Functional Yoga?

Functional is such a buzz word in the health and wellness industry right now, functional training, functional movement, functional nutrition, and yes, even functional yoga.


Exercises or movements are considered ‘functional’ if they support and strengthen the movement patterns necessary for going about daily life. The primal movements are bending, squatting, lunging, twisting, pulling, pushing and walking (gait). Right about now you’re probably wondering what the big deal is, a Vinyasa yoga class will usually cover most of those movement types. While it is true some forms of yoga come close to functional, they are not quite there. When was the last time you had to stand on your head in your work day? Was it imperative for you to put your legs behind your head in order to do the grocery shopping? The beyond normal range of motion, sometimes sub-optimal alignment and the missing movements of pull and gait, plus the focus on flexibility limit how functional yoga can be.

Flexibility Vs Mobility

One key focus of functional yoga is mobility rather than flexibility. Flexibility is how far we can push into a stretch, mobility is the meeting of flexibility and control. In Padmasana (lotus pose) for example, a large proportion of those who practice the pose can’t just flip their legs into it without using their hands to drag them into it. Using the hands to assist into the pose shows flexibility, where you get to without that assistance is your mobility. Improving flexibility is not necessarily creating strength of movement or joint stability; it’s more passive. When we train mobility we use the muscles involved in that movement to make it happen, strengthening the muscles that support the joint.

Muscle Activation Patterns

To be fair, the flexibility versus mobility factor does sometimes come down to how you do some poses. Remember the definition of functional includes ‘movement patterns’. Many of us have unconsciously created movement patterns that dump into our flexibility and use the muscles that are already strong. We take the path of least resistance, play to our strengths and neglect the rest, exacerbating inappropriate muscle activation patterns. Think of Utkatasana, so many people feel that burn in their thighs, the same for Virabadrasana 1 and 2, yet ideally it is the Gluteus muscles that are working. This shows inefficient muscle activation patterns, Quad dominance and weak Glutes. This pattern changes how we walk and leads to tight Illiotibial Bands. This pattern also impacts how well we connect to the core muscles. The poses have the potential to be functional, how we perform them may not be.

Functional Alignment Tweaks

How we practice is highly dependent upon our individual anatomy and the movement patterns we’ve created. Functional yoga allows for more individualised alignment that encourages correct muscle activation rather than sticking to traditional alignment. In Utkatasana we can engage the Gluteus muscles easier if we keep the feet hip distance apart rather than feet together as often taught. This alignment, while making the movement more like a squat, is also a more appropriate angle for the hip joint and reduces pressure on the knees. How the poses are cued and taught, and the adjustments made to the focus can make the poses more functional.
“While it is true some forms of yoga come close to functional, they are not quite there…

Holistic Practice

Functional movements are integrated movements, requiring many muscles across multiple joints to work synergistically, and they require core muscle activation. This is how the body naturally works, every movement in life requires more than one body part or muscle group to work together. Functional yoga draws from, and adapts other movement disciplines to create a stronger and more balanced practice. In order to introduce the pull movements, transitions that engage the core, and develop the gait pattern you may find the use of thera bands, pilates or gym style moves in a yoga class. A functional yoga practice is more focussed on developing this synergistic strength and connection while still creating greater mobility and flexibility.

Yoga, as it is traditionally practiced can be a great support for daily life. The spiritual, meditative and even the flexibility aspects add to our quality of life. Functional yoga allows for these deeper qualities of the practice while tweaking it to truly prepare us for life off the mat, in every sense.
Erin is a Gold Coast based Level 2 yoga and Pilates teacher and teacher trainer.

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