Where’s your psoas? Your sacrum? Your big-toe mound?

Anterior_Hip_Muscles_2If a yoga teacher refers to your psoas, do you know what she’s talking about?

The Iyengar method of teaching yoga is precise and detailed. Instructions are conveyed visually (through demos) and verbally (through words). Teachers sometimes discuss whether specific anatomical terms should be used. Is it better to say “hamstrings” or “back thighs”? Can students identify  “psoas,” “sacrum,” and even “big-toe mound”?

The common wisdom is that teachers should not bombard beginners with overly specific terminology (which the average layperson would need to look up in an anatomy textbook). Having practiced law for a nanosecond myself, I can relate to the overuse of “legalese” and other esoteric/insider language.

That said, I wonder if simplifying anatomical instructions is always the best course–even for beginners.

If students are athletes or dancers, they are typically quite familiar with anatomy, especially if related to muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints. If students are health professionals, from physicians to massage therapists, they might actually prefer specificity.


Even absolute laypeople nowadays have basic medical knowledge. If they’ve lifted weights at a gym, they’ve probably scrutinized their “pecs” and “quads,” and maybe “patella” and “rotator cuff.” And if you’re a closet hypochondriac, you’ve surely Googled the name of some peculiar body part or rare syndrome–as evidence of your self-diagnosis.

Teachers can always define uncommon words using a visual aid (skeleton model or student’s body). Why not define the cervical, thoracic, and lumber regions of the spine, for example? Students might view such teaching as “value added” to Iyengar yoga.

Some teachers are health professionals themselves. If so, they might well focus their teaching accordingly. In Calgary, physiotherapist and yoga teacher/trainer Susi Hately has created a booming career around her understanding of anatomy, kinesiology, and “teaching people to get out of pain” (her motto).

Perhaps I’m OK with anatomical specificity because I’ve always been fascinated by medicine and, in my personal life, I’m surrounded by MDs and MD/PhDs. More relevant, my formative years (yoga-wise) were guided by teachers, eg, Donald Moyer and Mary Lou Weprin of The Yoga Room, Berkeley, who have no qualms about citing the “greater trochanter,” “solar plexus,” and “intercostals.”

That said, others probably zone out when they hear unfamiliar terms or simply too many words. I’m not implying that teaching with specificity is ideal for everyone.

That’s why the multi-pronged Iyengar method of teaching also emphasizes the “demo.” For the visually oriented, a solid, crisply performed demo is invaluable (and worth a thousand words).

In one class, a teacher might face students with divergent learning styles. For example, I recently taught a class that included a professor of dentistry (New York City Orthodontics practice) and an ER nurse (experienced students) and a Chinese immigrant with limited English fluency (avid beginner). Teaching a varied group, one can only try to accommodate everyone’s needs.

Demos versus words

Is teaching through verbal instructions generally the best way? I’m currently reading W Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, a classic guide to sports psychology and peak performance. The author pinpoints how tennis players sabotage their game by “trying too hard” and “doing too much self instruction.” He advises teaching with minimal verbal instructions (to reduce left brain chatter)–and instead to demonstrate an action and to let students experiment, simply observing their results, avoiding immediate judgments.

The Inner Game of Tennis

His ideas are somewhat inapplicable to Iyengar yoga because of the vast difference in time frame: Tennis involves super-fast action (eg, returning a 125mph serve). There’s no time for step-by-step, left-brain directives. In yoga, we’re moving relatively slowly, with ample time to scan to body to “ground the big toe mounds,” “lift the inner arches,” “widen the collar bones,” etc.

Still, shouldn’t verbal cues in asana ultimately fade? In performing a pose, left-brain management should eventually bow to right-brain instinct. It should be akin to returning that tennis serve–if a split-second could be stretched to 30 seconds, a minute, five minutes. In other words, shouldn’t we do asana by integrating all instructions simultaneously–expressing the words without actually hearing them? Of course, we must start somewhere.

Brain_Lateralization-1.svgImages: psoas, Wikipedia; brain lateralization, Wikipedia



  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. Verbal instructions ‘ keep me on my toes listening ‘ and help to keep my mind focused. Then I find the demo kind of puts it all together,as I am more visually oriented. Everything is great till I then try to imitate and feel it in my own body – as I settle into the pose. This is where I have to go through the points again in my mind.


  2. Luci your posts are always food for thought. I feel clear, easily understood instructions, coupled with a crisp demo, work for everyone, beginner or advanced practitioner, whereas anatomical terms may or may not work for the entire class. However in a class where the teacher knows that the more specific anatomical terms will be understood, then it may be an idea to sometimes introduce those, accompanied with an explanation for the benefit of those who may not know.
    I find in class the verbal cues help me to better my pose even if I have heard those instructions a thousand times; so when I practice at home I still find myself mentally going over the list of actions; more so since I started my teacher training. I now appreciate that students who come to class maybe once or twice a week (and not all have home practices) certainly benefit from the repeated instructions. However, its a thought to have a class midway during a session and let students take the poses with minimal instruction so they can see how much they have learned and absorbed! I like the idea of not needing any verbal cues and just taking the pose; maybe, one day:)


  3. Thank you, Luci. Yes – different people respond to different styles of teaching. As a practitioner of yoga, I use anything that helps me to connect to correct action and deeper awareness. This could include what you mention: scientific understanding and terms/silence so that the body can hear its own intelligence ask questions and respond to them/the memories of others’ words and different speeds of doing the same pose, and so on. It could be that the overall balance of teaching methods is most effective, so that all types of learners find something to relate to. There is much creativity involved in how we read our body on the mat and in how the teacher reads the room and the individuals in it. Thanks for the lively posts.


  4. Really interesting reflections! I think introducing anatomical concepts is important, for example the difference between the sacrum and the lower back. However I think that detailed anatomical cues without explanation (“contract your rectus femoris”) are probably going to alienate more students than they are going to help.

    I was taught that there are 4 main style of adult learners: 1) people who learn by doing and then reflecting; 2) people who learn by seeing and then copying; 3) people who learn by reading or hearing instructions and then putting into practice; and 4) people who learn by understanding the complete theory and then applying it in different ways. Another theory groups people into 3 types: visual learners, audio learners, and tactile learners.

    Which means that as a teacher, you have to diversify your methods to cater for as many different learning styles as possible! So it’s important to find a balance between giving specific verbal instructions, demonstrating, allowing students to experiment for themselves and feel the difference, and explaining the reasoning and theories behind what you are doing.

    Which is hard work but totally worth it to see how different people “click” with different things. 🙂


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