Functional movement and how yoga supports it

We look at what functional movement means, some common areas of movement loss or reduction and how yoga can help assess and restore movement.

jennilee toner in squat pose

As I have written before in my anatomy articles: I am in love with the human body and how it moves! I love the apparent simplicity of how we move our bones through space and time – flexing, extending, bending, twisting, hinging, pivoting, rotating, reaching, folding…the fun and fantastic list of efficient and effortless movements goes on and on. Or not.

A lifetime of efficient and effortless movement would only be possible if we were simply a bare-bones skeleton of moving parts…which we are not. Unlike the skeleton hanging from a hook in an anatomy classroom, we humans are living and breathing layers-upon-layers of connective tissue that moves, and then forms patterns of movement out of our habits and conditioning.

When movement patterns settle into the fascia of the body (causing tugs and lines of pull), function tends to be compromised, efficiency tends to be reduced, and ‘effortless’ tends to become ‘effort-full’.

Luckily, a functional movement approach to our asana practice can help us intelligently, creatively and systematically strengthen and stretch, stabilize and mobilize, unwind and unbind…enabling us to once again move freely – like a skeleton!

What is ‘functional movement’?

The definition of Functional Movement (versus Sports-Specific or Muscle-Specific Movement) I found on Wikipedia is my favorite so far. This definition describes an intelligently created yoga asana practice perfectly:

“Functional movements are movements based on real-world situational biomechanics. They usually involve multi-planar, multi-joint movements which place demand on the body’s core musculature.”

In life (work, play, sport, sleep, etc) we often find ourselves operating in only one or two planes of movement (often in the forward flexion portion of the sagittal plane and maybe one direction of transverse plane).

Whereas, over the course of an intelligently sequenced yoga class we will strengthen, stretch, stabilize and mobilize in all planes of movement: sagittal (flexion and extension), coronal (abduction and adduction) and transverse (rotation).

Often a yoga pose asks us to be in all three planes of movements at once (think of any twisting forward hinge hip opener!) That’s one of the reasons we ought to never get bored in asana practice – there are always bones to align, joints to stabilize and mobilize, muscles to strengthen and stretch, and fascia to unwind and unbind.

Functional movement reduction or loss

One of the things we seek when we come to the yoga mat is BALANCE; we basically want the same amount of strength and suppleness in the left side as in the right side in all areas of movement in the body: 6 movements of the spine, scapula, humerus and femur; 4 movements of wrist and ankle, and 2 movements of elbow and knee. These movements are performed in the 3 planes of movements mentioned earlier. 

Functional movement reduction or loss can be congenital or acquired through psychological or physical habitual patterns and/or trauma. Listed here are 5 of the common functional movement loss or impairments caused by habitual patterns that we can affect positive change on through yoga practice.

5 common areas where function is reduced or lost due to habitual patterns

1. Mis-alignment in the shoulder girdle

Internal rotation of humerus with elevation/abduction (protraction) of scapula from prolonged computer work (or, rounded shoulders). And, if one-sided, scapula elevation, from carrying a bag on one shoulder (one shoulder blade higher than the other).

Result: Tightness, weakness, limited range of motion, and/or instability in one or both shoulders.

2. Elevated hip

One hip becomes more elevated due to habitually holding infant/child on one side, crossing the same leg while sitting at desk, or repetitive leaning while sitting/driving.

Result: Tightness, weakness, limited range of motion, and/or instability in one or both sides of lower back, SI Joint, hip and/or leg.

3. Rotated spine

Due to repetitive sleeping patterns (on stomach turned to one side), or long-term turning in one direction for work or sport (tennis, golf, one arm rowing, etc.)

Result: Tightness, weakness, limited range of motion, and/or instability in one rotational direction of neck, spine, ribcage and SI Joint.

4. Kyphotic thoracic spine

An exaggerated rounding of the convex curve in the upper back due to prolonged computer work, bike riding, couch surfing/ gaming, studying, etc.

Result: Tightness, weakness, limited range of motion, and/or instability in core (using the “Apple Core” definition of skull to tail).

5. Lordotic cervical and/or lumbar spine

An exaggeration in the concave curves of the neck (cervical spine) and lower back (lumbar spine). Due to staring at technological devices (cervical), staring at road as cyclist (cervical), looking ahead while swimming (cervical and lumbar), prolonged (years) wearing of high heels (lumbar), or prolonged sitting at a desk (tight psoas increases lumbar lordosis).

Result: Tightness, weakness, limited range of motion, and/or instability in lower back, SI Joint, diaphragm, lower abdominal region, hips and legs.

Functional Movement Screening (FMS) and Yoga

In the fitness world there is a dynamic movement screening test often carried out before participation of a specific sport or fitness activity. This seven part Fitness Movement Screening (FMS) illuminates weaknesses, imbalances and asymmetries in the body in order to identify areas open and susceptible to possible injury. Physical therapists and chiropractors will use screening tests such as FMS to help formulate a plan with dynamic equilibrium (or BALANCE) as the ultimate goal.

The 7 tests are: deep squats, hurdle step, in-line lunge, shoulder mobility, active straight-leg raise, trunk stability push-up, and rotational stability. Below is a yoga asana equivalent (some with modern-day variations) for each of the 7 FMS tests.

Yoga asana equivalent to each of 7 Fitness Movement Screening tests:

  • Deep Squat: Fierce Chair Pose or Yogic Squat / Malasana
  • Hurdle Step: Marching-in-Place (Kundalini Yoga)
  • In-Line Lunge: High Lunge dynamically lowering and raising the back knee, adding a shift forward to Warrior Three and back to the dynamic High Lunge
  • Shoulder Mobility: Cow-Faced Pose Arms / Gomukhasana
  • Active Straight-Leg Raise: Classical Yoga Straight-Leg Raise (from lying down)
  • Trunk-Stability Push-Up: High Plank-Chaturanga-High Plank progression
  • Rotational Stability: Opposite Arm/Opposite Leg Table-Top

Yoga supports and enhances functional movement! 

As you can see from the list above we perform most of the 7 FMS tests in almost every asana class… or some sort of variation of them. That’s why we feel so whole, so complete, SO GOOD after we practise yoga.

An intelligently designed asana practice will ensure multiple joint movements in all 3 planes equally: An equal amount of forward bending, backward bending, side bending, abduction, adduction, internal rotation, external rotation, twisting either side, strengthening, stretching, movement, stillness, grounding, balancing, and so on.

Every movement off the yoga mat is benefited from the work we do on the mat. The Hatha Yogis knew about Functional Movement and how to support and enhance it before there was even a term for it!

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Jennilee TonerJennilee has the best job in the world…travelling the world and teaching four of her passions: yoga, human anatomy, injury prevention, and mythology of the asanas.