How to make yoga more functional is a question we think about a lot. It’s a core component of physiyoga, after all. One answer may be to mimic how we execute movement patterns from sports and life where we get to the functional end goal using lots of different strategies and where movement is often borrowed from one area of the body to support another, helping us therefore be actually more in line with how we move instinctually in our day to day. By doing this, we can use what we do in yoga and physiyoga classes as ways to increase our robustness and confidence in our desired movements!
For example, the way you reach behind you in the car varies every time, one time you may turn your neck first, another time you may lean back first, those are different strategies of executing the same movement. Each is valuable and gets the job done, and actually, the variety is really good for keeping more parts of our body moving well.
The action itself requires a combination of moving parts, namely shoulder extension and rotation, but we also need to borrow spinal extension and rotation to achieve the goal of reaching behind comfortably. The action of throwing a baseball uses the same combination of potential strategies and movement borrowing from different parts of the body.
There are lots of examples of how our day to day and athletic movements are similar. Yet the main thread that groups that way we perform athletics and day to day moves in a different bucket from yoga is that they are mostly performed in different ways each time, where mobility is needed across multiple joints and body areas and not just restricted to one joint or body area and done with the same strategy each time.
Think about how you sweep the floor, you don’t plan each part of the movement, you meet the demand of the task within the parameters of the room, the space, the surface, that dictates the strategy you use. You have the freedom to use both the movement of the spine and pelvis to achieve this, we are borrowing movement along the chain, not restricting the motion to just the spine (as in how yoga twists are taught sometimes).
Typically in yoga, we’re instructed not to borrow movement during classes. As a result, the way we move tends to be less practical. Case in point? Students are used to hearing cues to keep your spine stable during arm binds or garuda (eagle pose). You’re instructed to lock your knees in line during an utkatasana twist. Or, you’re directed to keep your pelvis from moving—or to keep hips “square and level”—in warrior 1 or warrior 3. None of which is how your body would normally move on its own in these positions.
What about movement strategies in yoga, here’s where we can explore using different ways of cueing and start to forego alignment for a different goal. We love the idea of moving from plank to downward dog differently each time in class, “this time initiate the movement from your shoulders, this time from your hips, from your spine, from your feet, how does it feel differently?” Or making the cues more about a feeling, “can you make your seated spinal twist feel more integrated from foot to spine”, “more easeful” instead of driving the shape of the pose anatomical cue by anatomical cue, instead we allow the students to be in the driver seat to figure out an optional strategy for them.
So how do we make yoga more functional and create classes where it’s A-okay to borrow movement? How we get to that point has everything to do with: the teacher, the class, the sequencing, and the pace. The main differences between borrowing movement patterns in life and sports vs. yoga are speed, repetition, variety, and end-range goals.
While this variable is dependent on the teacher, studio, and class you take, for the most part, yoga has some pretty slow moving components and holding of postures. We sometimes stay in the pose for a while in an effort to push your body to the limit of its neuromuscular control, stability, strength, and endurance, which can lead to injury. This differentiates yoga from most athletics and functional activities, which require you to quickly move your bodies into and out of positions that utilize motion to meet a specific end goal.
Repetition and Variety of shape
In sports, we are making different shapes with our bodies that meet the external demand of the sport. And that’ll vary widely based on the need of the moment. For example, returning a tennis serve, chances are that it involves some type of lunge, forward or side or a combination of both, and a reach, but the way we get there, and what the end position looks like is going to be very different every time. In yoga, every time we perform a high lunge or low lunge, most often we are cued to create the same shape, and maybe even using the same action and alignment cues to get there. That process removes a lot of extremely valuable variety, exploration and play to get to the end goal. So next time you teach lunges in class, teach them in all directions, on and off the mat, with a block under one foot, with different strategies.
Overall, to create the shapes we may consider “ideal” in yoga, one or more of our joints are striving toward their end range of motion on purpose. If we aren’t aware, if we aren’t stable, if we aren’t strong, these places are where we can injure our tissues. This is where hip labrums can get torn, proximal hamstring tendons get irritated, and backs get “tweaked.”
Although there are many athletic and functional daily activities that may use end-range mobility to get there, there is also the inherent variability and borrowing of movement up or down the chain that we use in the process. Again, sport and functional activities are demand specific, a means to meeting a need or end goal.
- Photo: Unsplash/Annie Spratt
How to vary and borrow movement safely in (Physi)Yoga
Educated teachers: Making yoga more functional has to start with practical, applicable movement education in the YTT programs. Most yoga teacher trainees only receive about 15–20 hours of anatomy instruction. So it has to be practical—there is no room for memorizing the names of all the muscles in the body and their origins and insertions.
Teachers should be learning safe ways to modify poses, what the body parts need to do in the poses, how that affects our tissues and bones, and how to prepare bodies for these poses. We do this in our YTT PROGRAM, and think it is the best way to keep students safe in yoga.
Smart sequencing: We now feel that explaining movement options and the importance of movement variability is the responsibility of all yoga teachers. For example, a teacher who is sequencing a class around warrior 3 should be comfortable teaching that the hip can be open or closed, how to safely achieve either, why it’s important to do both, and be able to build those options up from a very basic (laying down first) level. This class is a great example of exploring hip openers in a variety of ways. This way, the student is empowered with options to scale back a pose if they aren’t up to the “full expression.” They’ll also learn how to vary that pose so they aren’t repeating the same exact shape over and over.
Slower movement: In order to teach movement options and variability, the pace will have to slow initially. As a teacher, you should take your time to share these lessons, maybe just about one pose, just a portion of your class. Check out this class as an example of that, it is all about shoulder internal rotation and explores it a variety of ways with and without weights and in different positions. By doing this, you allow the student to create the awareness of it, find time to practice the options, and then, over time, build speed around it.
The goal here is to create new samkaras or neural grooves. That is, new motor plans and options for the brain to tell the body how to create a shape. This is how athletes prehab and rehab—by breaking the movements down into smaller pieces and taking the time to create brain-to-body plans, then slowly increasing the speed, variety and demands. And this is a key component for how to make yoga more functional, too.
Yoga inherently strives for consistency in shape, which sets it apart from sports and workouts that focus on functional movements because the latter utilize various shapes and strategies as necessary to meet their overall objective.
Unfortunately, the repetitive nature of movement patterns in yoga may set us up for injury or worse, doesn’t help us build capacity and movement robustness for life. One way to mitigate this is to introduce more functional movement options, movement variability, and building speed gradually in order to keep students safe, engaged, and strong. How we make yoga more functional is via educating teachers about anatomy, biomechanics, and motor learning so that they can sequence smarter classes.