Let’s recognize that we are movement professionals if we’re teaching yoga. As a profession, I suggest we further embrace movement sciences, experiential anatomy, somatic inquiry and less prescriptive, more skills-based language.
Teaching physical postures includes transitions, illustrating the student’s relative ease or struggle with initiating and completing movement tasks. It unveils their level of interoceptive capacity, alignment and proprioception, breathing function, muscular recruitment patterns, and subtle yet pervasive samskaras and beliefs that may predetermine how they approach their entire physical practice. Asana is alive, being practiced by changing, complex individuals!
This living process of moving into, breathing and existing within different shapes, requires that we shift from an outdated, reductionist mechanical model into understanding movement dynamically. The art and science of designing yoga therapy practices gets easier and more fun when we understand the common goal that can help many people move and feel better despite varying diagnoses and symptom presentations – the goal of movement efficiency.
What is movement efficiency?
The ability to execute intentional and unconscious movements with minimal effort.
Read more in the excerpt below from Pelvic Yoga Therapy for the Whole Woman:
Stability can be defined as a robustness that allows someone to return to homeostasis or ‘center’ after being perturbed or taken off balance. It isn’t a static phenomenon where we force ourselves to remain perfectly still. To the contrary, true stability comes from being able to perceive and respond accurately, adapting in the moment to restore a sense of equilibrium no matter what gravity or life throws at us.
The joint movements we study [in this book], while small, allow us to navigate the fact that we are living, changing beings. They allow us to transfer and disperse forces instead of accumulating or concentrating forces into localized places which can lead to inefficient movement or tissue damage. It may serve us well to move beyond the polarity of deciding between whether to ‘mobilize or stabilize’, and instead see that focusing on movement efficiency is capable of training both.
Efficiency means we can orchestrate movement with the appropriate amount of effort to accomplish the task. Too little effort and our movement can become disorganized, and we may rely on joint structures and connective tissue for support they’re not so equipped to give. Too much effort, and the excess tension can alter joint mechanics and load certain aspects of the joint surface more than others, and overuse some neuromuscular patterns while neglecting other nerve and muscle fibers waiting in the wings for their chance to help. Efficiency allows even complex movements or high load activities to appear effortless and smooth, and may promote longevity as we learn to skillfully use our body.
A multidisciplinary approach to movement (not solely practicing asana) can help make sure we don’t fall prey to a limited, dogmatic approach. Understanding movement science principles helps us design a home practice that can instill the rich benefits made possible by the dynamic partnership of stability and mobility.
My work in supporting people with pelvic conditions and symptoms has only deepened my devotion to embodiment as a source of right relationship to self, with training movement efficiency as a key component. We know pain and trauma alter how we breathe and move, how well we connect and communicate. Certain postural habits can decrease the receptivity or availability of the pelvic and deep core tissues, and stress is pervasive. Yoga therapy is a practice of coming home to ourselves.
I most often take an inquiry-based approach that allows students to take the lead, and reflect on awareness and skills cultivated through the process of yoga therapy. Facilitating learning and change requires that we create conditions for exploration and help our clients register both their baseline experience and articulate the changes they feel.
Here are 3 principles you can implement now to support the goal of movement efficiency:
Principle 1: Minimize and refine effort – the power of yielding
In my book, Pelvic Yoga Therapy for the Whole Woman, we investigate many ways to enhance awareness and regulation of one’s nervous system and find more ease within doing and being. One important concept that helps develop efficiency is yielding.
Think of a cat lounging in the sun. They show us how to enter a state of supreme relaxation, warmed and melting into the patch of sunlight spreading across their body, heavy in our lap. Yet at a moment’s notice they could hear a bird chirping and become alert, springing to attention and ready to pounce. Another metaphor for dynamic yielding is a flower growing in soil. At once rooted, fluid, and rising strong to reach for the sun, the plant illustrates a living relationship to both the ground and the environment. Watching a bloom unfurl and recoil into itself with cycles of day and night also demonstrates the responsive, oscillating qualities available to us through embodying yield skillfully.
For people, unlike cats perhaps, we’ve likely had some struggles unhooking from productivity and grind culture. We need to remember how to rest. Yielding lends a softness, suspending time in favor of pausing, observing. It is a voluntary process of getting quietly attuned to our aliveness and how to rest within that in any moment, movement or position. We begin to feel resourced and can bring these dynamic qualities of yield into daily living and complex physical expression like dance, sport, asana.
This doesn’t mean we must solely drape passively over bolsters all day (although we can, and enjoy it!) Most of us live within the role of householder. We need to be able to tend our families, homes, get to appointments on time, and complete projects at work.
