Why I Believe Anatomy is an Essential part of Training for both Yoga and Pilates Instructors

I felt compelled to write this blog after learning that there now exists registered training organisation (s) that are now stating that you don’t need to learn anatomy to be able to teach Pilates! That, in fact learning anatomy will make you a less effective teacher. I was absolutely horrified to learn of this as was my physio who is also a Pilates instructor as were some colleagues of mine too who teach Pilates and ones who teach yoga or work in the fitness industry. I’m not sure if this exists in the yoga world, but I do know that some yoga teacher trainings place less emphasis on anatomy than others. In my humble opinion, anatomy is an essential part of training.
Yes, Pilates and yoga instructors don’t need to have the anatomy knowledge of a physiotherapist or an orthopaedic surgeon as our scope of practice is different in that we don’t diagnose medical conditions/injuries, but if we did have the same knowledge it would make us better teachers not worse. We still need to know the basics and the fact that people are unique and that one yoga pose/pilates exercises doesn’t suit everyone same as one style of meditation and pranayama (breath work) doesn’t suit everyone. Just like personal trainers need to have an understanding of basic anatomy and physiology, we do too!

Yes, Yoga is mainly a spiritual practice but it is also a physical practice that can be dangerous. Yes, thousands of years ago, yoga teachers probably didn’t study anatomy, but thousands of years a go, it was not a litigious environment and yoga teachers didn’t attend mass teacher trainings and be given the right to teach yoga after a mere 200 hours training, they spent hours and hours with their guru being mentored and then eventually were allowed to teach.

Here are my issues about teaching with no anatomy knowledge:

First let’s look at Pilates:
1. If I have no understanding of anatomy, how on earth am I to understand one of the main principles of Pilates of Neutral to my clients? How do I check that they’re in neutral if I don’t understand basic anatomy?  How do I justify the importance of a neutral or imprinted spine?

2. I have a client comes in and tells me she’s got lower back pain due to a dysfunctional SIJ and that the physio said it’s fine for her to do reformer, but not to do anything that will shear at the SIJ further. First of all hypothetically if I haven’t done any anatomy training, I’m not going to even know what SIJ stands for and what it is and why it can cause lower back pain. I’m also not going to know which exercises on the reformer will aggravate the SIJ, so I won’t know how to modify for this client.
(I’m not saying I know every little medical condition/injury) but if an instructor has done training, they’re more likely to be comfortable modifying for a client and understand a medical report from a physiotherapist or surgeon). Plus I am more likely to know when a client needs to be referred to see a physio.

3. I have a woman come into my Reformer Cardio (jumpboard) class who admits discretely that she’s 6 weeks pregnant and will it be okay to do the class.  Because hypothetically I haven’t done any anatomy training I don’t understand how unsafe this is for her pelvic floor among other things, “I’m like yeah you’re only 6 weeks pregnant, can’t be that harmful!’. Luckily this is not the case for me, and I would simply not let her jump on the jumpboard and would give her other exercises on the reformer that are safe during the first trimester.

4. I have a client who comes up to me with her boyfriend (who has totally different posture to her) who has excess lordosis and kyphosis and complains that her lower back is tight and that her hips are tight but her boyfriend never gets these problems, why is this. If have done no anatomy training, I’m not going to understand there are different postural types and that people who have excess lordosis are prone to tight lower backs due to there being so much pressure in the erector spinae muscles and tight hip flexors as well. I’m not going to have the knowledge to tell her that it’s because her posture is different to her boyfriends and what exercises could help and make this worse.

Now Yoga:

5. I have a client come in and tells me she has sciatica. I freak out as in this hypothetical situation I don’t know what the heck sciatica is (it’s pretty common by the way). What do I do? Do I pretend to know what she’s talking about or do I say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what yoga poses you shouldn’t do as I don’t know what sciatica is as I was told in my teacher training anatomy and physiology aren’t important!’
Luckily in reality, because my training in yoga and pilates has taught me about anatomy, I would actually say to the client. Ok, no problem, what caused the sciatica (discogenic, piriformis syndrome, or another reason), how acute is it? What makes it feel worse? What makes it feel better? Then I would know what poses are going to be contraindicated for that client.

5. A client comes up to me and says her back hurts when she flexes her spine and that she herniated a disc in the lumbar region a few years a go. First of all, if I haven’t done any anatomy training, I’m not going to now what spinal flexion is and know which area of the spine is lumbar which is pretty basic anatomy. What do you think my client is going to think of me since they know this pretty basic stuff and I don’t, do you think they’ll want to come back to my class, will they feel safe. I’m also not going to know how the reasoning behind using props to help this person in seated forward bends.

6. A male student comes up to me who can’t sit cross legged and never has been able to comfortably, even as a child he couldn’t, but he really wants to be able to do Padmasana (lotus pose) and meditate in this traditional pose. Because I have not done any anatomy training, I think everyone should have the hips and knees capable of doing this challenging pose, so I tell him just keep trying and forcing the body and your hips will eventually open up enough to sit cross legged and then go on and do Padmasana.  So he listens to my terrible advice and come back a few weeks later and tells me he has torn the menisus in his knee! In reality, I would tell that person not to force it and that if he could never sit cross legged comfortablt, then I very much doubt his hips have the range of motion to every be able to practice Padmasana pose anyway and no yoga pose is essential and not to force things as it could damage his knees in the process.

7. Final example because hypothetically my yoga training has included no anatomy training and Sirsana (headstand) happens to come easily to me in this hypothetical situation, I decided to instruct everyone into sirsasana by the wall as I’m being safe using the wall as no one can fall over as the wall will hold them up. I haven’t learnt in my yoga teacher training that everyone’s anatomy and history are unique and that the majority of people shouldn’t practice sirsasana as they don’t have the core strength (lots of transversus abdominus activation) plus a lot of shoulder strength or the right anatomy to practice the pose safely and not reach compression in upper body. It doesn’t’ occur to me that if a person’s humerus is shorter than their cervical spine and head then it’s going to place a lot of pressure on their neck and do a lot of damage, especially if their shoulders and abs aren’t superbly strong. In fact if I wouldn’t even know what the humerus bone is in this situation!!!
In reality I have only ever taught sirsasana preparation in my classes (where the head doesn’t touch the ground and I only do with some clients) as from my studies with Jo Phe and Bernie Clark, I have learnt that Sirsasana is a high risk -low reward pose!

On a final note, do I consider myself an anatomy geek? Nope! I wish!! But I do have more than an average person’s knowledge. Does anatomy fascinate me? Yes! Do I hope to learn more? Yes which is why I read up on it and attend additional trainings on it. Should we try to speak to our clients in simple terms they understand as most don’t have much anatomy and physiology knowledge, yes, this can help for sure!

‘Working as a Pilates instructor, you will come across a wide range of clients with injuries, postural issues and muscle imbalances. As a result, it is incredibly important that you have a strong grasp on the Anatomy of the body to ensure you are able to assist your clients in their recovery and avoid causing any further injury.’ Studio Pilates International