Saturday, August 30, 2014

Yoga Asana Vs. Yoga (Or a Primer on Intention)

This summer, mediocre weather notwithstanding, has shed a crescent of light on certain segments of my life. If you're wondering why I rarely blog about knitting and sewing these days, please be clear, it's cuz I haven't got the time. And I haven't got the time because I'm spending most of my energetic hours expending energy on exercise.

I knew this would happen. I told you I knew this would happen. This shift is something I resisted for two years. I did not want to change my ways, my pace. I did not want to confront encroaching fears of illness and age. Cuz one thing's for certain, when you have lived through an acute illness (and that's how I think of pertussis), and you're inclined to be afraid of what you cannot control (especially when germs are involved), there's a lot of stuff to avoid. 

Not to mention, I love the meditative mindset and the creative, productive outcome which are the gifts of crafting. I love being with my brain that way. I love the stories it affords me. So I'm at a bit of a loss right now. I feel absolutely engaged but uncertain about how to express myself. Because what I'm going through "on the fitness front", in lieu of activities that are easy to describe, is not naturally communicable.

Let me say right now that I hate the terms "fitness" and "exercise". I find them entirely reductive. I prefer to suggest that I've undertaken the valiant work to affect meaningful mental, psychic and physical change by committing to awaken all the cells in my body. (Yeah, it's not exactly a gym-spin.)

For sure, the last three weeks have helped me to further hone my go forward plan. I simply don't intend to jump up and down on a regular basis - unless it's in the context of yoga vinyasa. I see no point in it. I've tried it again. I still don't like it. 

For me - and of course I am speaking only for myself, as any activity is wonderful if you love it - jumping up and down is compressive and it dulls my awareness. I know about the runner's high (theoretically, of course) and I applaud all of you who chase and find it. Dance fitness can bring a similar elation, I hear, especially for the choreographically gifted amongst us. 

Would it surprise you to learn that there is an equally elusive yogic euphoria?

What asana practice also affords (and much more frequently), presuming you approach it in accordance with a clear fitness outcome, is more aerobic intensity than you might ever care to encounter (I'll expound on this below) and a delicious amount of weight-bearing exercise. You don't need hand weights, people. For better or for worse, your entire body is a weight.

I've spent the last six weeks rediscovering that there is nothing of the gym (weights, machines, aerobic and core classes) that you cannot accomplish equally well with yoga. Or to put it more assertively: You can most definitely achieve weight-loss, optimal cardiovascular fitness, excellent tone and all the mental perks of exercise with yoga.

Though, be aware, when you "do yoga" with those intentions, you're not doing yoga*. You're practicing yoga asana (a sequence of postures or movements). You're exercising. Which is why I will keep referring to this lifestyle regime as a fitness program for the time being.

There are provisos when it comes to employing yoga asana to get fit, toned and to lose weight:
  • If you're going to use yoga as a primary method of fitness, you have to do it in a certain way. I don't mean a specific method (though vinyasa and Ashtanga are usually the ones that come to mind) but the practice has to be of a particular physical intensity. It's best to include a good 45 minutes of arm-balances, strong standing poses and back bends. Inverted back bends are particularly useful. Another 15 minutes of seated and forward bends are recommended. Many yoga methods just don't offer this type of practice. Many places don't teach that way. And even though there's much fitness to be gained in learning poses, you're better able to achieve a specific outcome when you have body memory of these poses and a certain physical aptitude (see below).
  • It is absolutely possible to be a complete beginner to yoga asana and still use it to achieve substantive fitness outcomes. To wit: 25 years ago, I went from a place of non-fitness to extreme fitness (in my late teens, admittedly), using only yoga. And it wasn't even the goal of my practice. It was a by-product?! But you have to be capable of spending minutes in individual poses that require equal parts - and reasonable amounts - of strength, balance and flexibility. If you're not naturally inclined, that proficiency can take a long time to develop. If you are extremely committed to practice, and you do it 4-5 times a week, actively, there's no reason that you can't use it as your primary form of physically-transformative fitness. So if you hate jumping up and down, and you love your local yoga class, be your own guinea pig. But be smart - don't push yourself or you may sustain significant injury.
  • Sadly, you will have to sweat. A lot. (But you'd have to do this with any kind of exercise, so let's not blame asana.)
Moreover, there's something to this fitness development thing that, till recently, I'd never consciously understood:

The development of fitness (by which I mean optimal muscle tone, loss of fat, heart muscle benefits etc.) relies, to some extent, on the destabilization of the person getting fit. Needless to say, I do not mean destabilization that would produce an unacceptable likelihood of injury. I do mean, however, (and why not speak for myself) that there is no way right now that I, devising my own practices, could throw myself off kilter adequately to reattain my former level of fitness. When I know what's coming, I know how to back off. I don't mean that I forgo particular poses - but I do find ways to do them less intensively. The element of surprise makes my asana practice an adventure. Being amongst others (and this is a double-edge sword, no doubt), makes me accountable. 

