Sunday, April 19, 2015

Less is More

If we define Yoga solely as the postures, I practice three days per week, or so. If we include seated meditation and breathing exercises in our definition of Yoga, then I practice each day.

The other day I was at a crossroads in my run. I could have gone out for another 20 minutes or headed indoors for some yoga time. The latter was compelling, and I couldn’t help but notice my pace increase at the thought of some quiet time on the mat.

As I was unfolding my mat, thoughts of practice swirled: backbends, front bends, inversions, pranayama, etc.… The world (or at least my tiny corner of it) was my oyster.

After some quiet reflection, I began exploring the tiniest poses I could feel. Typically I’ll expand the poses until I bump into something I consider interesting. Sometimes interesting includes the end-range of motion, sometimes I’ll explore the limits of eccentric strength (active stretching), and sometimes I explore the movement until some sort of reactivity (tensing, clenching, etc.) appears.

During this practice, I practiced some of my regular, go-to poses: prone backbends, seated twists, and twisting variations within headstand. In each pose, I started in a relatively neutral or uninvolved position, and then I moved slowly into the poses until there was some flicker of sensation change – the minimum threshold of perception.

To the fly on the wall, this practice must have been wholly uninteresting. The twists weren’t very twisty, the backbends weren’t very bendy, and the headstand variations were a blink-and-you-missed-it shift from the plain, vanilla headstand.

After 20-minutes of this practice, I spent some quiet time in Savasana, and observed the whirling, swirling energies in my body. Interestingly, the smallest perceptible poses had an outsized effect. For hours afterward, I could scarcely believe how energized and refreshed I felt – from practicing the tiniest, barely-perceptible poses.

In Yoga, as in design, quite often less is more!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Base of the Pyramid

High intensity training is all the rage these days, and it seems like most of my active friends are talking about the high intensity interval training they’re exploring. And it’s clear to see why high intensity training is all the rage: it promises great fitness gains in very short periods of time.

I’ve had many people ask about my low to moderate intensity training routines. If high intensity, or Tabata, training is proven to be so effective, then why do I not advocate this high intensity approach?
The answer is simple – the turtle generally gets to the destination before the hare. While high intensity training does deliver quick results, how many people can maintain this kind of activity for the long haul?

I advocate building a strong fitness base. By investing a few months in low to moderate intensity training, the body is better adapted to handle higher intensity activities. We can maintain low to moderate intensity training for the long haul, and then, if the proper base has been built, we are free to explore mixing in higher intensity training.

Fitness can be viewed like a pyramid. The base of the pyramid needs to be broad and strong to support the apex of the pyramid. High intensity training is like the tippy top of the pyramid, while the hours, weeks and months spent in low to moderate intensity training form the base of the pyramid.

Building the base of the pyramid helps to strengthen the joints. Strong joints are a foundation for our active lives, and particularly for those pursuing higher intensity training loads. The joints need to be strong enough to withstand the natural stresses that are part of staying active for the long haul.

Particularly for yoga practitioners, it’s essential to spend time building the base of the pyramid and strengthening the joints. While yoga has many benefits, strengthening joints isn’t among the long list of benefits. Especially those who enjoy holding poses for a long time in supported, Yin or Restorative sessions, the joints commonly get overstretched and become less resilient over time.

Some stress (pounding) seems to be good for the joints, and this New York Times articles provides a good summary of the latest research. For those of us looking to be fit for the long haul, building the base of the pyramid with weight bearing low to mid intensity aerobic exercise is sure to pay dividends!

Friday, March 20, 2015

The First Theorem of AY Fitness

During my most recent “get-fit” period, I started wearing a heart rate monitor. I was curious if monitoring my heart rate would help answer why I tended to fall away from keeping aerobically fit. Within this first training session, it was clear that I had a lot to learn, and a long ways to go.

A few minutes into my usual run/walk workout, my heart rate had bypassed the low-intensity zone, blown through the medium-intensity zone, and was deeply into the high-intensity zone. What to me felt like a typical, not-too-intense run/walk was in actuality, quite an intense workout. And this was not an isolated experience. Over the coming weeks I found that most of my go-to workouts were actually fairly high intensity, even though my friends and I would consider the activities and their pace to be pretty moderate.

I found that I tended to train almost exclusively in the high-intensity zone. While the high-intensity zone can be great for seasoned athletes, it’s not a great place to restart a fitness routine. No wonder I’d drift away from biking, running and skiing: I was burning the candle on both ends each time I’d work out! Feeling depleted and getting injured by working out is a common result of going out too hard, too soon. 

And when I asked some of my yoga colleagues to monitor their heart rate, we found the same result – we were all starting out at a too-high intensity level.

Once we ramped down the effort to a more appropriate intensity level, we all experienced the sustained benefits from working out. Rather than the flash in the pan fitness that feels good but leaves depletion in its wake, we have been enjoying the longer-term, sustained benefits of our aerobic activity.

Interestingly, the problem wasn’t that we were running too fast or biking up ginormous hills. Many of us were simply walking or hiking, yet still our heart rates were too high.

Which brings me to my first theory of fitness for yogis and yoginis. Looser connective tissue (joint laxity) makes aerobic fitness different. Our bodies spend a lot of energy holding the joint flexibility together, and this unseen effort creates its own, unique set of challenges. While we may not be running (or walking) very fast, our bodies are working deceptively hard to stabilize our joints.

The First Theorem of Alignment Yoga Fitness  – Yogis and yoginis should start with low to moderate intensity aerobic activity for the first three to six months of their fitness routines.

In a forthcoming essay, I'll talk more maximum heart rate and what is meant by low to moderate intensity aerobic activity.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Falling off the (Fitness) Wagon

Over the past twenty-plus years, many yoga students have shared their frustrations about building overall fitness. While everybody that I’ve talked to has recognized the importance of fitness, particularly aerobic fitness, many have shared tales of frustration and thwarted goals.

