There are many styles and approaches to teaching and practicing yoga. A quick search on YouTube will provide you with a myriad of options to explore, so much so that it can feel overwhelming. At MHY, there is a particular focus on functional yoga – which is not a particular style of yoga, but rather an approach to teaching and practicing. One of the core values of MHY is to offer creative and accessible classes – to make yoga a welcoming, inclusive, accessible and fun practice for all abilities, backgrounds and skill levels. The functional approach helps to create such inclusive and accessible offerings.
A common piece of feedback about classes at MHY is that “there’s something different about them.” A student recently said, “I truly believe it when you say that we can lay down for the full hour if that’s what is needed.” And that is the truth because sometimes that’s exactly what we need on a given day. I also feel the difference is partly because classes are taught using this functional perspective which was developed by Paul and Suzee Grilley. It is an approach to teaching that is based upon the scientific premise that our anatomy – our skeletons, tissues, physiologies are as unique as the individual living in each particular body. Every bone in every body is different. In other words, this approach to teaching yoga has an emphasis on moving the joints and engaging the muscles in a way that helps us move more efficiently through our daily lives and to participate in the activities we enjoy with more ease.
When you think back to the very first time you walked into a yoga studio, can you recall the thoughts, feelings and emotions the experience evoked? I often hear students tell me that they felt intimidated, nervous, anxious before their first yoga class. Social media has taught us that we must look, dress, act, even eat in a certain way in order to be a “real yogi.” That we must have incredible levels of flexibility before we consider unrolling a mat. This could not be any further from the truth. If you practice yoga in any form of the word, then you are in fact a “yogi.”
Functional yoga has a large emphasis on how the poses feel whereas other approaches such as aesthetic yoga, has a large focus on how things look – think “fixing” and “shoulds”. Neither is a “better” or “more correct” way of teaching – they’re just different from one another and like anything, you’ll gravitate to what resonates with you the most. When the focus is toward function – e.g. to strengthen the back, to find fluidity in movement, to feel strong and powerful in our bodies, to find more peace in our hearts and minds, to be able to get up off the floor with ease, to lean into rest and stillness, to improve balance, to stretch the hamstrings, etc., you’ll find that the functions are limitless and you can individualize your practice even more.
If you take a look around the room in any group yoga class – or in any place where people gather for that matter, it is easy to see that we as humans live in various shaped and sized bodies. Every human has individual differences with unique strengths and limitations. Classes encourage students to consider “does this serve me or not” and to “take what you need and leave what you don’t,” always. One of the goals is to empower students and give them options to explore, to adapt and to find a variation of the pose that works best for them. Sometimes that means skipping a particular pose altogether.
When leading a class, one of my most favourite things to see in a group is when every student feels empowered to explore a certain pose in their own way that works for them – whether that’s through use of props, the wall, choosing another variation or a totally different pose altogether. It is truly incredible to watch students become much more intuitive in their practice and recognize what works for them and what feels best. We ditch the word “should” as much as possible at MHY, and I believe this really lends itself to creating such an inclusive environment. There is no place for judgment and all that matters is that you show up for yourself and hopefully leave feeling better in your body, heart and mind.
To quote one of my teachers, Bernie Clark – “we don’t use the body to get into a pose, we use the pose to get into the body.” May we embrace our individual differences and remember that differences are not deficits. Let go of judgment, comparison and lean into curiosity, playfulness and finding what feels good for you. Remember that this may vary from one day to the next, and that’s why we call it a practice and how we meet ourselves where we’re at in any moment in time.
How has the functional approach to teaching yoga influenced your practice and how you show up on your mat? I would love to hear it in the comments below.