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Honoring Gravity: Judith Hanson Lasater Introduces Kinesiology for Yoga Teachers
Even the most in-depth teacher trainings give just a basic introduction to anatomy. Kinesiology, the study of movement, is the next step, but many yoga teachers are missing this key piece in understanding the biomechanics of the human body.
In this interview, Judith Hanson Lasater introduces us to kinesiology and how it can be applied to skillful yoga teaching. The study of kinesiology can help yoga teachers understand what’s really going on with their students and become better teachers.
With clear language and practical examples, Lasater explains how an understanding of both yoga and kinesiology can help relieve pain and ensure the body functions at its best.
A beloved and respected presence in the North American yoga community, Judith Hanson Lasater has taught yoga since 1971. She is also a physical therapist and holds a doctorate in East-West psychology. Lasater studies with B.K.S. Iyengar, and her teaching practice includes ongoing classes and teacher trainings in the San Francisco area. She teaches kinesiology, yoga therapeutics and yoga philosophy, and regularly gives workshops throughout the United States and the world.
Eva Norlyk Smith: Most yoga teachers learn anatomy in their trainings, of course. And everyone knows what the study of anatomy implies. But far fewer people are familiar with the concept of kinesiology. So first of all, tell us what kinesiology is and why yoga teachers should care.
Judith Hanson Lasater: I like to think of anatomy as like the letters of the alphabet. When we learn anatomy, we learn the letters. Kinesis means movement. So kinesiology is the study of movement.
Then, with this analogy, we have to learn how these letters are put together into words. If I can take it one more step, the sentences, that’s therapeutics. Every yoga teacher knows that when you teach a yoga class, it’s a yoga therapeutic class because there’s always someone with lower back pain or a headache or something going on.
If we want to understand, for example, how to help someone whose shoulder is painful or not working, we have to first understand what the normal movement is, what the kinesiology is. Of course, we can’t understand how the parts fit together and move together unless we know the anatomy. So kinesiology is the next step. It’s not tremendously useful just to know that the hamstrings are hip extensors and knee flexors, and they live on the back of the femur.
You have to ask, “How do I now take that understanding and that knowledge and how then do I apply it in the teaching situation? How do I understand the relevance of knowing that bit of data about the hamstrings?” That’s what kinesiology is: the understanding of how the musculoskeletal system actually begins to move.
Eva Norlyk Smith: So basically, you’re saying that just studying anatomy and knowing the names of the muscles and the bony landmarks really doesn’t quite give us the prerequisites that we need as yoga teachers for really knowing what’s going on with the student?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Yes. When we stand up and take Uttanasana (a standing forward bend with straight and parallel legs), I think most yoga teachers would be very aware that the position in its final state is stretching the hamstrings. What’s interesting is to understand the process of going down and coming up.
That’s because if we want to really understand, we have to analyze every movement in relationship to gravity.
Eva Norlyk Smith: Very interesting. When you are standing in front of a class or students as a yoga teacher, can you look at a person and tell they’re not aligned properly? Do you feel that a background in kinesiology enables a yoga teacher to develop the skills and the knowledge needed to dig in and figure out why?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Absolutely. I have done six months of complete cadaver dissection. So that means I have seen the inside of the knee. I have looked at where the abdominal organs are and how they fit. I’ve seen the inner body and it’s incredibly valuable. If you want to be a car mechanic, you need to actually take apart an engine. You need to look at an engine. You can look at books but when you open up and get into it, you understand it.
Eva Norlyk Smith: I think many yoga teachers struggle with knowing when a student is not in correct alignment in a posture just because he or she doesn’t know the asana well enough versus when that person just doesn’t have the range of motion to actually do that posture correctly. Can the study of kinesiology help cast more light on what’s going on with the student’s body and when the misalignment is due to limitations in the range of motion?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Absolutely. Uttanasana is a perfect example. So let’s say the person is not moving their pelvis or just bending from the spine and we want to know if it’s a hamstring limitation. It’s very likely true. It’s also very likely there’s a big rotator limitation. And so, the first thing that I want to do is to see if I can stimulate awareness. It may just be awareness. It may not be physical limitation.
Eva Norlyk Smith: Last but not the least, you have a course coming up on Yoga U entitled “Kinesiology and Its Therapeutic Applications - Tracing the Origin of Common Misalignment Patterns in Yoga Asanas.” Tell us a bit about that course and what you will be covering.
Judith Hanson Lasater: It’s going to be about the basic concepts of kinesiology that are directly and immediately applicable in teaching and practicing yoga because they go together. They’re two sides of one coin. You can’t do one without the other.
So an example would be what we talked about very briefly about what’s causing hip flexion in Uttanasana, understanding how gravity affects and shapes movement. If we don’t honor and take into account gravity, we cannot really figure out what’s creating the movement.
One of the big things I want to talk about is abdominals because I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the abdominal muscles do in the body. Sit-ups are a very, very inefficient way of strengthening abdominals because you’re not challenging them to do what it is they really do. When you want to strengthen a muscle, you have to know exactly what it does and you have to challenge it in that movement. One of the poses I want to talk about specifically is Boat Pose because I see that practiced in a way that does not strengthen the abdominals and strains the back. So those are the sorts of things I want to talk about in the course.
For more information about Judith's course:
Kinesiology and Its Therapeutic Applications - Tracing the Origin of Common Misalignment Patterns in Yoga Asanas