I’ve long asked myself: Why does a population of committed yogis and yoginis have a difficult time maintaining aerobic fitness? Certainly it’s not for a lack of discipline, nor for a lack of knowledge. It seems to me that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to what keeps many of us from enjoying optimal health and vitality.

I have come to believe that how many of us have pursued fitness is part of the problem. There are various ways to develop heart-healthy fitness, yet many of us struggle to stick with a routine.  I’ve talked with so many yogis and yoginis who have found paths to fitness that they enjoy, yet they seem to find themselves falling off the wagon again and again.

I’ve experienced this pulsating relationship to fitness myself. I’ll focus heartily on yoga for a while, and really enjoy the openness and ease that flows from the practice. All is well but I’ll start to experience:
  • Breathing harder going up stairs,
  • My body getting misaligned easily,
  • Gaining weight,
  • Feeling like I have to do yoga to feel OK.
From experience, I’ve come to know that these are reminders to reconnect with aerobic fitness. I’ll resume Nordic skiing, biking and running (my favorite fitness activities) and almost immediately start to feel more resilient and physically capable. Yet, almost inevitably, I fall away from the activities that I love and lose the fitness that I’ve gained.

This cycle has followed me since college, and I’ve spent a lot of time beating myself up over this unsteady relationship to fitness. Just recently, I decided to shift the beating myself up energy into exploring the why behind this pattern. As I’ve shared my experience with colleagues, I’ve found that I’m in good company. Dare I say, this pattern is an epidemic in the yoga community?

(to be continued)

Guest Posting - Linda's Thoughts

Linda Mundt is an Alignment Yoga faculty member, and is beta-testing our new initiative. Here are her thoughts after a few weeks exploring our program:

Scott’s campaign for aerobic fitness for those of us with loose joints struck my fancy, and I immediately volunteered to be one of his “guinea pigs.” I have never been able to take on an aerobic challenge without crashing and burning, meaning getting so sore and tired that it’s days or weeks before I can try again. But I do find that yoga allows me to feel good consistently. Adding to the complexity of becoming aerobically fit is my age. Nearly 69, I now have arthritis and low back pain, making running, walking, and treadmill work painful. Swimming is possible but I dislike the chlorine and don’t really know how to swim.

Possibilities filled my mind: What if it’s not all downhill for my body? What if I can create a fitness I’ve never had? If I can do it, probably others can too. What a tremendous challenge.

In the first two weeks of the challenge, I spent a fair amount of time on the treadmill, feeling good afterwards but noticing and admitting, finally, that being awakened in the middle of the night with hip pain (a new low for my arthritis) might be attributed to the treadmill pounding.

Not one to quit, I realized that if I can find an aerobic outlet that fits my body’s quirks, I still can rise to the challenge. The idea of strengthening my joints by low-level aerobic activity for 5-6 months still attracts me. Might I increase the blood flow to the joints, building capillary strength, and override the arthritis? The very idea of making real progress inspired me to contact my nutritionist for supplements to help build joint strength and to seek another form of workout. The combination of low-level aerobic plus nutritional supplements has given me a new focus.

The recumbent cross-trainer, like the treadmill, allows for contra-lateral movement of arms and legs. And whereas on the treadmill, I nearly quit from boredom staying in my low aerobic zone, the recumbent bike, for some unknown reason, allows me to stay in the low zone more readily.  Sleep uninterrupted by pain also resulted, a true incentive to continue.

There’s much to be said for aerobic fitness, and I find that the predicted benefits already have taken root. The structure of the program has given me a sense of confidence, concentration, and control beyond what I’m accustomed to. I seem to be more organized and productive and my mood is definitely better, something that might be attributed to the exercise or only to the passing of “The Februaries.” Time will tell.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Quality Preferable to Quantity

The old saying a young man with a stiff spine feels old, while an old man with a flexible spine feels young has captured my imagination of late. As my body has aged, I’ve found that there’s a lot of truth to this adage.

Over the years my practice has shifted and evolved. For many years, I was enthralled by the outer limits of flexibility, as I believed that flexibility and freedom were related. I spent hours opening my shoulders, spine and hips, and came to enjoy a great deal of flexibility. While my joints could move every which way, my mind seemed to become more rigid as I doggedly pursued flexibility. In my experience, being Gumby-flexible didn’t translate to a more flexible or resilient mind.

I ultimately let the uber-flexibility experiment fall away, and focused more on joint stabilization. This focus on stability helped heal my chronic back pain but I found my spine becoming more rigid in the process. And as my spine felt stiffer, I started to feel older and creakier.

Of late, I’ve been spending more of my yoga time exploring a balanced mobility in each and every segment of my spine. While harmonizing flexibility may seem like a foregone conclusion in the practice of yoga, balanced mobility can be surprisingly difficult to contact.

Most of us tend to move our spine from the points of least resistance, and in general, we tend to avoid moving from the places that are stickier or stiffer. In spinal flexion (a front bend), I find that my thoracic spine is abundantly willing and able. And in extension (a backbend), my lumbar spine is an enthusiastic co-conspirator. But if I ask my thoracic spine to extend, or my lumbar spine to flex, all bets are off. Only by paying close attention can I access the stiff places, since the points of least resistance are where I’m more likely to overstretch.

This afternoon I spent some time exploring the old standby, Cat/Cow pose. By paying attention to flexing more from the lumbar in Cat pose, and extending more from the thoracic in Cow pose, my spine felt nicely steady, supple and invigorated. A very simple practice, yet the results seemed outsized to the effort expended.

Have you found simple practices that provide outsized benefits?