I love Yoga. But…Power Yoga, Hot Yoga, Fast Yoga, Pilates-Yoga, Fresh Yoga, Baby Yoga and even Prenatal Yoga…not so much. I find these phenomena strange.
Why? Well, 40 years ago – when I first learned Yoga – it was a privilege. A person came to Yoga in the search for a meaningful life path. It was a blend of the spiritual and the physical, and it required a commitment to what was revealed within the practice. Before being allowed to take my first class, I had to demonstrate that I already practiced meditation. It was not exercise per se.
It was not adaptable like it is today. Depending on the teacher, you learned an ancient system – Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, or Kundalini. Those were the major methods that have Hindu roots, and those who practiced these art forms knew what they were doing. The teachers themselves had worked on their craft for decades. Today, I know only a few teachers who have a profound grasp of each of these methods.
Why is Yoga so popular?
Is there something within the work itself – even in the diluted forms, hybrid versions and the celebrity/competitive studios – that allows it to thrive in the self-centered, free-wheeling, branding-crazy marketplace of the early 21st century developed world?
I find the answer to this in a strange place: Zen practice, Bhuddism. One of my favorite notions is from Suzuki’s text Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “When you feel disagreeable, it is best to sit.” This is an element of nin – constancy – or being present in the moment. Not patience, which requires a rejection of impatience and therefore cannot accept the present as it is. When you sit – just sit period, that’s it – all that is real is the moment. This is at the heart of all spiritual experience.
I’m not an expert in Yoga. I don’t teach Yoga, although I have integrated Yoga-based skills into my work. I have practiced Hatha and Vinyasa over the years enough to learn how certain skills are treated…belly breathing, slow deep breathing, maintaining position and listening to the wisdom of the body, and isometric strengthening in preparation for more expansive shapes or motions. Long ago, I integrated these skills from my Yoga experience into my teaching style because these skills are effective for the populations with which I work. But, I do not teach Yoga.
Can Research Help Us?
Researchers find Yoga a nightmare. There is so much variance now in the practice that findings from any one study cannot be transferred to the general population. One of the most revealing experimental-design studies found that none of the claims of Yoga improving metabolism could be demonstrated. When asked why they thought this outcome had occurred, the teachers who were used in the study said they thought the participants in the study were not fit enough to do Yoga!
One of the most successful Yoga teachers in my area, and one of my favorites, has for decades used a bicycle for her primary mode of transportation. She credits her longevity and success to Yoga. I attribute it to bicycling. Dr. Cooper is right…fitness (which means aerobic fitness) is the biggest bang for the buck. Unless you are fit, it is hard to execute some of the more subtle demands of many exercise regimens.
Some Yoga teachers will say that you can make Yoga aerobic or that some forms are aerobic. OK, then it’s aerobics, not Yoga. Whenever I see “aerobic Yoga” it reminds me of aerobic dancing. It’s helpful to remember that Yoga developed in a time and place where survival was dependent upon fitness. People didn’t need to do more aerobics to find enlightenment. They needed reflection and to be present in the moment.
So, I insist on aerobic fitness as the first goal of a fitness regimen. In the pre/postnatal field, this is the only consistently demonstrated factor in improved outcomes. As a birth preparation there are Yoga-based factors that will help in labor and birth IF THE WOMAN IS FIT ENOUGH. It is the fact that some Yoga-based skills help fit people find nin that is my justification for continuing to use them in conjunction with aerobics and special pre/postnatal preparation and recovery exercises.
But, there are cautions. Not all Yoga assanas (positions) are safe for pregnancy. Down-dog, in particular, scares me because of incidents reported in obstetrical literature in the 1980s and 1990s that indicate such a position is implicated in fatal embolisms. Some shapes are just not doable and others become less comfortable over time. The ones that work have been identified since the 1940s and 1950s and integrated into birth preparation courses.
All exercise components -
- Aerobic or Cardiovascular Fitness
- are necessary for a balanced fitness routine. Too much emphasis on any one factor often results in injury. Aerobics is where the greatest health benefits reside. Recent research has demonstrated that it is physical “fitness” (which we can measure) as opposed to just spending time in physical activity (which can be a wide range of intensities) that is responsible for improved health outcomes. Strength and flexibility training need to be purposive. There are things we don’t need to do unless we are going to play pro football or dance Swan Lake! Mind/Body skills help us recover and prepare.
I for one will be glad when we get beyond yoga and back to cross training!