Updated: Oct 4, 2021
by Michelle Finch
What are they and are they the same thing, completely different or something in between?
Both "functional movement" and the "functional approach" are newer additions to the world of yoga asana. By name, they seem similar and are often confused as being the same, but as we’ll see in this article, by definition they are quite different. In a recent conversation with several senior Yin Yoga teachers, I presented the question “How would you describe the difference between 'functional movement' and the 'functional approach' to yoga asana?” What follows is my interpretation of that conversation, further discussions with my teachers and various colleagues, as well as my own insights on the topic.
Let’s start with "functional movement", something that began as a form of physical therapy, later picked up in various forms of exercise (most prominently CrossFit) and within the past few years has crept into the practice of yoga asana. In a generalized definition, "functional movement" is applying the idea that we should be working out in a way that prepares us for everyday life. It acknowledges that historically, most movement modalities have been taught through isolated action and very specific ways to do those movements in an effort to keep us “safe” while exercising. For instance, if you wanted to strengthen your glutes, you’d do squats with your knees in line with your hips, your shoulders over your feet, etcetera, etc.
Unfortunately, over time it became clear that while this cookie cutter way of exercising was keeping folks safe while exercising, it was actually creating gaps of fragility in the body that could lead to injury when endeavoring in various day-to-day tasks that required movements outside of those utilized in training. Very fit people were still getting injured when doing simple tasks like bending over to pick up a bag or during other mundane activities because their exercise regimen wasn’t utilizing their body’s full range of motion (it was staying within the “safe” parameters of whatever modality they were practicing). And so was born "functional movement", which acknowledges that when exercising, we need to move in all different directions (or constantly changing the "vectors" of movement) utilizing our full range of motion to vary the demands on the body in a controlled environment. This, then is said to better prepare our bodies for everyday life.
As with traditional forms of exercise, the classical alignment-based yoga asana, as was popularized by B.K.S. Iyengar, is quite linear. Because of this, many creators have capitalized on an opportunity to integrate "functional movement" into yoga asana and break outside the box of the linear alignment. When this occurred, we began to see teachers guiding postures in a non-linear fashion creating flows that went in circles and diagonal patterns. There is a lot more erratic movement such as bouncing or shaking as well as undulations (moving in 360 degrees) within the poses. It is also becoming quite common for teachers to layer on the use of strength bands, pilates balls or incorperating props such as blocks and straps in very innovative ways. Based on my understanding, all of these new additions to the yoga practice are an attempt at varying the vectors of movement in hopes of creating greater functionality in the muscles and joints (based on the theory of "functional movement").
Since "functional movement" can be applied to the physical practice of yoga, is it then the same as the "functional approach to asana" that was developed by Paul & Suzee Grilley*?
The simple answer is no. While they both have the word “functional” in their name and both encourage practitioners to think outside the “one size fits all” approach to asana, the two are quite different in their intentions.
But before expanding further on the topic of the "functional approach", let us first explore the definition of the word “functional”.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term functional means to “use [something] to contribute to the development or maintenance of a larger whole” but can also be defined as “designed or developed chiefly from the point of view of use”. These two definitions, in and of themselves, provide clarity to the confusion at hand between "functional movement" and the "functional approach" because the word “functional” is being used in two different ways. "Functional movement" is essentially, moving the body in a manner that is used to maintain the larger whole (the body) in a way that applies to daily life. The "functional approach", however, was developed from a use point of view, or as we Grilley method yogis like to say “to move the body in a way that we can effectively achieve the purpose of the pose”.
So, then let us take a deeper look at what the "functional approach" is and how it applies to the practice of yoga**. In a recent conversation with Paul & Suzee, Paul stated that “the 'functional approach' is [understanding] skeletal variation and its effects on [one’s] range of motion”. By definition then, this approach has skeletal variation at its core and how the different shapes of our bones effect our ability to target a specific sensation, whether it be through tension (stretching), contraction (strengthening) or compression (pressure). This is a perspective never considered in the classical methods of applying "functional movement".
"The functional approach is skeletal variation and its effects on range of motion” - Paul Grilley
When looking at yoga asana, regardless of style (Yin, vinyasa, Bikram, Power, etc.), in the "functional approach" we first consider WHY we’re doing the pose or what we should feel. For example, in a classic Baddha Konasana (Butterfly in Yin), we are targeting a sensation of pulling in the inner thigh (the groin muscles). We then look at what general movements in the joint(s) are necessary to create that experience. In Baddha Konasana, the three primary joint movements required to access the groins are abduction, external rotation and flexion of the hip. Finally, and key to the "functional approach", we look at how the unique shape of our bones (structural variation) may require students to orient their body in a unique fashion in order to effectively access the targeted sensation. Meaning that in a Baddha Konasana, somone may need to change the degrees of abduction, flexion and/or rotation to hone in the targeted sensation for their unique structure.
One very common term that differentiates the "functional approach" from other perspectives is that of “compression” or the acknowledgement that the shape of our bones can ultimately limit our range of motion. For example, without getting into too much anatomical jargon, just taking a quick visual glance at the two pelvises pictured below, we can see that the orientation of the hip socket within each pelvis is quite different. The left pelvis has a socket that is oriented more forward and down. Whereas the hip socket in the right pelivs is oriented more laterally and upward. With this simple observation, one could surmise that in Baddha Konasana, the person on the left would naturally create a very different shape than the person on the right because their bones “get in the way” of creating the standard alignment-based posture (see the picture above). That “getting in the way” is compression, when our limitation in a pose is structural in nature (vs. tensile or muscular).
Essentially, when a student is practicing or a teacher is leading a yoga class based on the "functional approach", they are prioritizing why they’re doing the pose and then recognizing that the shape they need to create to achieve that function may be different from person to person (due to structural variation). In doing so, they ensure that the practice is effective for their body (or those of their students) and have a greater potential of preventing joint based injuries that could be caused by repetitive compression created by doing postures in a manner that is not appropriate for their structure.
As you can see, "functional movement" and the "functional approach to yoga asana" are quite different in their intentions and should not be seen as interchangeable. With that being said, I would suggest that they are both equally as important. This isn’t an argument of either/or but both/and. When we approach our yoga mat, we need to prioritize why we’re doing a pose, understand how we modify for our unique structure AND do it in a way that prepares our body for every day life. Then our asana practice will truly be functional by all definitions.
About the Author
Michelle Finch is the owner and one of the lead trainers at Exalt Yoga. She started practicing yoga in 2003 and was a dedicted power yogi until 2012 when she discovered Yin Yoga. She has studied with many senior Yin Yoga teachers and currently assists Paul & Suzee Grilley, founders of Yin Yoga.
*The "functional approach" is also commonly refferred to as "the Grilley method"