouldn’t make it the focus of your instruction. As you teach the poses and sequences, you’re incorporating them into everything you say.

As you teach, be yourself. It is the best way to connect with your students.

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