Movement Transformations Part 2: Understanding the Nature of Functional Movement

In Part 1, Peter Blackaby explores our shifting understanding of the nature of movement from a mechanical model to an emphasis on the holistic, functional nature of movement. In this article, he goes more deeply into what functional movement is, and what it means for our yoga practice. Click YogaUOnline here to read Part 1 of this article.

We now know that the motor cortex is mapped as movement patterns that are frequently used by the animal. Nowhere is there a one-to-one relationship from motor neuron to muscle. As yoga teachers, this should make us question whether there is any point in trying to target specific muscles when the brain is not adapted for it. We should instead think of functional movements, or, as Graziano termed them, “behavioral repertoires.”

Functional thinking is concerned with how we move as a whole when we carry out an intention. The intention may be straightforward— simply walking, or sitting or picking something off the floor. These will be whole body movements, a result of a flood of nervous impulses permeating the musculoskeletal system, initiating a sequence of muscular events that result in the desired action. The significant thing here is that we don’t think about these movements as discrete parts that we have to coordinate. We think and feel as a whole unit.

This approach is natural, in the sense that all children learn to move like this, as do all animals. Even when we learn a new skill, we do it as a whole, and we do it by feeling. Movement is learned through our sensory nervous system. If we lose the sensory nerves, as can happen in some illnesses, we no longer know how to move.

This is well illustrated in Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.

One chapter describes the unfortunate events of a woman, Christine, who develops a virus that damages her sensory pathways to a point where she can no longer ‘sense’ where her body is in space. Even though her muscles have lost no power she becomes unable to coordinate any meaningful movement. This is not true of the motor nerves. If we lose a motor nerve, other pathways will open up to try and compensate.

Functional thinking comes out of having clear intentions. The movement starts with this, and when we come up against a problem in movement, the first thing we have to do is clarify our intention, and then see if our body carries it out. If we fail, we try again, each time trying to sense more clearly what we are trying to do. This has nothing to do with individual muscles or separate parts of the body. It is a gestalt, an organized whole, and this is what we have to improve.

What in a movement are we trying to improve? Here the idea of compliance can help us. A compliant movement is one where every part of the body is involved in carrying out the intention in the most helpful way. So we can examine a movement to see if it is compliant or not.

If it is not compliant, there are usually two main reasons. The first is that the body sense is faulty: you intend to do one thing but something else happens. A good example of this is when you first ask students to move individual toes. Often it is not the toe that moves but the fingers or eyebrows.

The second thing that happens is we use too much effort, and add things that are not necessary. These are usually unconscious habits carried over from our childhood and are very difficult to sense.

Repeating movements, exploring and experimenting with how they feel helps us get a better grasp on how our body carries out our intention.

Serge Gracovetsky’s book The Spinal Engine gives us perhaps the most complete theory of movement. His argument is that the spine is the primary driver of locomotion, and has been since fish started swimming in the sea—using the spine’s side-bending motion to move through the ocean. This same movement was used by the first land dwellers that crept and crawled along the sandy beaches. Many lizards and snakes still use this strategy. Other developments happened as some mammals’ legs evolved from being on the side of the torso to beneath them, and instead of side bending, flexion and extension were employed.

In the bipedal stance, Gracovetsky argues, rotation is the spinal driver for locomotion, with the legs vastly increasing the extent of the pelvic movement. If you doubt this, sit with your legs straight out in front of you, and try and “walk” forward. You will notice the pelvis rotates around the vertical plane. Having a model helps us prioritize what is important in our practice. If what we practice supports human function then it useful. If it doesn’t then we have to question why we are doing it.

Humans do lend a certain complexity to this study though. Unlike the horse, we have many significant secondary functions. The horse needs to run, walk, canter and trot, bend and lift its neck to eat, and rather awkwardly lie down to rest or roll in dust baths. There is not a great deal of variety in the movements of a horse.

Humans, on the other hand, have to bend and straighten, sit on the floor, carry things etc.—movements that are all almost as significant as locomotion. So we have to understand how to best do these things to support human activity as well as we can.

We can break these movement patterns down into four main categories:

  1. Those that support locomotion, flexion, extension, side bending and rotation.

  2. Those that support bending and lifting, standing flexion and coming out of standing flexion.

  3. Those that support sitting by easing the hips in various ways.

  4. Finally, those that help us maintain balance, something that becomes increasingly important as we age.

When we understand these aspects of human movement, it is also worth remembering that there is no benefit in taking them to extremes. When we take any movement, even natural movements, to extreme we stress the tissues involved and cause potential damage.

Roughly after the age of 35, our tissues become less resilient to strong or sudden movements and damage can slowly accumulate, creating potential problems later in life.

It is sometimes argued that there are many other movements that humans can do, so shouldn’t we practice as many different variations of movement as possible? The difficulty here is that our anatomy is well adapted to the movements we regularly perform, as alluded to above, and has resilience to them. More occasional movements have less structural resilience and therefore are more prone to cause injury if they are repeated regularly in our practice.

It seems to me, then, that if we want our practice and teaching to have the most benefit and cause the least harm—an approach where we encourage students to move in accordance with reasonably normal human repertoires, without force and with an attention on the felt sense rather than the goal of a shape—then we will have the greatest chance of success.

Reprinted with permission from

Peer Blackaby

Peter Blackaby has 30-plus years’experience as a yoga teacher and trainer, and is also trained as an Osteopath.  Peter started practicing yoga seriously in 1978 as a student of the Iyengar System and after six years undertook the two-year teacher training program, qualifying in 1986. Currently, he teaches functional anatomy on the London yoga teacher-training course and has input to two other local courses.  He is regularly invited to teach throughout England, Wales and Scotland. 

The project he is presently involved with is a two-year course for teachers called Grounded Yoga.  The aim is to help students understand how yoga can bring productive change to the body, the mind, and the breath and improve our sense of relationship to the environment in which we find ourselves. Find more about Peter Blackaby at


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