Functional is the buzz word in the exercise, movement and physical rehabilitation scenes. Movements or exercises are considered ‘functional’ if they support the movement patterns that are necessary for us to function in our daily lives. There are seven primal, functional movement patterns: bending, squatting, lunging, twisting, pulling, pushing and gait. Each of these are integrated movements which means that many muscles must work together synergistically across multiple joints to perform any specific action. Done correctly, they place a demand on the core muscles and help the different muscles involved to ‘pull their weight’ or ‘play their role’ so to speak. This integrated movement helps to balance muscle strength with muscle relaxation.
Another aspect of funcitionality is to have a balance of mobility with flexibility. Sometimes I think yogis believe there is no limit to the flexibility they aim for, however, flexibility that is not supported by strength creates a body that cannot support itself. The topic for another blog. Here, let’s look at one movement pattern that is prevalent in yoga and in our daily activities: bending forward.
Yoga is sometimes criticised because of its predominance of forward bends. You could actually make the same criticism of the activity demands of our daily lives. Anyone who has children knows the number of times they have to bend forward to pick up their child or whatever their child has dropped on the floor. If we grow our own food we spend hours bent forward tilling the soil, planting the seeds, pulling the weeds and harvesting our crop. When was the last time you did a back bend or bent to the side to pick up something? Bending forward is the most frequent movement we perform as an upright species living on planet Earth with its gravitational force where everything ends up on the ground!
It’s not possible to avoid a predominance of bending forward, so what becomes more important is how we bend forward. In Yoga we often enter and exit standing forward bends with our legs straight, feet together and/or back flat. This certainly is not how we would bend forward in our day to day life. Understanding how these movement impact our body gives us the information necessary to adapt how we move to support and sustain us as our needs demand.
Straight vs Bent Legs
A forward bend done with straight legs will stretch and lengthen the muscles in the back of the thighs and, depending on how it’s done, potentially all the muscle on the back of the body. Bending forward with straight legs and a flat back predominantly uses the muscles of the back as they work eccentrically, i.e. lengthening as they contract. However, if you bend your knees as you fold forward the movement becomes more challenging on all the muscles in the legs and buttocks as well as the back muscles working. Additionally, these muscles must then work in an integrated way which helps to balance their tone and functional relationship to each other. Even just unlocking the knees to enter a forward bend or come back upright gives a more integrated action of the muscles involved and distributes the forces more equally between the joints of the entire pelvic girdle. The deeper you bend your knees, the greater the challenge becomes, and correspondingly, greater strength is developed. Your forward bend will look more like a transit through a squat where you only straighten your legs as you reach the final form of the posture. This will enable you to maintain and continue to improve the flexibility in the back of your body whilst developing greater strength and balance between the function of your legs, buttocks and low back.
Feet Together vs Apart
When we stand with our feet together we are more unstable than with our feet apart. Standing with the feet together activates the adductor muscles of our inner thighs as they attempt to stabilise us. This has the advantage of creating a direct activation of our core via the connective tissue that links the adductors to the pelvic floor and continues up the central axis of our body. Although our central line is activated the abductor muscles on the outsides of the buttocks are disadvantaged and do not provide important lateral stability of the pelvis. This is more important in females who not only have a propensity to ligamentous laxity but also generally have an increased Q-angle (the angle of the thigh bone from the outer hip joint to the knee). A strong Q-angle places the knees at an exaggerated angle when the feet are together. When folding forward with the feet together we need to emphasise drawing up from the arches of the feet to the pelvic floor to provide the extra lumbopelvic stability that is needed.
Conversely, the further apart our feet the more stable we are as we have broadened our base of support. Working with the feet apart has the advantage of enabling greater engagement of the buttock muscles, i.e, gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. You can vary the width of your feet to target varying muscle fibres. The gluteal muscles provide us with both hip and pelvic stability. Working with the feet hip-width apart provides greater stability by engaging the gluteal muscles and places less stress on the knee joints.
A common imbalance in the general population, including yogis, is flexion dominance. As our hip flexor muscles dominate so many of our activities, our gluteal muscles become inhibited. If you consider that we sit on our glutes, squash them and under use them it is no wonder that ‘gluteal amnesia’ is so common. Gluteus maximus activation is especially important as it counters the effect of the hip flexor muscles. It is the only muscle that pulls the thigh bone back into the hip socket, centrating the hip joint. Its activation and strength is imperative for the health and stability of our entire pelvic girdle.
Entering or exiting a forward bend with a flat back is sometimes referred to as a ‘swan dive’ as it looks beautiful and graceful. The back is flat, almost arching backwards and the abdominals released with the ribs flared. Here one uses the back muscles to resist the downward pull of gravity which places more load on the back muscles to stabilise our mobile lumbar vertebrae. This method also targets the stretch onto the hamstring muscles and especially their tendinous insertions at the sit bones. I believe it to be the major cause of hamstring tendinopathies and tears, AKA ‘yoga butt’.
Practising forward bends using the abdominals to keep the lower ribs connected to the pubic bone supports the lumbar vertebrae and shares the workload between the front and back trunk muscles. As the abdominals reduce the lumbar curve the stretch is more evenly distributed over all of the muscles on the back of the body: the paraspinals, the gluteals and the hamstrings. This method of itself is therapeutic for hamstring tendinopathies.
As a therapist I often adapt the way students are performing yoga postures to bring them closer to a functional equivalent. However, many yoga asana although not functional are extraordinarily therapeutic! Inversions and backbends are classic examples. These are not actions that we require in our daily life. However, both counter the persistent, all-pervading force that gravity has upon our body. True functionality means that something meets it intended objective or purpose. Most of what we practice in yoga has an amazing restorative and invaluable effect on us. Sometimes only minor adaptations are needed to make those more repetitive movements more sustainable for a longer period of time.