There are two main reasons for doing a yoga practice: to become healthier or to master postures. If your goal is the former, you will be more successful if you adopt a functional approach to your practice, which means focusing on the intention of the postures rather than their appearance. If your intention is to look good—perhaps you are a dancer or a gymnast, and looking good is essential to your profession—an aesthetic approach may be required. But if you wish to regain or maintain optimal health, then follow a functional approach.
This approach yields three keys for your yoga practice:
1. Know the targeted area you are trying to affect and the sensations you want to create there.
2. Notice what you are actually experiencing in the targeted area while you are in the posture.
3. If you are not feeling the pose in the targeted area, change what you are doing and find a position that creates the intended sensations.
Often in a yoga class, the cues given by the teacher focus on the shape of the pose rather than the intention of the pose. This is understandable because the postures are the tools we use. But the intention behind any posture should be to generate an effect in the body, rather than to simply perform the posture or look good doing so. This is the main difference between a functional approach to yoga and an aesthetic approach. When a teacher, or the student herself, starts to judge the pose by what it looks like rather than what it feels like, then the intention of optimizing health is lost. How you look in a pose is irrelevant; what is important are the sensations you are creating through the posture.
We don’t use the body to get into a pose—we use the pose to get into the body. (1)
Realizing this simple fact can free us from dogma and images of perfection, allowing us to work with the body we have. We can then focus on what we are really trying to accomplish in our yoga practice. Not everyone can do every pose, and that’s fine; focusing on a functional approach to your yoga practice allows you to avoid trying to achieve a particular shape if it doesn’t generate a benefit for you or could pose a risk, given your unique anatomical structure.
Moving away from an aesthetically pleasing alignment is allowed!
One intention of our physical practice is to deliberately create stress in our tissues. Fortunately, if one pose doesn’t generate the stress you desire, there are other poses you can try. Moving away from an aesthetically pleasing alignment is allowed! Feel free to wiggle. Move around to see whether some slight or even dramatic adjustment creates the sensations you are after. Remember, it doesn’t matter what you look like—as long as you’re experiencing no pain, who cares what you look like? Another way of saying this is:
If you’re feeling it, you’re doing it!
By adopting a functional approach to your yoga practice, you are much more likely to achieve your intention of optimizing health while minimizing the risk of injury. The functional approach to yoga also leads directly to another realization: Your body needs your yoga. A focus on aesthetics has led the yoga world into a focus on alignment cues instead of functional cues. Since every body is different, how can one set of aesthetic cues work for every body? Unfortunately, it can’t.
Alignment is personal, not universal
There are no universal alignment cues—that is, there are no alignment cues that work for every body. This is not to imply that there are no principles of alignment. However, due to the reality of human variation and your particular anatomical uniqueness, the alignment that works well for someone else may not suit you at all. There are individual principles of alignment. Our challenge in yoga is to find the alignment that works best for us.
Alignment is important! Proper alignment reduces stress in the joints and protects them from dynamically moving into hypermobility, where injury may occur. Good alignment may build architectural stability, minimizing muscular effort and allowing a student to safely linger in a posture. It would be very nice if every posture had alignment cues that worked for every body—as it would be very nice if one medicine could cure every body of cancer. But the reality of human variation teaches us that life is not so ideal. We are all different, and what works for one person is not guaranteed to work for another.
The key question to ask is, “What are the alignment cues that work for me?” It can be challenging to know when a particular movement is safe or wise; the answer is found through knowledge and experience. Have an intention, and then practice with attention. If something isn’t working, find another approach to reach your intention. That is applying yoga functionally.
This article is excerpted from Your Spine, Your Yoga—Developing stability and mobility for your spine by Bernie Clark.
1. The original source of this quotation is unknown to me, but it is a great piece of wisdom and advice. Thank you, whoever you are, for coining it!