Beyond Yoga

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Beyond Yoga

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.

What’s Next?

All exer­cise com­po­nents -

  • Mind/Body
  • Strength
  • Flex­i­bil­i­ty
  • 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!

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