Why it’s Important to Learn Anatomy Hands-On

Karen Fabian shares her experiences at the Laboratory of Anatomical Enlightenment, and some thoughts on why it’s so powerful to learn anatomy from hands-on experience, not just books.

Human Arm and Torso of an Anatomical Model

What Can You Learn from the Body When You Look Beyond the Books

I had a chance to attend a cadaver lab training the first week of this month. I went to Phoenix to the Laboratory of Anatomical Enlightenment with yoga teacher, Tiffany Cruikshank, and many other teachers to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Every day while I was there, I blogged because I wanted to get down in print my first impressions of the training and all that I saw. But over the past 10 days or so since I have returned, I’ve had time to let my observations sink in, but more importantly, I’ve had a chance to apply what I learned to my teaching.

Learning from Books

I would say that most people learn anatomy from books. For those that have a medical background or are in some kind of hands-on caregiver role (physical therapist, nurse, doctor, acupuncturist or massage therapist, for instance) their background might include a chance to see a cadaver.  What I found from this training was that some teachers attending had done a similar training but with a donor who had already been dissected. This was the case with me, as I’d be a physical therapy student many years ago and part of my undergraduate work included time in the cadaver lab.

The sheer impact of being involved in something like this, was my biggest takeaway. It was incredible to have the opportunity to not only see the body in its most basic form but also to be responsible for the actual dissection. Now that I’ve done both formats, I can certainly say the learning is quite different when you’re doing the dissection yourself.

Another big takeaway for me that I observed, is that everything in the body is layered. It’s so hard to isolate one muscle without noticing its proximity, shared space and similar action to other muscles. For us as yoga teachers, this has broad implications for how we answer questions from students about “what muscle does this or that” or “what can I do to stretch (fill in the blank) muscle?” For many of our students, they may think of the body in a somewhat one dimensional way. But truly, once you look deep inside, you see it from all dimensions and realize how interconnected everything is.

You Can’t See What You Don’t Know

As I’ve been teaching this past week, I’ve watched my students through a different lens. When I look at their shoulders, for instance, I see differently through the skin to the level of the muscles. I did this before, as I’d studied for years from books and even videos, but again, the appreciation is quite different when you see it in person. I once read that you “can’t see what you don’t know.”

That’s often why I start my anatomy training with a postural analysis. It is important that the teachers get used to observing someone’s body without getting bogged down with the detail. There is so much to know, with the muscles names, origins, and insertions (which they don’t know yet). This detailed knowledge comes over time but it’s always important to hone your skill using your eyes and the power of observation as one of your tools. Regardless of how much you know about anatomy, you can at least do that.

We used this ability to observe on that first day when we met the donor that our group would be working with all week. We only had our observing skills at that point because we had no medical history for the donor. As we noticed limitations in range of motion in her hip and shoulder, we noted she had scars on her hip as well. The week proceeded, and we, in fact, found a hip replacement and a completely degenerated shoulder joint to match the crepitus we heard that first day.

Anatomy and Yoga

As yoga teachers, we talk often about the shoulder joint and the impact of different poses, binding variations and arm balances on the structure of the shoulder. It’s always an interesting conversation to have with teachers as many times, teachers will suggest that moving from High to Low Push Up, let’s say, really has no impact on the shoulder. Well, we know from the study of anatomy that it’s certainly hard to say anything is absolute in every person we see, but after observing the shoulder joint before, during and after full dissection, I have grown a new appreciation for how much muscle and joint material (tendons and ligaments) surround the joint. It does give you pause when you think about improper alignment, dipping too low in Low Push Up or “resting” in all that soft tissue that surrounds this important joint.

Some recent blog posts on anatomy have suggested a gliding relationship between muscles and within muscles at the level of the fibers contained therein. This is somewhat contrary to the more common thinking that muscles stretch or lengthen. This is the somewhat typical visual of a muscle lengthening between its origin and insertion. While we didn’t see what was happening at the level of the individual muscle fibers we most certainly did see the relationship of one muscle to another and how there was quite the “glide” between them. This was very apparent when we pulled back the trapezius and underneath saw the serratus, the subscapularis and even the rhomboids. Layer upon layer, the muscles appeared and with each one, we discussed their action, origin and insertion. It was amazing.

What Next

I chronicled so much more of it in my daily blogs from the week, which you can look back and review if you wish. Overall, the experience was invaluable and I’d highly recommend it for anyone that might be interested. For future trainings with Tiffany like this one, check out the Yoga Medicine calendar. Fueled with inspiration from the training, I’ll be hosting a free webinar on shoulder anatomy this coming Wednesday at 6 pm EST. When you sign up, I’ll email you a free PDF on the shoulder. To sign up, click here.


About the Author:

Karen Fabian is the founder of Bare Bones Yoga She has been teaching yoga since 2002 and has written 3 books: “Stretched,” “Key Aspects of Anatomy for Yoga Teachers” and “The Bare Bones Yoga Guide to Anatomy.” She lives and works in Boston.

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.