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April 18, 2021

This is What Anatomy-Informed Yoga Looks Like

There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all yoga. Nor is there one definitive list of qualities that make anatomy-informed yoga. But today we will share what we believe demonstrates respect for the principles of movement and neuroscience (what we like to call “Anatomy-Informed Yoga”) in yoga class.

Warning: The list is not short.

Modern Postural Yoga (a term coined by Elizabeth De Michelis (2007)) often centers around the sun salutation, the flowing nature of ‘vinyasa’ classes, and/or alignment that can be both playful and rigid, nearly always with a aesthetic or geometrical component.

Human bodies are not so geometric.

The bulk of available group classes, online or off-line, have a repetitive quality to them (sun salutations, vinyasa). They usually emphasize form or flexibility. But our increasing lifespans require function if we also want to increase our healthspan.

A few sample ways that Modern Postural Yoga deviate from well-understood movement science and biology:

  • Promotion of 30 day yoga challenges, or even 10 day challenges (more than 3 days/week of rigorous or similar/repetitive yoga doesn’t give your body time to recover)
  • Repeating phrases without scientific evidence or even physiological plausibility: (such as “Twists will detox your liver”, “Your hips hold all your emotions, and your upper traps hold all your stress”, “Don’t invert while you are menstruating”)
  • Diminishing a practitioner’s experience of pain or discomfort in a pose. Or diminishing the inaccessibility of a pose through phrases like “Practice and all is coming.” (This phrase implies that yoga practitioners simply need more yoga, or more time practicing a pose). Or offering false promises if the practitioner could find more purity in their diet, or could keep “improving” alignment.

The yoga community would do well to admit that it has profiteered off of this false advertising alongside the marketing of young, hypermobile bodies, without acknowledging the long-term harm to regular folks (and the young healthy folks) from at least two angles:

1) Actual biomechanical harm to joints from repeated stretching into end ranges, and

2) Harm from ‘selling’ yoga as a one-stop shop (spiritual, physical, all-healing, and community), which in turn discourages practitioners from seeking out a more well-rounded and science-based “Movement diet”.

It’s a complex subject. Certainly there are scientific studies showing how yoga can benefit humans and various health conditions. But the bulk of movement science evidence simply does not support the way that most yoga is taught.

How do we balance this understanding while also honoring the good of yoga?

Along with honoring the roots, and actual philosophy of yoga, criteria for an anatomy-informed yoga asana class should include:

What to Look for in a Yoga Class

  • Strength based and dynamic (no long holds)
  • Not stretch or flexibility focused (including during cool down)
  • Functional movements way more than fancy movements
  • Plenty of modifications, offered in a non-hierarchical way
  • Non-judgemental opportunity to do your own thing (or go slower) when what is being taught doesn’t work for your body (this is one of our favorite things about online yoga! Just turn off your camera!)
  • Includes diverse movements taught in diverse ways (as opposed to a regular sequence and/or poses always taught in nearly the same way)  
  • Meditative centering and closing to maintain parasympathetic (“tend and befriend”) state
  • Core strengthening (not navasana / boat pose!) is a bonus
  • Fascia release techniques are a bonus (and a great alternative to stretching)
  • Be wary of teachers who are focused on the specific angles of joints and body parts, as this is usually about fitting in geometrically or the way a pose looks
  • Be wary of teachers or styles that ask you to do really picky, unnatural actions (like “soften your glutes” in bridge pose)
  • Class should be fun for you. You want to attend. 
  • You don’t feel worse during, afterward or the next day. 
  • Anything else specific to you!

What would you add to this list? What qualities do you seek in the classes you take (or teach)? Let us know in the comments below.

Our livestream classes, offered 3 times a week, and focusing on different (functional, evidence-based) movements meet the criteria above! Join us for a sliding scale drop-in rate or a low monthly membership (which also gives you access to our growing library of practices).

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