The other day I was speaking with a new teacher. She told me that she did a 200-hour training. “But when I got out there and started to teach,” she said, “I realized that what I had learned in my training was completely inappropriate for the people who were turning up for my classes.”
*Sigh* – I’ve heard this story way too many times.
My first experiences with yoga were slow and mindful in the ’70s and ’80s, so I was surprised when, after returning from living in Asia for 4 years, I went to a class in 1995 in New Jersey which was a fast, sweaty, thumping-with-music kind of workout. The teacher and her front row students could do all sorts of amazing things with their bodies – and those of us hiding in the back were labeled “beginners” (in a friendly enough way) and encouraged to work harder because, eventually, we’d get there too.
But, I would later learn, “You’ll get there eventually” isn’t accurate. Mobility is largely genetic and use-dependent—if your mom was Gumby, you’re probably golden, or if you were trained as a gymnast or dancer, you have some advantage.
Thankfully, very soon after that, I found some Viniyoga classes and in them, something that resonated with me and how I’d originally learned to practice. It also dovetailed well with the qigong I had studied. These classes weren’t easy, but they also didn’t feel out of my flexibility league or risky. They were intentional—I was confident in what I was doing with my body, and I felt like every pose had a purpose and there was a mindful, logical order to the sequences.
Clearly things have changed in the yoga world over the past 30 years. With a growing body of promising research and increasing recognition from health care professionals, yoga teachers are more aware that many people are coming to yoga for reasons other than flexibility or fitness, such as stress relief and the mental health benefits.
Which means yoga teaching is necessarily changing.
Recently, I’ve been hearing and reading about “functional” yoga. It’s a term that’s being used to describe more adaptable ways of teaching and practicing. Instead of creating goals around accomplishing poses, the idea is that you use asanas as a way to support movement in your daily life.
“Functional yoga” is an offshoot of the functional movement trend in the fitness industry. It’s being positioned as an alternative to “aesthetic” yoga practice, or doing asanas to create pleasing looking shapes. So instead of focusing on trying to do the pose “the right way,” you focus on how your body feels with the movement and how the movement supports your needs.
This, in turn, is meant to help you develop strength, flexibility, balance, and stability. Like other functional fitness training, functional yoga may target specific functional movements such as squatting, lunging, twisting, reaching, and bending.
And all this is great—because asanas should be functional. I’m a big fan of function.
However, I’m left wondering… If your yoga practice isn’t functional to begin with, what have you been doing to yourself? And, for teachers, what have you been teaching others?
Have the past 3 decades of yoga in the West been such a dysfunctional mess that now the consensus is that a new style of asana practice must be developed to counter the effects? In order to rectify the problems created by ignoring biomechanics and individual differences for so long?
The older I get, the more I enjoy and need asana practice, and I know many people who feel the same. It’s great that yoga teachers are working on trying to teach yoga in a more functional way. But if many teachers have been trained to teach a fundamentally dysfunctional practice, what is the scale of the harm that has been done? What is the scale of harm that is still being perpetuated by not focusing on the functional?
Recently I saw a video of a physical therapist saying, “We do too many forward bends in yoga, and so our hamstrings are weak, overstretched, and thin. And we do too many quad exercises in yoga, and so our quads are overdeveloped and tight.”
Which left me wondering, Who is she talking about when she says “we”? And what kind of yoga is she referring to exactly? What kind of yoga did she learn when she studied it? What kind of yoga does she believe everyone is doing?
The answer, of course, is the mainstream stuff. Which, it appears, fitness and movement professionals are now starting to call out as dysfunctional and to dismantle.
Of course, I feel empathy for people who’ve spent a lot of time and money learning to teach yoga that is not functional to begin with; however, the alternatives are out there—and they’ve been out there for a long time. You will have to chip away at the veneer that’s crusted over social media in order to find yoga that has always been taught functionally, but it’s there, mostly ignored or labeled “beginner” or “gentle.”
I always thought more functional ways of practicing were overlooked because they weren’t exciting, but who knows, it looks like functional may become the new sexy. Please join Kristine on February 10, 2024, for Subtle Yoga: The Science Behind Slow, Mindful Yoga Practice.