5 reasons why functional movement can add great value to your yoga practice
In the last decade or so, strength and mobility training – what is called functional movement – has started filtering into yoga classes. Finally yogis are learning from the latest movement science outside of yoga.
In my own yoga practice, and in the classes I teach, I aim to integrate a variety of functional movements alongside all the usual yoga poses, while continuing to cultivate the self-awareness and deep relaxation of yoga. I think this helps us to move and feel better.
By functional movement, I mean things like:
- Focused joint mobility exercises – like rotating joints in different positions with varying load. Eg. arms in full circles (Controlled Articular Rotations or CARs -see upcoming post!)
2. Strength specific movements – (like hand to opposite shoulder in plank or in quadruped).
3. Task-based ways of moving – (like different ways of moving from sitting to standing and back again without using your hands).
With functional movement, you usually have several options or degrees of physical challenge, whether it is isolated controlled exercises, or more free flowing/task based movement.
All of these movements are helpful for our everyday functioning as we move in the world around us.
So let’s consider the benefits of this integrated approach:
With simpler targeted movements, it is easier to offer more options to suit everyone. For example, if you are isolating pelvic movement of anterior and posterior tilts, you can do it lying down with the support of the floor, lying down with hips up, in a quadruped (tabletop) position, in quadruped with feedback from a partner’s hand or a dowel, in quadruped with knees up (that’s a jump!), or in plank pose.
A yoga class can all be working on this one small but extremely useful movement in a number of progressively challenging ways.
In task-based movement, you are not trying to achieve a particular shape so everyone is just exploring moving around to their own ability anyway!
So, functional movement enables you to find the movement that feels most effective for you.
2. Personal control
Yoga classes can sometimes feel like playing ‘keep up’. Even when you are given an alternative to a pose, it can feel like the disheartening second choice because you ‘can’t do’ the main pose. With a more functional approach, the options are PART of the movement being practiced – no second best.
Because functional movement can offer a wider range of choices, you have more personal control. You choose from different options and you explore what seems to work best for you that day. The teacher can be a facilitator who offers explanations of movement options, with support and encouragement. But growth often comes when you work things out for yourself rather than when someone tells you exactly what to do. It also makes you wake up and pay attention more. The science is clear that your body responds to this with improved movement!
3. Progressive strategies
Really targeted movements develop greater long-term progress in strength, mobility, coordination and body awareness. They allow you to target a particular part of the body (e.g. your hip movement), and increase the range of motion and strength in the hip, which in-turn leads to more effective whole body movements, including in yoga poses. ‘Isolate, Activate, Integrate’ is my useful template for this approach.
This mobility/strength progression does happen in yoga-pose orientated yoga too, but I think less effectively. For example, for years teachers told me to put my back heel down in warrior one, or both heels down in down-dog. I would have loved to have done this if I’d been able to! My ankle mobility (dorsiflexion) didn’t improve much in 15 years of regular yoga, but it really improved when I started working on my ankles specifically! And this led to a big improvement in my whole lower body movement. The small things make a difference.
4. Sustainable – build a long term resilient body
By taking this approach, you are more likely to do yoga in a more physically balanced way, with less repetitive strain, niggles, and even injury. With yoga poses, you can often try too hard to get into a particular shape. Some movements are very repetitive ( the classic is chagturanga to up dog- challenging for the shoulder girdle and lumbar if not done with precision)
You might habitually over-use stronger or more dominant parts of the body and strain weaker parts. With functional movement practice you aren’t relying on compensatory patterns to achieve the pose with no progressive improvement in weaker areas. You learn to move with all the parts joining in a whole body movement like a yoga pose with less strain.
5. Enjoying your movement and playfulness
I think it can be fun to move in different ways and play with how we can move. I personally don’t think the magic of yoga is in the particular shapes of poses (although that is a subject for debate!). I love the feeling of inhabiting my body with more awareness. For me, a big marker of ‘progress’ in yoga is feeling that sense of enjoying moving with curiosity, being playful, feeling the incremental changes of broadening movement capacity, without trying to doggedly achieve particular shapes.
So one area we focused on in this term’s classes is lower body movement. For example, we’ve been exploring, ‘What are hip flexors?’ How are yours moving?? What do you notice in your hip flexion in yoga poses? Let’s flex and extend the hip and see how that feels in different movements and poses.
Then we bring that awareness into yoga poses, like Utkatasana (fierce posture), Pavritta Parsvakonasana (revolving side angle pose), Lunges, Virabhadrasana 3 (warrior 3), Navasana (boat pose), Malasana (garland pose – which is basically a squat).
Check out a hip flexor focused sequence here. A starting point to feel your hip flexors.
Here is a short video of a simple movement to explore isolated hip flexion in different ways.
Here is an integrated strengthening hip extension movement
6. Bonus reason – you still get all the joys of yoga ; )
Within this mix of progressive functional movement and yoga poses, we can find moments of quiet and presence. Functional movement, isolated body explorations, free flowing movements, and yoga poses can all work beautifully together. The common ground is attention to feeling sensations in the body with a calm awareness of breath. I would say that the intention of moving with an embodied sense of oneself in the present moment, leading to deep quiet rest, creates the space of yoga.
I would love to know what you think. Does anyone notice a difference between yoga pose focused classes and more mixed movement classes?
What kind of movements do you find most helpful in yoga classes?
Please feel free to leave a comment or question : )