What is Functional Yoga?

Claria Yoga - functional yoga

In this article, I draw on my own experience and teachings to give you an overview of practising with a functional approach. I hope you find this information helpful.

The meaning of the word “functional”

I start here with suggested definitions of the word “functional” taken from the Collins dictionary:

  • “Useful rather than decorative”
  • “Relating to the way in which something works or operates”
  • “Works or operates in the way that it is supposed to”

We can apply these definitions to the practice of Functional Yoga as follows:

  • “Useful for the body, rather than focusing on how the movement or poses look”
  • “Relating to the way the shoulder joint / hip joint / fascia / bone / muscle etc. works or operates”
  • “Works or operates in the way that accommodates how the body is supposed to move or hold itself”

So how might this apply to a yoga or movement practice?

“Functional” in physical movement and expression

Functional movement works with the fact that your body is uniquely shaped and structured –  from fascia, tendons, ligaments and muscles, to bones and everything in between. Your body will, therefore, function biomechanically in a way that is unique to you – it will move for YOU.

Functional yoga takes its inspiration from functional movement, and classical and modern yoga postures, uniting them to make them adaptable to the body that’s working with them.

Unfortunately, in what I’ve seen with yoga over the years, a lot of importance has become attached to aesthetic objectives, with instruction given via “one-way suits all” alignment cues. The search for a particular depth or look in a pose or flow becomes the focus – rather than the journey of connection to the body through its response to that movement or pose.

When the functional principal is applied in a yoga class, you’re encouraged to adapt poses and movement to your body, and to how your body is responding – ie. feeling and sensation. Participants’ unique differences, abilities and natural limitations are acknowledged as part of the practice. In this way, the body is safely challenged, strengthened, stretched and balanced through movement that suits its natural boundaries and its own unique response to the practice.

I have heard arguments against a functional approach suggesting that participants are encouraged to give up according to what they feel, which stops them from improving or progressing with their practice. However, approaching a practice functionally doesn’t mean you step back because it starts to feel difficult, unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Rather, you’re invited to explore those sensations, and practise tuning into an important distinction – the difference between safe and healthy sensations that can be uncomfortable but beneficial, and fiery, painful sensations that are the body’s warning signal that something is wrong and potentially dangerous for it. It offers an opportunity for exploring that fine line between persevering with a useful but difficult challenge, and pushing ourselves too far (a mental and/or emotional response that we’ll explore in the next section).

No two bodies are identical. Yet, we’re presented with the notion that biomechanically we are the same, and that we can all move the same way. On a simplified level we do, with limbs and a torso that flex, extend, move side to side or rotate. However, although moving along the same principles, we all have our unique way of doing it because of how we’re built, and what our bodies have experienced in their lifecycle.

A functional practice provides for more freedom as participants discover how their body reacts and behaves through playing with movement and poses. It offers a change in perception as people begin to understand their body better, and learn how to move with their body rather than pushing and forcing against it. This invites a shift from resistance to acceptance, and opens to learning how to adapt. Not only can this shift help encourage a more natural flow in the body, but it can move a lot deeper into the mind and beyond.

“Functional” on mental and emotional levels – a personal story

In my experience, reaching more physical ease and freedom has a knock-on effect within the depths of the mind and emotions. 

My journey onto a functional path came from my repetitive injuries, and from refusing to accept that my body was not going to perform yoga poses in the same way that I had become accustomed to seeing them demonstrated. I was not going to be able to get my heels to the ground in downward-facing dog, sit comfortably in hero’s pose, lift my arms easily alongside my ears, keep my feet together in a forward-fold, etc.

Many people have a body type that flourishes with traditional alignment principles. And many like me, don’t. Prior to my knowledge about functional movement, my desire to look and move like everyone else kept driving me to follow alignment cues that didn’t suit my body’s biomechanics. It resulted in pain, self-loathing and disconnect; a deeply sad place to be in a yoga practice.

As soon as I started to learn about and apply the functional approach to yoga and movement, not only did my body flourish, but my whole demeanour and sense of well-being changed for the better. I was invited to explore what lay beneath the need to push myself beyond my boundaries, and to rid myself of some of those old patterns.

Functional yoga encourages a practice of tolerance, patience, adaptability, acceptance, kindness and compassion towards our bodies, which can, in turn, go deeper. Feeling good physically can trigger a sudden positive mental and emotional shift. Likewise, a calm and balanced emotional state can affect the body positively through a release of toxins and tension from the muscles and connective tissue.

“Functional” in Yoga

Functional Yoga follows thousands of years of knowledge, practice and growth brought to us by those who’ve come before us. Yoga moves, flows, evolves and changes, much like anything in life. Today we have so many different styles of yoga ranging from the classical, traditional practices, to the offshoots that have blossomed from those traditional roots and that maintain that deep connection.

I’m grateful for discovering this way of applying yoga to my life, working within a structure but being encouraged to tailor the experience to suit my body and me.

At the heart of all yoga practices is that journey towards inner connection, space and peace. The Functional approach takes its place among the many other styles of yoga that we have today. I believe we’re fortunate to have such a rich array of approaches that acknowledge and work with yoga; so many different ways that can accommodate all sorts of people and that make the practice inclusive, not exclusive.

Author: Claire Martin
Copy-editor: Kelly Girardi

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