Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Yoga is more than a gym routine

A 98 year old woman in India hit the headlines on International Day of Yoga this year as she still does a daily yoga routine. She famously said that if you break a sweat when doing yoga you are not doing it right.

Quite to the contrary, in the west yoga has become a part of the fitness industry. I have written before on why I think it doesn't belong in the fitness industry (see Yoga trends in the fitness industry and why it doesn't belong there). Yet people are so time poor that they want to get all aspects of their fitness regime, including their cardiovascular/aerobic workout, from the time they devote to yoga.

The problem with this this is that many of the other benefits of yoga might be missed due to the emphasis on cardiovascular workout.

Fitness is too small a space for yoga to occupy. It is so much more. Yoga belongs in a health and wellbeing space. Yoga, when practised as yoga should be practised, with care and mindfulness, gives so much more than your average fitness workout.

And here is the really wonderful news about your requirements for cardiovascular workout. You only need six minutes of high intensity workout per week to build and maintain cardiovascular fitness.

Fitness wisdom now recommends that we:
  • Do six minutes of high intensity exercise, done as interval training where you go at top intensity for a short period of time (e.g. 30 to 60 seconds) interspersed with a period of ongoing but low level movement, per week
  • Also do strength training such as weight training, which is most effective done at slow speeds
  • Include core work
  • Include flexibility work.
You can easily incorporate strength training (using one's own body weight), core training and flexibility work, in a well rounded yoga practice that includes so much more.

Your best health and wellbeing lifestyle will support the whole body and mind to be fully functional in everyday life. We are best served by bodies and minds that are both strong and flexible, able to relax and let go as well as being able to switch on and respond to demands, and to do so in full equanimity, safety and calm.

A yoga practice helps us towards this goal of holistic wellness when we practise mindfully, using the physical training aspects to school and habituate the body to move safely in everyday life, and simultaneously incorporating mental training. A true yogasana practice is moving meditation. Let's look at what yoga provides for your health and wellbeing when you practise it without raising a sweat and with contemplation.

Regular practice of a balanced yoga routine will increase the flexibility of the body. A well structured yoga program will not try to increase flexibility by taking a ballistic approach or trying to force the body in any way.  That is counterproductive and can lead to injury. Unfortunately the yoga world is littered with teachers who will push, shove and try to force their student's body into some ideal of a pose, and the world is also littered with injuries that have arisen from that approach. So yoga should also be teaching us acceptance and patience as we move towards better functioning bodies.

A well functioning body will combine strength and flexibility and a well structured yoga regime will include both. Yoga has as many elements of resistance training as you need, using the body's own weight. And it doesn't have to be handstands or peacock pose, holding your downward facing dog for a minute is resistance training. Yoga includes all forms of muscle contraction for building strength as you move into a pose, hold it and then move out of it and into another.

Yoga supports the health of your organs and glands
An asana (posture) practice, as you move through a good balance of postures, alternately squeezes and releases internal organs and glands. This is like squeezing and releasing a dirty sponge in a bucket of clean water. The sponge is cleansed, is it not?

"Fluid dynamics"
Similarly, this squeeze and release is healthy for all the fluids of the body. Lymphatic drainage is enhanced, peri-organ fluids refreshed (the fluids that surround the organs), blood flow stimulated, synovial fluid (the oil in the joints) is stimulated. Even cartilage in the joints is moistened as yoga takes joints through their full range of motion, thus maintaining joint health and reducing arthritic inflammation and pain.

Supports better breathing
Breathing is a core technique to yoga. It is more than breathe in here and out there. Yoga teaches us to breathe more efficiently and deeply, thus increasing the oxygen levels in our blood which then becomes available to tissues throughout our body. Breath is also intimately connected with mental states, so better breathing leads to a better mental state.

Improves posture
Better breathing and improved posture are closely linked; better posture enables better breathing. Improved posture brings the body into a better relationship to gravity and is actually more ergonomic and restful than poor posture. Posture is also interconnected with states of mind. Sit or stand erect and at ease and the mind will also be alert and at ease.

Stronger bones
The movements in a hatha yoga practice put resistance on the bones which stimulates them to grow more cells. So hatha yoga practice helps prevent osteoporosis?

Spinal disc health
The movements of a hatha yoga practice are ideal for squeezing fluid into the spinal discs, helping to plump them up. This is a significant anti-ageing effect.

Building support for the spine
Movements that range between back extension and flexion, lateral movements and sitting upright build the framework of support for the spine that protects it when we are off the mat doing our daily tasks like weeding the garden, reversing the car or putting on our socks.

Mental wellbeing
True yoga is a contemplative practice. Asana practice without meditative contemplation could not really be called yoga. If you are doing asana as a workout you are probably missing this important element and its benefits.
So practice a genuine contemplative yoga style, and find an extra twelve minutes a week to run, swim, cycle or whatever at full pelt for one minute, then slowly for another minute times by six. That is all you need. No gym fees required.