As most of us working in the field of yoga anatomy are aware, memorising muscle attachments is not a particularly useful exercise in and of itself. For one thing, muscles as single entities kind of don’t exist anymore. Owing enormous thanks to the ground-breaking work of manual therapists in the last few decades, we are now starting to fully embrace the holistic model of fascial continuities as the great attenuators of force in the body and to feel the impact of this paradigm shift in yoga anatomy. Body painting is a very effective method of teaching fascia-first principles of human anatomy, especially for yoga practitioners who tend to be very kinaesthetic learners.
While at Edinburgh uni studying anatomy, I had the great fortune of meeting Dr Gabrielle Finn, Senior Lecturer in Medical Education at Hull York Medical School. She taught me the basics of using body painting techniques to explore underlying anatomy and I have been expanding on this innovative teaching tool in my yoga anatomy workshops ever since. Since bringing my classical dissection-based anatomy training together with contemporary ideas such as Thomas Myers’ “Anatomy Trains” and Joanne Avison’s “biomotion,” my yoga anatomy teachings focus on using visual and tactile techniques to bring the fascial continuities to life for practitioners of yoga.
It makes a lot more sense for yogis to learn how everything is connected, rather than how to cut it all apart for the purpose of memorisation. My approach to introducing the fascia-first anatomy model is to paint on the superficial soft tissues of the upper back and shoulders. I start by giving a tour of the relevant anatomy using the Visible Body 3D visualisation software. Once everyone is familiar with the lay of the land, I get out the paint. With the visual reference on the screen, I call for a volunteer to bare their shoulders and upper back. Everyone has been advised to bring a string bikini, so gender is actually not an issue, although men are quite handy for the simple reason that they are strapless. I use the volunteer to give a short demonstration of the Avid Yogi body painting techniques. Then we get students together in groups of two or three and everyone sets to work!
The painters first use white or light blue to establish the bony landmarks. Once the clavicle, scapular spine, and spinous processes have been applied in thick white/blue, the fascial thickenings are established also in white/blue. Then, the directionality of fibres is illustrated in white linear strokes to show that all the bones are connected by fibres and move as such. This is where the skeleton can be seen as a “diagram of forces,” a phrase coined by my biotensegrity teacher Dr Stephen Levin.
With the bones and fibres delineated, students get a real feel for the directionality of connective tissues and start thinking about the region in these terms. This is an important realisation: that an understanding of functional anatomy starts with the directionality of fibres as they connect one region of bone to another in a kinematic chain. Rather than thinking in terms of blobbing patches of colour onto the skin to approximate what we are used to thinking of as “muscles,” I get them thinking about the fascial matrix that hangs in the balance of the bones. Colour comes only after the schematic of connective tissue has been laid out.
Since developing this approach, I’ve noticed a massive improvement in the engagement of students. They enjoy the process of getting hands-on with their fellow trainees to explore the anatomy and learn immediately relevant and applicable concepts through kinaesthetic means. As their learning moments are reinforced with tactile and visual impressions, the uptake and retention of concepts is much improved. With the resulting richly colourful and moving images coming alive in the flesh, the best part is taking your work “for a spin” on the mat and seeing where your work needs some editing. Once things have been adjusted for accuracy, the final body of work makes for great photos and social sharing. As a total anatomy learning experience, I have yet to find a more enjoyable and fulfilling approach for yoga students than anatomy body painting!