10 Tips for a Functional Body

Here are ten key tips to stop treating pain and to start treating dysfunction:

1. Get off the floor. Unless you are a mechanic, training yourself, especially your core, solely (or the majority of the time) on the floor will not get you the results you are hoping to achieve. Think about how you can do what you are trying to do on the floor standing up. Lying flat on your back for core work only triggers about 10% of your transversus abdominus, your core most muscle (which is also a back muscle). So how about a standing “Pilates” 100 or what about the standing “Saw”? Look at what the movement is trying to achieve, not necessarily what it looks like, so you can morph it into a more body-friendly version.

2. Get your shoes off. If dysfunction starts in the feet, have your students get their shoes off.  Shoes can shield a person’s feet and not allow you or them a good look at what the misalignment truly is. Pronation, supination, bunions, etc. and then look at the soles of their shoes what is the tread pattern. Many people wear over-supported shoes to help not feel what their issues are, so then you are “training” their bodies around those issues instead of acknowledging them. I recently took a training and was the only one that was working with their shoes off so I could “feel the difference” and really see how my body moved. By the end of the session several people around me had done the same. I joke with my students that I make horrible eye to eye contact and great eye to foot contact. You can learn a lot about a person by their feet.

3. Learn neutral. It’s important to understand that “neutral” for many is not “natural," and they must relearn where and how their bodies should be placed. So as teachers, for some, we may unintentionally be just teaching the postures or the movements without acknowledging how to practice them effectively. And the truth is, there is a big difference. So help your students help themselves by teaching:

  1. Foot neutral - the distance of the sits bones or two finger widths in from the ASIS (anterior superior iliac spine) and straight down to line up with the second and third toes).
  2. Pelvic neutral - the anterior pelvic triangle is parallel with the wall you are facing.
  3. Rib cage neutral - simply relax your front rib cage down. Checkpoint - when you lift both arms does your rib cage lift?
  4. Shoulder girdle neutral - this is not “pull your shoulders down and back," but rather by finding your rib alignment you can find your “true kyphosis” by standing against a wall and drawing your ribs down and notice the distance of your shoulders to the wall.
  5. Align your head with the chin parallel to the floor and your eyes at the horizon. Many traditional yoga styles have you lift your chin and look up. This is not wrong, but from a functional standing point, with the amount of computer usage and driving, the forward head is such an issue and many people don’t know neutral of the neck and are just adding to the pain.

4. Do exercises (poses) that encourage finding the imbalances. We focus so much on the concept of “balance” and perfect symmetry, but what we are really looking for are the imbalances - the issues that are keeping us from “symmetrical movements” and balance. Let’s find what is imbalanced and bring it towards a healthy alignment and movement pattern. I constantly tell my students “not to try to perform the movement, but rather figure out what is keeping you from practicing it, were are you stuck, and focus the movement - on un-sticking that area.” Take deep lunges (back knee on the floor), for example. Notice your body drop into the pose, and what you may have missed is that you atomically fall to the most stretched part of your hip. We are already open there; you want to find the restriction. For me, I have to really draw my outer hip forward and up on one side, and on the other side that is not the issue. This will change the way your students experience their postures and how they feel off the mat!

5. Use 2:1 ratio. As primarily a yoga teacher, this was a concept I had to do some pondering on, thinking “how can I make this work?" But is there really an option? Welcoming this concept into my classes, students excitedly received this information and felt cared for. If we work both sides equally there will always be an imbalance. The stronger side will get stronger and the weaker side will never catch up. So in a yoga class I often pick a few pose to implement this concept, and the response has been stellar!

6. Work in all three planes of movement against gravity. Take a moment and observe - do all your movements or actions move in only one plane? A quick review:

  • Sagittal plane divides the body into left and right, and a movement is stepping forward or back into a lunge or Warrior I
  • Fontal (or coronal) divides the body into belly and back, and a movement is like a triangle or standing side bends
  • Transverse plane divides the body into superior (above) and inferior (below), and a movement is crossing the midline, a movement like a curtsey

Everyone’s body is different and only working in one plane is keeping your students from finding a healthy body. Think about various body issues - each plane of movement can either reduce or encourage a misalignment and some of each can help meet everyone’s needs. This was confusing for me to grasp at first, but as teachers we are in the movement business and this is very helpful to learn if you plan on being helpful to your students.

7. Look at what you are trying to do with the class or client and what the movement is trying to achieve instead of trying to force a movement that just won’t work. Ask yourself "what is the purpose of this asana or movement and is it right for this person’s body type?" And if not, determine how this concept could be taught in a more approachable manner and to their specific body type. This may mean scraping the entire movement, but not the concept or purpose. How can you achieve the same experience just in a different form?

8. Remember that the pain is in part due to the dysfunction. I try to remind and educate my students continually on the concept that “where it hurts doesn’t equal where the pain or issue is located.” This is called a referred pain. Think about something like tennis elbow. It’s usually not an exact issue of the elbow, and although the elbow has pain, look above and below. Tennis elbow is usually an overuse of the shoulder or bicep tendon, or perhaps the wrist or forearm muscles. Try exercises that will help relieve those areas and you may be pleasantly surprised with the pain-free elbow. Referred pain exists for many of us - things like sciatica, knee pain, or neck pain - so watch your movements and your students’ movements and see what is limited and what is overused.

9. Teach motor control. This means you also teach in between the postures. It means be patient and aware. Do your students have a graceful, patient transition from one posture the next? This is not about speed, as I teach mainly Hatha Yoga; this is more about the little things that end up as bigger things. Watch yourself next time you practice asana and notice how you move, not in the pose but in between the postures. Do you practically fall over coming up from a low lunge to a Warrior? The first step is to shift your awareness to the moment and the next step is to actually feel and experience all the little things that are going on in your transition to get you to that soon-to-be posture.

10. And finally, think about why you are practicing what you are practicing. This is not to doubt yourself, but more so to check in and see if what you are doing is really benefiting your body, mind, spirit and your life. As a teacher I constantly remind my students and myself (with a smile) that I am here to give them what they need and sometimes what they want. Yoga, and hopefully all the practices you choose to engage in within your lifetime, helps you to increase wholeness and wellness, not take that away from it simply because for a moment you could put your foot behind your head. To me the question of “why” is not to criticize or doubt, but to check in, reevaluate and notice the things that I need and what really matters to me.

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