Recently I watched a yoga series for low back issues and the instructor looked at the camera, smiled, and said something to the effect of, “you really want to spend 20 minutes a day doing this so you can remain functional.”
My heart sank. I immediately thought of my spinal arthritis, how I’d been functioning far beyond my means and that’s what harmed my back to begin with. What was I now, I thought? Am I useless? I’m certainly not functional according to this teacher because I have back pain. I’m also not alone.
The autistic community has spent a lot of time educating people about functioning labels. You do not know if someone is “high functioning” or “low functioning”. Not even so-called experts can tell. You know why? Because too often the “high functioning” individual is operating without supports, which contributes to increased stress, burnout, and exhaustion. To add insult to injury, the “high functioning” label is often used to deny help and support to autistic individuals.
When instructors use functioning as a desired outcome or label as a general statement, they are engaging in ableist language.
If you must talk about functioning, be specific about the desired outcome. I would like more flexibility in my shoulders so my right arm can be more functional when I’m reaching for something on a high shelf. This is a good use of functioning, not only because it’s the student initiating it, but also, it’s specific and applies to a body part. If the student were in a coma and unable to move without assistance, I would hope that you wouldn’t call the student “non functional”.
Furniture is functional. People shouldn’t be defined in those terms. I could have just as easily posted this over in my Fibromyalgia Yoga Teacher blog, but when the instructor talked about people being “functional” it hit a couple of different ways.
Now in this teacher’s defense, it could have been a slip of the tongue. The teacher focuses more on the science of yoga, and while the instructor doesn’t use the term “accessible yoga” a lot, the intended audience is very similar. However, just as we train ourselves to use inclusive, equitable, and fair language, as yoga instructors we can also learn to rethink how we explain the benefits of our work and the labels we use within it. I also think this speaks to a broader issue, that the more medical and scientific focused individuals tend to think in terms of deficits and abilities, rather than a holistic view of what any individual can do.
Which brings me back to functional as a term and as a label. Before you tell you students that this pose or this work will make them more functional, think about all of those in the audience who may excluded by your language. And then think about how you can create an inclusive environment for everyone, because you never know what someone is dealing with or how their body is feeling just by looking at them.