The Functional Movement Approach to Yoga

The functional movement approach to yoga

What is functional yoga?

In a functional movement approach to yoga, there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ pose.

With this approach, each posture is adapted to suit the needs of the individual. Simple modifications will differ from person to person so that yoga can be enjoyed by people of any age, body shape and ability.

The functional approach to yoga, according to Paul Grilley, focuses on individual body variations and functional movement patterns. Paul Grilley is a world renowned yoga teacher who is known for his work in Yin yoga and anatomy. His study of bones and skeletons has given the next generation of teachers a new way of looking at how bodies might move in yoga practices.

Dee’s teacher Jo Phee is Paul’s senior assistant and it’s with Jo that Dee’s currently completing her advanced Yin training.

Aesthetics vs experience

Instead of focusing on how you ‘should’ look when doing a pose – the foot should be here, the knee should point in that direction, the pelvis should align with the front of the mat – functional yoga is more interested in what you experience when doing the pose.

Are you feeling the stretch where you want it to be? Are you strengthening the muscles? In short, is it working for your body? If it feels right, it’s functional. If not, you need to change something.

In classes where the teacher is trained in the Grilley method, students are encouraged to focus on skeletal variation and limitations rather than trying to achieve a specific aesthetic or idealised form in each pose. Everyone’s body is different and has unique limitations and capabilities and so by understanding these variations, practitioners can modify poses to suit their individual needs and avoid potential injuries.

Tension vs compression

One of the key elements of Paul Grilley and Jo Phee’s training is the exploration of the concept of tension and compression in yoga poses. Each person’s body requires different amounts of tension and compression in poses, based on their skeletal structure and muscular development. By understanding these principles, practitioners can cultivate a safe and effective practice that supports their individual physical wellbeing.

Why are there no alignment cues in Yin yoga?

Yin yoga deliberately avoids alignment principles, as the human body’s skeletal framework is so varied amongst individuals. Due to differences in bone and joint shape, size and orientation, it is impossible to ask students to ‘align’ themselves in a strict way. Yoga poses often demand a wide range of motion, particularly in the hips and shoulders, which can be a challenge for those with limitations caused by bone composition.

An experienced Yin teacher will explain where to feel the pose and assist with suitable adjustments where necessary. If the position of a hand, foot, arm or leg is out of alignment, but the student feels the stretch in the target area with no pain, the alignment cue is not necessary. Worse, if a teacher is asking a student to align their body without checking where the student feels the pose, there may be a risk of injury or pain.

If a teacher has trained in the Grilley method, they will also understand the limitations of movement in certain areas of the body, e.g. hips, shoulders, spine, wrists and ankles. They will understand how to offer alternative poses in order to enjoy a full yoga practice.

Ever wondered why you can’t squat?

It’s not always due to inflexibility of the hips and ankles, but may be as simple as the shape of the structure of the front and back of the ankle bones. Using props can be a real benefit for anyone having difficulty squatting for whatever reason. If we remember that the aim is to get a groin stretch, we can make any shape that gives this sensation in the body if we’re unable to squat. Knee pain could also be an issue, so a modification would be required to prevent injury.

Functional Movement: Shoelace Pose

Why can’t I do ‘Shoelace’ pose?

Tight hips are often blamed, but you should also consider whether your hip sockets are externally or internally rotated, and whether the socket is deep or shallow. When we practise yoga, we don’t know what our bones look like but will often compare ourselves to the person on the mat next to us. Their bones are different shapes and proportions. It’s important that we’re guided by our teacher to try different variations to feel the target area, which is the outside of the thigh and the glutes.

Functional Movement: Back Bend

Why won’t my back bend like everyone else?

Do you have a lovely deep curve or do you have more of a flat back? We can’t examine the bones, but with good guidance your teacher will help you explore the limitations of your body if they’re trained functionally. They’ll advise you whether it’s a flexibility issue or a limitation of your spine, by asking appropriate questions which are connected to the tension vs compression issue mentioned above.

Functional Movement: Shoulders

Ouch! It hurts my shoulders…

With the complex structure of all the bones in the shoulder joints and wrists, it’s important to make adjustments to the position of the hands to avoid pain and discomfort when putting weight on the arms. Alignment cues often cause issues with yoga poses which affect shoulders and wrists, so a functional movement approach can be really beneficial.

The 7 archetypal poses of the functional movement approach

The functional movement approach to yoga identifies 7 archetypal poses, each of which serves a specific purpose and targets different areas of the body. Through this approach, practitioners will learn how to adapt these poses to suit their own unique needs and anatomy to stress the target areas of the body.

Shoelace archetype

The Shoelace archetype is characterised by poses that involve crossing the legs and bringing the feet towards the pelvis. These poses are typically used to stretch the hip joints, glutes, and mid and lower back, and are often used to help relieve stress and tension in these areas.

Saddle archetype

The Saddle archetype is characterised by poses that involve sitting back on the feet or between the feet. These poses are typically used to affect the quads, hip flexors and lumbar spine, and are often used to help improve flexibility in these areas.

Caterpillar archetype

The Caterpillar archetype is characterised by poses that involve sitting with the legs straight out together, folding forward and resting the chest on or toward the legs. These poses are typically used to stretch the hamstrings, lumbar spine, thoracic spine and cervical spine, and are often used to help improve flexibility and relaxation in these areas.

Dragonfly archetype

The Dragonfly archetype is characterised by poses that involve sitting with straight legs, wide apart, folding forward and resting the chest on or toward the floor. These poses are typically used to stretch the inner thighs, groin and hip socket, and are often used to help improve flexibility and relaxation in these areas.

Spinal Twist archetype

The Spinal Twist archetype is characterised by poses that involve the pelvis and chest facing in opposite directions. These poses are typically used to stretch the lumbar spine, thoracic spine and obliques, and are often used to help improve flexibility and relaxation in these areas.

Dog archetype

The Dog archetype is characterised by poses that involve using the hands and feet with the body inverted. These poses are typically used to stretch the upper body, legs, hands, feet and ankles, and are often used to help improve flexibility and relaxation in these areas.

Dragon archetype

The Dragon archetype is characterised by poses that involve the front knee bent and the back leg stretched out behind. These poses are typically used to stretch the hips, knees, legs, ankles and lumbar spine and are often used to help improve flexibility and relaxation in these areas.

In all of these archetypes, there are a wide range of poses and shapes which will work with your unique bone structure. The aim is to find the right pose to suit your body.

Embrace anatomical diversity

The functional movement approach to yoga encourages practitioners to embrace anatomical diversity and focus on the functional benefits of each pose, creating a practice that’s tailored to the unique needs of their body.

This approach is suitable for all yoga practitioners, from teachers to students. If you’re a yoga teacher, you can really help your students improve with your understanding and practice of the functional approach to Yin yoga and yoga anatomy, as it gives the tools and techniques needed to effectively teach Yin yoga.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced yoga practitioner, this approach can help you deepen your understanding and practice of this ancient discipline.

Find harmony and balance

The ultimate purpose of the functional approach to yoga is to harmonise the flow of Chi, the pure, universal energy in the body. This balanced state is experienced physically – through a sense of ease and comfort; mentally – as quiet and calm; and emotionally – as a feeling of peace and contentment.

Check out one of our yoga classes with Dee to experience the functional movement approach to yoga.

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