The term functional movement has become very popular in recent years, but what exactly is it? In this article we explore what functional movement actually is, look at its benefits and share some ways you can include more functional movement in Yoga.
What is functional movement?
From the moment we are born, we use and move our bodies in different ways. Every movement has a function, a reason for being done in particular way. A movement uses certain muscles, fascia, ligaments etc. move in a particular way for a specific purpose. Think about lifting a cup of herbal tea to the mouth to drink, or crouching down to tie your shoelaces.
Times of physical inactivity can contribute to poor muscle use. Injuries can mean that our bodies try to protect itself, so the injured muscle becomes weaker whilst other muscle areas gain in strength to support the injured area. Over time, injuries, inactivity and moving the body repeatedly in the same way, can lead to the development of some muscles that are stronger (or weaker) than others. If you think about your writing hand – the flexibility, dexterity and strength of that hand and arm is usually greater than your non-writing (non-dominant) side, through repeated movement.
Functional movement is a way of exercising that brings overall health and stability to your body. In this article we focus on larger functional movements of the muscles. However, functional movement can be investigated on smaller levels including at the cellular level.
The range of functional movement will depend on the person making the movement. For example, a professional footballer will need a wider and different range of movement to function, than someone with a desk based job.
Benefits of functional movement over other movement practices
One of the reasons I like using functional movement in Yoga, is that this type of movement is very practical. It focuses on movements that are beneficial for regaining or maintaining optimal health. Some other movement practices focus on building muscles, or doing poses to produce a certain look or body shape, however often these types of movement do not necessarily consider the function of the whole body.
Encompassing functional movement into your exercise routines can have the following benefits:
- Increases ease of everyday life
Functional movement seeks to improve the ease of movements that will benefit our whole life. For example, movements that will help with sitting, standing, lifting, walking, carrying, etc. Functional movements help with our ability to control our centre of gravity and the way force moves through our body. As an example, learning to squat safely in your yoga practice or in a circuits class, can help us to pick things up, carry things and move safely from sitting to standing.
- Improves muscle memory
When a movement is repeated many times, the muscles involved can create a ´memory´ for this task. This can happen in many activities for example driving, playing an instrument, or in sport. Whilst at first the movement might be difficult (think about learning to serve in tennis!), eventually with practice, this movement can be performed with little to no conscious effort. When a muscle memory is created this helps to create an efficiency of movement.
- Low impact
As functional movements tend to mimic everyday tasks, they are on the whole low impact. Low impact exercises can be very beneficial, as they do not put strain on joints. Low impact exercises can also be great for beginners to exercise, older adults, people with injuries or joint problems, and those who are pregnant.
- Increases flexibility and coordination
By using the whole body, functional movements help to increase our flexibility and coordination. There are many whole body benefits of increased flexibility, including allowing for a great range of motion during various activities. To improve flexibility some people prefer static stretches, however some recent studies have shown that dynamic stretching, i.e. stretching and moving at the same time, is more beneficial that static stretching. Yoga can include static or dynamic stretches, but a more functional approach would be to use more dynamic stretches.
How you can use functional movement in Yoga
There are many ways of using functional movements in yoga. For, example you might think about how a movement might translate into an everyday movement.
You could use some of the following techniques whilst exploring yoga asana and poses.
- Repetition and awareness
Instead of just moving into a pose and staying there for five breaths, if you wanted to take a more functional approach you may prefer to move in and out of the pose a few times. Moving in and out of Warrior 2 is one example. Each time observe which muscles and part of the body you are using. Can the movement be made in a way that comes more from the core? Are you using the foundations of the pose efficiently? The foundations of the pose tend to be the parts of the body that are touching the floor.
Squats are effective functional exercises as they train the muscles you would need to get up and down from a chair, or from sitting on the floor. There are many ways squats can be used in a yoga asana practice. For example, you could use squats to move from standing to sitting. You could also use a variety of different types of squats when practising Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana) – you could squat down when raising your hands. Or you could try squatting down over one leg, and then the other to alternate and change the muscles you are using.
- Beginners mind
Having a beginners mind is about questioning and changing old patterns, and exploring ideas, concepts, poses with a new perspective. Having a beginners mind when practicing yoga asana can help us play with functional movement. For example, exploring our balance in positions such as Tadasana and tree pose can help us access different parts of the body. We can do this by asking questions such as what happens if I take my weight back into my heels, what happens if I take it more into my toes? We can also explore with a beginners mind what happens if we move our hips into a slightly different position, or if we place our hands in another place. You can read more here about approaching yoga with a beginners mind.
Some of my favourite functional movements in Yoga
A well-balanced yoga asana class will take the body and joints through a wide range of movement include in the three planes of movement (forward and backwards, side to side, and up and down). It will also have a balance of forward movement, side bending, twisting, rotations, movement, stillness, grounding, balancing etc.
When thinking about how to include functional movements in my yoga classes I love to include:
- Spinal movements
The range of movement of the spine is quite wide, including movements forward and backwards, side to side and twists. When thinking about functional mobility I like to take the spine through a wide range of movements. These can we done from sitting (see video) or in different position.
- Toes and feet
The feet have 23 bones each and over 100 muscles and tendons. When we can improve how our feet move, we can improve all the movements from the base upwards. This is particularly important in standing poses and balances. We can include a number of functional movements of the feet in yoga, for example stretching the fronts of the feet. I also like to practice stretching the toes out (see video).
- Shoulder CARs – healthy shoulders
The shoulders are a very important part of the body. If you have had a shoulder injury (or know someone who has had one) you may know how debilitating this can be. One way we can improve how the body functions is by improving the range of motion and flexibility of a joint. CARs which stands for Controlled Articulated Rotations, is one way of doing this. In the video attached I show a technique for taking the shoulders through a wide range of motion. In this technique you can imagine that you have a pencil on each shoulder, pointing out to the side then draw a square with the shoulder in one direction.
Yoga retreats at La Crisalida health and wellbeing Retreats
I hope you have enjoyed these ideas about how to include functional movements in Yoga. Here at La Crisalida Retreats, as well as daily yoga classes, we also run a range of other classes, such as core works, which can all help contribute to healthy and functional movements. If you would like to take some time out to care for your body consider joining us on one of our yoga retreats on the Costa Blanca.
Do let me know how you get on with these movements!
About the author
- Tania is one of our programme team, who loves teaching yoga, mindfulness and other programme activities.