Also, if restful practices increase agitation or tension for any number of reasons, we might first learn to yield in motion with the next principle.
Principle 2: Move slow like a sloth – pandiculation
Asana in this methodology may create a more nuanced, dynamic, multiplanar experience than we’re used to if we’d been taught more prescriptive, linear, or static methods. Contemporary, athletic, vinyasa styles of practice tend to move quickly from form to form, whereas a somatic approach requires often that we slow down and learn to choose and modulate speed, range, variability, and effort. Again, I’m not suggesting we never move quickly – life often demands it and we can train to meet this demand. If we want to instill change in how we move and feel, however, we might wish to employ the principle of pandiculation.
pandiculation = active, attentive participation with movement through full range of motion, sometimes in increments; whereas ‘stretching’ is often performed passively, statically, or at end range
For example, a conventional exercise approach to bridge or using bridge for the sake of strengthening might emphasize full range repetitions, brief pulses toward end range, or isometric holds at full hip extension. Here, we emphasize gross movement patterns of a more mechanical nature and rhythm, sometimes perpetuating our habits.
If you want to focus on recruiting primary movers (muscles) and metabolic advantages, this has place and purpose. But what if the person moves through bridge this way and feels increased pelvic pressure or bulging sensations? What if they have no awareness or sensate experience of their pelvic floor? What if they feel other muscles working instead of the ones we’re attempting to target? Sometimes this gross effort creates compensations, too, that can be difficult to override or inhibit unless we adopt a new approach that can better influence repatterning.
Pandiculation might first begin with the small action of pelvic tilts, or incremental movements of the hips off the floor in the direction of bridge pose. We might cue to come up 10-20% first, then ask the client to modulate into greater range, or vice versa as an inquiry. We might slow down to luxuriate in the articulation of the spine moving like a snake.
These methods can give the person and their nervous system time to coordinate the dance of efficient muscular effort, and can help them become more attentive to increasingly subtle sensations, especially within the pelvic bowl. By moving in smaller ranges, and emphasizing creating a smooth, fluid quality of movement the muscles and tissues being targeted will be both contracted actively and released into a lengthened state. Of course, as yoga therapists we want to select movements from the asana repertoire that will best serve their needs and goals – a topic that is outside the scope of this article.
Principle 3: Consider how we breathe – and let the breath happen
While there’s an entire chapter on breathing function, breath awareness as it relates to pelvic function, and a sampling of pranayama techniques in my book, in this article I want to remind us of the simple fact that we have options! With this fact comes responsibility, the caveat being that there’s no such thing as ‘the right way’ to breathe.
Linking the breath to specific movements has purpose, and we can select a breath pattern that supports our clients within their current function or symptom presentation, be it to focus attention, manage intraabdominal pressure, enhance pelvic engagement, or influence the nervous system, for instance. If we get stuck thinking or feeling there’s only one right way to breathe, however, we are likely overriding the body’s natural responses and creating an artificial, rigid, less reflexive way of being.
During exercise, like when lifting and loading our body with external forces, we’ve been led to believe that we should always exhale on a certain phase of motion. A key example from teaching asana is just how deeply entrenched it has become that we only ever inhale when reaching our arms overhead, then always exhale to bring the arms back down. As an experiment in mental agility and physical variability, I’ve had so many students scratch their head and chuckle at how surprisingly difficult reversing this breath pattern can be!
In daily life, breathing happens to be mostly involuntary, for good reason. The easefulness that comes from letting the breath do what it does may increase the responsiveness of our deep core and pelvic support system, and allows our nervous system to continuously recalibrate.
Isn’t the goal of yoga liberation, to feel at home and free within our physical vessel and expand consciousness? To me, this means that we have a range of movement and breathing options available to us, we understand context to discern which option to select in any given moment, and that largely, over time, we seek to restore the innate function of breath and movement so it becomes more unconscious, natural, and automatic.
Take some time to unpack what you’ve learned about how to breathe during exercise or exertion, and specific vinyasa sequences, teasing apart specific pranayama techniques and strategies from the reality of moving toward embodied function. Ultimately, our therapeutic aim might be to remove obstacles and compensations and restore the responsive, unconscious fullness of free diaphragmatic breathing.
While practicing yoga and sustaining our health is a lifelong pursuit, if we’re effectively driving change, at some point we’ll no longer need to rely on the same therapeutic interventions. We integrate and embody one process, and in achieving that goal we free up attention, time, and resources for the next stage of our embodied evolution.