Revitalizing your yoga practice - the functional approach to yoga

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Confession – I’ve been teaching yoga since 2009, but from then till January 2014, I had always thought that my “yoga” was not good enough to be a yoga teacher. On one hand, my intellect and higher self knew that yoga was never about doing fancy poses but an inward journey to discover one’s true nature. And my role as a teacher is simply to share my practice and guide my students to explore. But on the other, my ego, that big ego, propelled me to compare and then I felt bad about myself for not being able to do a proper headstand or put my feet behind my head (which I do get asked a lot whenever people learn that I am a yoga teacher). My yoga practice and my teaching plateaued for years as I felt discouraged by my asana (yoga poses) practice.

Back then, I was only practicing the widely popular power vinyasa yoga - a more athletic and flowy practice where we link poses together in sequences and connect each pose with breath. Vinyasa practice is invigorating and challenging and I loved to see myself being able to “achieve” some strong poses. Driven by my ego and focusing on the look rather than the anatomy of the pose, I caused aches and injuries through my daily practice . And there was always this bone-deep tightness I couldn't get rid of no matter how much I stretched in my vinyasa practice.

Everything changed in January 2014 when I started training under yin yoga master Paul Grilley. Before then I had tried a few yin yoga classes and thought, oh this feels good, and I was curious to know more.

The greatest epiphanies that I received which are applicable to many forms of yoga are:

  1. Every body is different. Even your left and right side are not necessary symmetric by design. (Skeletal variation)

  2. The functional approach to yoga - what is the pose or your practice as a whole doing to your body or even to your life?

Skeletal Variations

If you’ve been an avid yoga practitioner, have you ever wondered why you can’t do certain poses? Or have you ever found some poses that just “don’t seem right” for you? Maybe you are annoyed by how high your knees are in Butterfly, as in the picture below, no matter how many years you have practiced?

Do you beat yourself up because your heels won’t touch the floor in Downward Facing Dog?

Sometimes, especially for a beginner, the restrictions are tensile - that you haven’t got your muscles or tissues stretched out, in which case you will find a stretching sensation where things are being pulled apart. But if you’ve been practicing regularly for two to three years, and instead of feeling a relatively widespread pulling-apart sensation in your tissues, you feel things being pinched together or “locked up” in a particular spot (usually at the joints), you are likely to be restricted by your bone structure and experience compression.

And hey! It’s perfectly ok. Chill. Relax. It’s not the end of the world. You are not any less of a human being or denied from being enlightened because you have “bad” bones. We humans are perfectly imperfect the way we are.

Let’s get the facts straight. Each yoga pose is composed of manipulating various numbers of joints or body parts. There are a lot of variables in any one pose, such as the proportion between bone segments and the shape of the bones. For example, in Half Lord of the Fishes Pose below which functionally is a spinal twist (your shoulder and pelvis turning in opposite directions), being able to bind - locking the hands with each other, does not necessarily mean one is more advanced or even deeper in a twist. The bind depends on a number of parameters - namely the degree of spinal twist, adduction of the femur (thigh bone), femur-to-torso and arm-to-torso ratios.

Skeletal variation plays a big part in any asana practice, be it yin (passive, fascia-

focused) or yang (active, muscles-focused) and people that appear in same-looking poses might feel dramatically different internally. I sometimes practice and teach headstand, but I still do not love doing it because my neck could feel “funny” for days afterwards. Because my bone structure and proportion are not the most suitable for headstand, I actually need to recruit a lot more arm, shoulder and core strength to muscle up to a headstand without a wall. Whereas, if you have the right bone structure for the pose and decent arm and core strength, you could be in bliss whenever you’re standing on your head.

Not all poses are meant for everyone.

The Functional Approach to Yoga

Knowing that we are all unique and perfect in our bones, how should we practice then? When we take a functional approach to yoga - how our practice affect our body, energy, mind, and awareness, instead of an aesthetic approach - fixated about where we put our hands and feet and restricted by how the pose “should” look - we liberate ourselves and bring our yoga practice to a whole new level. My personal experience is that I now find a sense of purpose with my practice, and I feel free and true to myself. I could cut myself some slack and I’m more inspired to practice because of this new sense of purpose - to improve the quality of my life.

Yoga is such a big tent now with new styles arising everyday, and the scope of topics are so varied: anything from purely asana, to anatomy, to energy healing, to past life regression, to yoga philosophy, to enlightenment, to what you should or should not eat, to religions, to chanting in Sanskrit, to yoga equipment… And even just in the category of asana, there are countless styles - Vinyasa, Hatha, Viniyoga, Universal, Integral, Yin, Yin Yang, Restorative, name it.

Within this big tent, I’m now more inspired to use my yoga practice to improve the quality of my life depending on my needs here and now.

Maybe after days of Christmas and New Year festivity, I badly need to burn away the holiday excess with a sweaty Detox Flow with a lot of twisting to stimulate my internal organs and digestive system; or it’s Thursday evening and I’ve been soldiering on at work for days so all I need now is some Candlelight Yin to stretch deeply and melt all my tension away; sometimes, amid the craziness of life, all I want is just to sit still and observe my breaths; regularly, I challenge and amuse myself with some funky advanced poses; everyday, I like to start with a clear mind and inner peace through my meditation.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Patanjali

To get a better understanding of yoga and how you can use it to improve the quality of your life, let us revisit the Eight Limbs of Yoga by Patanjali. Considered the father of yoga, Patanjali distilled the insights from various yoga disciplines of his time into a system of self-realization - the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Here is an overview of what the eight limbs are and I encourage you to delve deeper and see how you can apply them in your lives if you are inspired:

  1. Yama (moral restrictions)

  2. Ahimsa - Non-violence, compassion

  3. Satya – Truthfulness

  4. Asteya - Non-stealing

  5. Brahmacharya - Moderation or non-overindulgence

  6. Aparigraha - Non-greed, letting go of attachments

  7. Niyama (moral practices)

  8. Saucha - Cleanliness, purity

  9. Santosha - Contentment, equanimity

  10. Tapas - Self-discipline, simplicity

  11. Swadhyaya - Self-study, reflection, mindfulness

  12. Ishvarapranidhana - Letting go of the ego

  13. Asana - A posture that is stable and comfortable - in preparation for meditation. Yes you read it right. There was no headstand, handstand, arm balance or contortionist's backbend in Yoga Sutras.

  14. Pranayama - “Prana” is the Sanskrit for life-force, so this is about energy or breath control

  15. Pratyahara - Sense-withdrawal

  16. Dharana - One-pointed focus

  17. Dhyana – Meditation

  18. Samadhi - Enlightenment, oneness with the Universe

As you can see, yoga was meant to be a tool for self-realization.

There are literally unlimited ways to use your yoga on and off the mat. The first step is to understand yourself, your practice and your purpose. How would you like to use yoga then?

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Interested to know more on yin yoga and how to find your own alignments in your yoga practise? Stay tuned for my upcoming workshops "YINMERSION" and "FREE TO BE YOU" on or my Facebook Page Ariel Tang Yoga & Healing

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