When Jason R. Brown completed his teacher training in 1998, it met the minimum standards set by the Yoga Alliance. But he felt bewildered by his lack of knowledge in anatomy. In too many situations he was making educated guesses about people’s injuries and limitations. So he took some workshops, only to find that three-hour intensives were still not enough to help him feel confident in the classroom. If you’re a yoga teacher, you might relate to Jason’s frustrations. Depending on which training you did, the anatomy coverage might have left you feeling less than equipped to meet your students’ various needs and to plan effective classes. Luckily for you, Brown’s long road of self-education motivated him to become an educator himself. After training at the Swedish Institute as a massage therapist, Brown went on to design a rigorous program called Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teachers (ASFYT) which does much more than fill in some gaps—it completely educates yoga teachers in the anatomy they need to know.
Jason R. Brown: I started teaching in 1998 and after 4 years I realized didn’t know enough about anatomy. All I could ever find were 3-hours workshops here and there, and they presupposed some foundation in anatomy which I didn’t have. I enrolled in the Swedish Institution for the anatomy part of it—I wasn’t interested in massage. Then I enjoyed the massage and went through whole curriculum. Then I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe yoga teachers didn’t go through this—massage therapists have to have all this education.’ Yoga teachers are often looked to for this kind of knowledge but they get a minuscule amount of training. The subtext is that a yoga teacher training is just the beginning and one day you’ll fill in the blanks. But who does that? Most people get their 200 hours and start teaching right away. When I got out of massage school I wanted to share knowledge with yoga teachers. I wanted to do a program that was comprehensive and academic from ground zero and build up, not just a fly-by-night short course.
JH: How does the Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teachers work?
JRB: In the first two modules, I give lectures with an overhead slide presentation as well as notes that people go home to study. There are take-home quizzes, quick in-class quizzes, and a closed book comprehensive final exam. It’s a college level course and is quite demanding. People say, ‘Wow, we’re actually really studying this stuff.’
JH: That’s a lot of classroom work. Do teachers get to try things out?
JRB: The idea is first you acquire strong understanding of skeletal and muscular system in two modules. Then we look at yoga asana through the lens of anatomy. We say, ‘Let’s just step back and not assume anything about what we learned before.’ Let’s look at warrior two, for example. What’s unique about this pose? What’s working in it? What’s being stretched? How it is different form other postures? Then, we ask how do we maximize those benefits? How do we instruct those actions? What muscles are being lengthened? What would muscle tightness or weakness look like? What causes that? How does pain manifest in different poses? Teachers develop the tools to look at postures.
JH: There are some great testimonials on your web site. What have graduates said has helped them most about the training?
JRB: People report back that they feel a new confidence in what they are talking about. There’s no longer a mystery about what is working or not. Now they know. They often say, too, that they’ve been inspired in their sequencing. Instead of picking up a class sequence form various classes they go to, they’re on their own mat, saying, ‘I want to get into the piriformis today.’ They also have this heighten feeling of compassion towards their students because they now understand the difficulty some people have doing some poses.
JH: That’s interesting. Can you say more about how knowing more anatomy makes people more compassionate teachers?
JRB: A lot of instructors who are flexible don’t get why some people can’t do poses. Teachers take the view that if you just try hard enough you can do it. But if you study the body you see that’s not true. You want to set people up so that they will be able to do things they can do, instead of setting them up for disappointment and injury. So, for example in the workshop we’ll have everyone come into a lunge and look at the clearance between chest and thigh. If you have a long tibia, big boobs, or a thick torso, for example, your hands might not reach the floor—and your chest is already on your thigh. So how are you going to change that? All the practice in the world is not going to create that clearance. The flip side is that some things are possible for people—but not yet. You have to look at their body type and see what’s tight, what’s weak, and work backwards from simple things to more complicated. You give them things that will help them get father along on the path.
JH: So the experiential module at ASFYT is super important to allow people to apply what they’re learning.
JRB: In 3rd module, we do a few different things—I have everyone come up and show how they practice a pose—say, triangle pose—and we look at choices people make with the alignment of the feet and torso. Different teachers make different choices I ask why did you make that choice? Why are you making that choice from a muscular skeletal view point? What advantage does it have, what’s the maximum benefit? Then I get people to talk about it. I encourage people to be curious so they see it’s not a question of good or bad, right way or wrong way. We tend to adopt the habit of the style we practice we don’t even know why. It’s a fun challenge.
JH: Different schools have different ideas about how do to poses. Do people ever resist looking at their own choices?
JRB: Sometimes the experiential work brings up people’s defensiveness. People have been teaching for years and they’ve developed a belief system about what they’ve been doing. I try to foster curiosity and exploration. Then transformation can come. But at first people can get overwhelmed then defensive but in the final few days there’s exuberance and excitement as the process changes their understanding of what’s possible.
JH: How do you deal with that?
JRB: I tell people when you go back to teaching you’re going to be flummoxed for a while but that’s growth. It’s a gift—you become empowered in a sense that you are not relying on what other people say. You can think about what’s actually working and come up with new ways of doing poses. When you go back you’re a much stronger teacher My hope is that enough people do this course or some course like it until all yoga teachers feel like they have to stay up with what’s out there. With so many people getting injured, I hope this course raises the bar.
***** The ASFYT runs in three modules over either 6 or 10 months. The first two modules are lecture based and the third one is experiential. Brown has also arranged three different formats to fit people’s schedules but each route covers 108 hours. Brown’s program graduated its first set of students in June 2008, among them Marco Rojas, Chrissy Carter, Paula Liberis, and Laurel Beversdorf.
-- Joelle Hann is a yoga teacher and yoga journalist. Visit her blog Yoga Nation and follow Yoga Nation on Facebook and Twitter @yoganation.