How Functional Movement Exercises Can Benefit Your Asana Practice
Minds and bodies become adept at doing the things they do on a daily basis. Consistency in thought, speech, and action shapes the grooves of the mind (samskaras) and the patterns of our movements.
Your body may be accustomed to excessive sitting, running, texting, carrying children, or any number of other physical habits that shape how you move. And you probably use your yoga practice as an antidote to some of the harmful effects of unconscious repetitive embodiment.
Body awareness is a great gift of the practice, and many yoga teachers now apply movement approaches other than strictly asana (poses) and the transitions between them. Borrowing from the “functional movement” school of thought, you can make asana practice even more beneficial by using a science-based understanding of how we gain and lose control of movement.
Your yoga practice should provide diversity to your daily movements. But how we are in poses and transitions is very important. Many practitioners fail to engage certain muscles, leaning into where they’re already strong and flexible. To increase body awareness and control, we have to actively engage muscles we may not be accustomed to engaging, rather than only using those muscles we use habitually. This strengthens them so they can better protect specific joints.
Unfortunately, many poses are inefficient at encouraging the use of lesser-used muscles, and the journey toward building body awareness between poses can get lost. For example, utkatasana (chair pose) has the potential to build better strength in hamstrings, improve balance, and even build better oblique abdominal strength—but much more so if it’s practiced significantly more upright than it typically is, and with downward pressure through the heels. Most of us have stronger muscles on the front of our legs than the back of our legs; so yogis tend to sit low and pitch their torsos forward, which strengthens already-strong muscles.
To increase body awareness and control, we have to actively engage muscles we may not be accustomed to engaging, rather than only using those muscles we use habitually.
You can teach poses in different ways to illuminate what they offer, such as our more upright chair pose with downward heel pressure. But you can also forego poses altogether and use effective, unfamiliar activities—like adding movement to otherwise static postures.
Not sure where to begin? Fortunately, there’s a Movement movement, if you will, away from static asana and inaccessible transitions to targeted repetitive movements that develop what some of us call “functional mobility.”
What Is Functional Movement?
There is an intelligent design that underpins your physiology, and that physiology requires maintenance in order to provide you with a sense of stability and ease. Your muscles may be responsible for stabilizing a joint and executing a range of movements, but if they’re never asked to do so, they will weaken and tighten to conform to whatever you do ask of them. For example, if you only ask them to help you sit, they’ll get really good at sitting.
Think of how easily many people can sit passively with their spine upright, knees bent at 90 degrees, and ankles underneath their knees. Now try replicating that shape in chair pose! Part of the reason you can’t is due to the weakness that develops from excessive sitting in that shape. The chair holds you in the shape, and the deeper layers of abdominal muscle, hip flexors, gluteal group, hamstrings, etc. all weaken from disuse.
The Difference Between Flexibility and Mobility
In the Movement movement I spoke of, mobility is sometimes used to describe the intersection of flexibility and control. Flexibility allows you to more easily move into a shape—or be moved into it—but does not offer you the ability to hold it with control, nor even necessarily for some part of your body to move into that position by its own power.
Let’s use pigeon pose to understand the difference between flexibility and mobility. Think about how close your front knee and foot are to your torso in pigeon pose. Without using your hands, could you create the same proximity between your torso and that knee and foot in a standing version of the pose? Probably not even close. The standing variation reveals your hip mobility.
To develop greater joint stability, the muscles involved must be trained to execute the intended range of movement (ROM) for specific joints. For example, your pectoral muscles are designed to participate in elevating and widening your upper arms—but if you don't do that often, your ability to do so may decrease. (This is the reason downward facing dog can be so challenging and beneficial.) Functional movement exercises are designed to do just this, as well as to take common compensatory bad habits into consideration.
The Law of Compensation—or Joint Whack-a-Mole
Someone with limited mobility and little body awareness is less able to control their joints intentionally and efficiently. What do I mean by controlling joints? Think of high lunge pose. Executing it requires extension in the back knee and hip and flexion in the front knee and hip simultaneously. While we hone opposite actions in each side of our hips, we’re also trying to avoid an excessive lumbar curve (which is more common in younger and more mobile bodies) and a rounded upper back (more common in older and less mobile bodies).
To get the most out of your practice, it helps to embody alignment cues a little bit at a time rather than all the way at once.
Students who struggle with these demands on their hips may unconsciously round their backs to achieve the shape, especially if a teacher insists on their front knee being over their ankle or their back leg being straight. Postures reveal the law of compensation: Making the pose happen often exploits flexibility in other joints.
I call this kind of compensation “joint whack-a-mole,” similar to the carnival game. If you force one joint into alignment, another may pop out of alignment elsewhere. Poses and movements make complex requests of bodies, and the ability to execute them is shaped by physiology, body awareness, and habitual movement patterns. Unless you are trained to assess bodies in motion, it can be hard to know where one is compensating.
To get the most out of your practice, it helps to embody alignment cues a little bit at a time rather than all the way at once. This will help to create gradual change that does not earn movement in one joint at the expense of another. For example, if your teacher says, “In downward dog, press the top of your thighs back, bend your knees a tad, draw in your low belly, spread your toes, and very slightly press your heels down,” allow your body to respond to all of these cues to some degree rather than just smushing your heels into the mat. Accepting this principle of distributing effort across all the joints of your body turns each posture and transition into an exercise more beneficial to function.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Stretching improves flexibility through the range of movements we already own, but it does not build greater control. Otherwise I would have yin yoga’d my way into headstand. You can't stretch your way into the control it takes to invert and stack your joints. Still, yoga teachers often think that stretching gains the ROM required to execute complex postures. For example, they offer more passive pigeon pose to prepare for the flying pigeon arm balance. The passive shape may prepare tissues to take some of the shape needed, but there’s much more complex joint stability needed through the hips that stretching won’t cultivate.
We shape ourselves through daily ritual.
Functional movement exercises develop controlled ROM in underused muscles so that other muscle groups don’t have to compensate. In this way, they are corrective exercises that also show you how much or how little control you actually have over different parts of your body. My favorite way to demonstrate this is with your toes, because most of us are much more flexible in our feet than we are mobile—we can move our toes but can’t completely control that movement. While you could learn to move each of your toes individually, which would demonstrate mobility, just curling your toes under in a kneeling position and stretching them is flexibility.
Stand with your feet apart and step your right foot a little forward. Put your hands on your hips and look at your right foot. To build true foot strength (such a gift for lifelong balance!), press your big toe down strongly and lift and spread your other four toes. Now spread and press your four toes down strongly and lift your big toe. Repeat until you tire, noticing if your fingers and left foot are wiggling in an effort to make it happen.
Too easy? Switch to two toes down and three toes up to feel the frustration of change happening!
All Together Now—Let’s Get Repetitive!
As I mentioned earlier, we shape ourselves through daily ritual. Change occurs with consistent practice over time, and there’s always room to improve efficiency and nuance in functional movement exercises. That means we can all practice such exercises frequently and for all time.
Functional movement exercises are invaluable whether you or your students are flexible or inflexible, are single-sport competitive athletes or weekend warriors, or spend the whole week sitting or not.
To introduce these movements into your personal practice and classes, here is a short series of audio practices that I’ve put together for you, which explore in more detail some of the exercises described above. I hope that you enjoy them.
Chair Pose Exploration
Mobilize Your Toes
Pigeon Pose Exploration: Mobility Further Explained