In a studio normally used for Bikram yoga classes, Pierre Wright is leading students through a sequence of exercises designed to improve how their bodies move.
The class starts with bent-elbow arm circles to release tension in the shoulder blades, then moves to a series of spinal stretches, modified yoga poses and core twists. It ends with the cross touch, a challenging variation of the dead bug posture, engaging the whole body.
This isn’t a typical yoga class. In fact, Wright would say it’s not really yoga.
The class — FaYoFlex (which stands for Fascia, Yoga and Flexibility) at Wright’s Bikram Yoga Petworth — is designed to ensure someone can lift weights, fully perform a backward bend or simply stand and walk correctly and without pain.
FaYoFlex, as created by Wright, focuses on mobility: the connectivity between muscle groups, joint capsules and the fascial system (the web of soft connective tissue that surrounds the muscles and joints, affecting movement and performance).
Wright, a Park View resident with a psychology PhD from Howard University who opened the studio a year ago, told me that FaYoFlex is open to everyone — from children to the elderly — regardless of athletic ability.
Betty Weiss, a yoga-practicing Petworth resident, is recovering from a back injury, and she said she’s seen her strength and flexibility improve from taking the class. “It’s a good complement for other exercise classes. It keeps things from being too tight,” Weiss said.
Although the class may look easy at first glance, FaYoFlex can be deceptively hard for some.
“There are athletes who are super-muscular but can barely get through the class because myofascially they are so tight,” Wright said. “Muscles create a tight body, not just physically but internally as well. A tight body is not the most functional body. What we’re trying to accomplish is a functional body.”
Mobility is a topic that often gets mislabeled. It’s not the same as flexibility or stretching, although both will give you clues to a body part’s level of mobility. Rather, mobility is how the body moves on a daily basis. Having good mobility means being able to walk, sit, run and move the way your body was intended to.
Kate Galliett, a fitness coach who focuses on mobility issues at fitforreallife.com, said the concept that you can “fix” one part of the body without addressing the larger mobility issues is a misconception people have in dealing with aches and pains.
“Everything really is connected. What happens at your foot certainly has influence in what is happening in your hips, but it’s not your job to isolate each muscle and try to make it more mobile on its own, as if it were in a vacuum,” Galliett said. “Nothing works in isolation in your body, so when you look at muscles as ‘tight adductor’ or ‘tight calves,’ you’re missing the point.”
Kelly Starrett, a San Francisco-based coach and physical therapist whose new book, “Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World,” focuses on improving mobility for the office worker, said that a good test of mobility is to attempt a full squat, keeping your feet pointed forward and your weight on your heels, with a neutral spine and your calves touching your hamstrings. He said a successful squat mobilization requires the ankles, hips and spine to be free of restriction.
Starrett says mobility has two components: motor control and biomechanics. Motor control is the technique needed to create stable and powerful body positions. The body is built to move correctly all the time, but Starrett said our society doesn’t teach people the skills to move the way we were meant to move. Instead, we focus on “working out” or “getting some exercise.”
The second component, biomechanics, deals with the muscular structure, joints and connective tissues, as well as the nervous system, which sends signals throughout the body to instruct mobile positioning.
“Your nervous system is the gatekeeper when it comes to mobility. If your nervous system does not sense that it has control of the joint in the range you’re trying to expand into, it will simply disallow you from going into it,” Galliett said. For example, if you have trouble touching your toes, it’s not just your back and leg muscles stopping you. It’s also your brain telling the rest of your body that it’s not possible.
Part of why Wright created the FaYoFlex class was his own inability to complete the Bikram yoga sequences pain-free.
“I have been practicing yoga for a long time, and in the yoga experience, I was unhealthy. And, being unhealthy, the mat was far more challenging than it would be for the average person,” Wright said.
Once he began to work on his mobility through the FaYoFlex exercises he created, he said, he was able to regain a fuller range of motion so he could perform Bikram yoga correctly.
The good news is that the body is dynamic and adaptable, so no matter your age or physical condition, you can improve your mobility.
To start, Starrett recommends focusing on getting enough sleep and walking more (with a neutral spine and your feet pointed forward), to reverse the physical damage caused by sitting behind a desk all day.
In aiming to loosen up the tightness in the soft tissue and muscles, it’s important not to do too much too soon. Pick a trouble spot, such as the muscles and tissues around the shoulder blades, get a foam roller or a lacrosse ball and press your shoulder against it for five seconds, then release. Wait five seconds, then compress and release again. Starrett said you’ll feel discomfort at first because the fascia will be stiff, but eventually the tissue will normalize so it won’t be painful to the touch.
“You can have a pretty amazing conversation with your body,” Starrett said.
Having that conversation is Wright’s goal in FaYoFlex. The body begins to restore its range of motion, creating a looser body. And a loose body is a functioning body.
In addition, FaYoFlex strives to integrate body awareness — having a full understanding of how your body is doing and feeling — with the physical.
“This class focuses on the innate awareness of the body,” Wright said. “Are you connected? Are you willing to be connected?”
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Drop-in class $22
Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m., Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.
Bikram Yoga Petworth
3232 Georgia Ave. NW, Suite 105