Again, this ain't yoga. It's just the kind of fitness I can get with.

What is yoga, my friends, is actually getting there: Every time I cringe at the thought of touching a prop (yeah, my gym has a yoga studio that's totally stocked with props), and then I touch the prop, I'm doing yoga. Every time I find myself too close to another person, pulled from my energetic centre by that closeness (but then I recognize what's happening), I'm doing yoga.  Every time I fade into the background, click into a gear where ujaayi breath moves my body from one pose to the next, feel the distinctness of muscle, bone and connective tissue, I'm doing yoga. 

I've got a lot to say about this - about how differently I feel physically and mentally, about how my breath has changed, how my body has reopened a channel of communication - but I think I need to leave it for another day (if only to retain a reader or two).

Now, off to do some sewing for a change. Those crafts aren't going to make themselves. 

* The essence of yoga (which is achieved by a variety of mechanisms, or an eight-limbed path, one of which is physical postures) is to yoke body and mind with breath. Patanjali defines it, in the Yoga Sutras, as chitta vritti nirodha or "stilling the fluctuations of the mind". I'm in no way suggesting that one cannot find yoga in everything, including all kinds of exercise, but it is not the primary goal (nor is it generally taught to those practicing yoga asana to improve the look and physical form of their bodies). It may take a lifetime to truly understand how breath control and yoga postures unite to produce a mental stillness - active meditation. I'd prefer not to conflate this pursuit with bendy exercise, though bendy exercise is still delicious in the absence of the yogic mindset.

I should also say that it's fairly impossible for me to practice yoga asana for fitness, without moving into the gear of yogic meditation - especially as my body redevelops strength and rediscovers balance. So, even as I'm practicing asana to achieve a physical outcome - and in this respect it is exercise - my body and mind have chosen to reconnect at a deep level, a phenomenon for which I am exceedingly grateful.


  1. I go to yoga classes once or twice a week, do poses at home as I find time/need. I can't claim to "do yoga" but I do move towards it in the breath, in following the instructor's meditative suggestions, in staying with a long, deep stretch and feeling what's happening . . . .and perhaps in the tears that surprise me as I live in Shavasana. I don't want to give up running for now, but if I ever do, I would love to try maintaining my fitness level through yoga asana, although I know I'd struggle to get to the strength and balance necessary.

    1. meant to write "as I lie in Shavasana" . . .

    2. Ha! I know what you meant. I thought it was a fun mix up... Running seems to work really well for you, so why not keep on. Seriously, there are few people who make it even to the mid-forties who can continue to run long-distances on a regular basis (due to injury or joint degeneration). You are obviously made to run so fly like the wind!

    3. Furthermore, I do think that "doing yoga" is largely in the intention, supported by good teaching and continuity of regular practice. So, seems to me you are doing yoga.

  2. I'm also having a very different sort of yoga awakening at the moment. I thought that prenatal yoga would be a watered down practice, but I'm finding it very rewarding - the centering, restorative poses and mind/body/breath connection are all what I need right now but didn't know it. Yoga really is a wonderful pursuit through life's many phases!

    1. That's terrific! When I was pregnant, I continued with a modified version of active practice. I remember being so shocked by how my body evolved in pregnancy but then I couldn't do things I'd always taken for granted (just because of size and shape change). For example, twists went from something where I clasped my hands behind my back to being assisted with a belt and a block. When I'd do headstand (and I'm not suggesting that the average woman do headstand in pregnancy - looking back, I think I should have backed off), I needed a lift from my teacher because I just couldn't pull my legs up. It was kind of hilarious.

      When you may love it even more is after you have the baby.

      PS: You are so lucky to live near NYC. Your yoga class options are spectacular.

  3. My exercise tradition has always been the bouncy kind...gym, running, horse riding, CrossFit. I'm paying the price for it now...bit's crumbling and locking and probably needing replacement at some point in the future. For now...I'm working out a gentler way. My heart is telling me..."walk, do some yoga". I'm listening. The walking I can do, the yoga is a, pardon the pun, stretch. But, I try and will keep on trying, because I know it's the way forward. So, I'm relieved to hear, from one who knows, that this will be enough.
    I'm happy to hear this is working for you too and that you're starting to heal. Very good news indeed.