By now you probably know that we at The Fat Yogis and The Functional Yoga Teacher Training, as the name suggests, teach functional yoga. And you probably also know that functional yoga is not a style of yoga, like Ashtanga, Vinyasa or Yin Yoga, but an approach to its practice.
What is the foundation of this approach? You could say that there’s one question that underpins it: why are we doing what we are doing? Or, to put it differently: what is the function of it?
This question can be asked at different levels, like why are we practicing asana at all? Or what do we hope to achieve by practicing a specific pose, say trikonasana?
The functional approach requires us to understand what the function is of what we are doing and figure out whether or not this function is being served by doing it the way we do. The challenging and yet liberating thing about this approach is that it puts the responsibility in our own hands. You are the only one who can say if the function is being achieved or not, as it is (only) your own experience that matters. A teacher might tell you that a certain pose is a wonderful hamstring stretch, or that a certain meditation technique is very effective (which may very well be the case for them), but if it isn’t for you, you might be better off be doing something else.
Every bone in every body is different. This scientific fact is at the core of functional anatomy and of functional movement. When we acknowledge this fact, we acknowledge that different bodies have different needs, and if we all want to achieve the same function, our poses or movements might look different.
Basically, the functional approach asks us to shift the focus from aesthetics (how things look) to function (how things feel).
Why do we meditate? Different people may have different reasons. In the yogic tradition, meditation is the main tool for Self-Realization. These days, meditation is also often prescribed as a means to achieve practical, day-to-day benefits like better sleep, higher productivity, reduced anxiety, etc.
There are plenty of meditation techniques out there – and just like you can’t expect that the same pose will work for every body, no one technique will be effective for everybody. Patanjali, a great functional teacher, lists in his famous sutras many different techniques and ends his list with “or whatever works for you.” As Paul Grilley puts it, “if a method is working for you, it’s a good method. If it isn’t working for you, it is not.”
Levels of Functionality / Keep Your Eyes on the Ball
One of Paul Grilley’s “Functional Yoga Sutras” reads: “The purpose (function) of yoga asana is to harmonize the flow of Chi (prana, energy) in the body. This is achieved by stressing the […] skeletal segments and the […] myofascial groups using the […] asanas.”
So while you might be doing a certain pose to stretch your hamstrings, on a higher level, you are practicing asana in order to get your energy moving. And on a maybe higher level yet, you’re doing all this so that you can sit in meditation and observe the movement of energy in your spine.
The functional approach is not a license to just do whatever. It’s easy to confuse ‘not working for me’ with ‘I don’t like it’ and one should – as always – practice with honesty and an eye on one’s own motivations. Asana, pranayama and meditation techniques will most likely require a certain amount of practice and experimentation before you’re able to tell whether or not they are effective for you.
And bear in mind that you don’t have to definitively ‘decide’ whether or not something is effective. A certain meditation technique you find too busy might be exactly what you need when your mind is just all over the place. A yin pose that is normally not enough for you might be just perfect on a day when everything feels like it’s too much.
A Functional Approach to Life
When we start investigating what we are doing and ask ourselves why are we doing it – what is its function – we might make some interesting discoveries.
The aesthetic approach is not limited to asana practice, it is everywhere in our lives — the idea that if it looks good it is good is communicated in advertising, (social) media, film and practically everywhere. Moreover, we all have ideas and convictions we’ve picked up along the way about how things should be or should feel and what they should be giving us. We often hold these ideas without properly investigating them.
So, every once in a while it might be good to honestly look inside and ask yourself: “is this really working for me?”