Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Guest Posting - Linda's Thoughts

Linda Mundt is one of the beta-testers of our fitness-for-yoga 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?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Joint Laxity and Aerobic Fitness

Many of us have found a home on our yoga mat, and the comforts of home have helped us reconnect our minds and bodies. The time on the mat has shown us so much. How can we build on what we’ve learned through yoga as we work toward developing whole-body fitness?

Nordic Skiing is one of many ways to develop aerobic fitness
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, the science is consistent and clear: Hatha Yoga does not build the kind of aerobic fitness that confers so many great benefits for body and mind. While this may seem like some pretty bad news, all is not for naught. Many of us have learned a lot about our minds and bodies from our yoga practices, and this embodied wisdom can help us explore the territory that lies beyond our comfort zone.

When your joints are looser— and many yogis and yoginis were born with a degree of joint laxity— developing heart-healthy aerobic fitness can be more challenging.  The world of fitness, and particularly aerobic fitness, is largely geared to those with stiffer joints.

For those with stiffer joints, getting on the elliptical trainer, going out for a run or taking an aerobics class gets the job done. For those with a degree of joint laxity, however, building aerobic fitness may be quite different. And when those of us with joint laxity try to fit the round peg in the square hole, the result tends to be undue muscle soreness or feeling depleted by exercise.

The more I talk with friends and colleagues in the yoga community, the more I’m impressed by people’s motivation to be healthier and happier. While it’s clear that the majority of yogis and yoginis recognize the importance of cardiovascular health, many have had negative-reinforcement experiences when they explore aerobic fitness.

Having worked with thousands of yoga students over the past 25+ years of teaching, a number of patterns have emerged. In the coming months a group of Alignment Yoga faculty will be exploring a novel approach for bringing the great benefit of aerobic fitness to the greater community. Along the way, we’ll be posting updates on our ongoing research.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Yoga and Joint Laxity

In talking about fitness and yoga, it’s essential to broach the subject of joint laxity. While those of us in the yoga community often uphold a very flexible body as open,  this flexibility may actually be symptomatic of joint laxity.

From the Wikipedia entry on joint laxity:

In  a 'normal' body, ligaments (which are the tissues that connect bones to each other) are naturally tight in such a way that the joints are restricted to 'normal' ranges of motion. This creates normal joint stability. If muscular control does not compensate for ligamentous laxity, joint instability may result. The trait is almost certainly hereditary, and is usually something the affected person would just be aware of, rather than a serious medical condition. 
Ligament laxity is a cause of chronic body pain characterized by loose ligaments.

As the last sentence of this quote implies, joint laxity isn’t entirely benign. Unless joints are sufficiently supported by strong muscles, the instability (openness) may be a cause of pain. While some people with joint laxity experience a lot of pain in their bodies, others experience little, if any, pain. In addition to pain, other symptoms of joint laxity include:

  • Exercise feels depleting;
  • Undue soreness after exercise – often soreness felt two days after the workout;
  • Working out feels disjointed or uncoordinated;
  • Yoga is one of the first activities that feels right;
  • Chronically tight muscles.

People with joint laxity are often drawn to yoga, as it can feel like a homecoming to focus on mobilizing and opening. Even though yoga may be a nourishing means for those with joint laxity to reconnect with their bodies, the practice of yoga does not provide the benefits of all-around fitness.

As I’ve mentioned in previous postings, the evidence supporting the benefits of aerobic fitness are incontrovertible. If you are interested in all-around health, yoga is best balanced with some aerobic fitness training and intelligent strength conditioning. Unfortunately, those with joint laxity have often had negative experiences with more traditional forms of fitness training, and often avoid them.

Rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water, and focusing solely on yoga, those of us with joint laxity are best served by learning how to develop aerobic capacity and building the muscle-mass that helps stabilize the joints.

In forthcoming posts, I will outline some techniques that allow those of us with joint laxity to develop all-around fitness.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Body by Yoga?

As a young man, I cultivated the faith that yoga was all that was needed to maintain a perfectly healthy body. In the lead-up to the yoga boom, one of the most famous yoga teachers claimed that yoga was all that was needed for optimal health, and I worked hard to believe her.

In one of the first yoga weekends I ever attended, I was publicly chastised for continuing to run and bike. I was gravely warned that such activities would strain my heart and impede my progress on the yogic path. While I didn’t see the logic in these assertions, I was drawn in by the teacher’s knowledge of structure and anatomy.

In the second day of the workshop, this same teacher wore a Body by Yoga T-shirt as she continued to proclaim how yoga was all that was needed for body, mind, and spirit. Since everybody else in the room seemed to be enthusiastically nodding in agreement, I decided to set aside what I knew about athletic training in favor of the promise of yoga fitness.

I remember thinking that the Body by Yoga T-shirts weren’t the greatest advertisements for yoga, as their wearers often had bodies that would be best described as soft. Having come out of an athletic background, I would berate myself for being so judgmental when such thoughts entered my mind. Clearly these famous teachers knew what it took to be healthy in body and mind, and who was I to question their message?

While I continued to work with reducing judgmental tendencies, I have let go of the idea that the Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) most of us practice is going to make us fit.  Faith is a powerful force, and it took some serious soul-searching to shift my view. What finally did shift my view? Several inputs shifted the inertia that solidified my belief into faith: investigating the historical argument, further considering anecdotal evidence, and returning to the merits of science.

Questioning the Historical Argument
For many years, we’ve been told that yoga has been around for many years. Depending on whom you asked, MPY was said to be two thousand to five thousand years old. Whether on the high or low end of this range, MPY would be old - really old! For better or worse, though, this argument has largely been refuted in recent years.

Due to the dedicated work of scholars like Mark Singleton, it’s become evident that MPY was developed early in the 20th century. Likely influenced by movement forms coming out of Northern Europe, MPY is a relatively recent invention. While yoga philosophy has been around for thousands of years, and sitting in meditation postures is similarly grounded in antiquity, what most of us call yoga is a hybrid of movement forms that are scarcely older than our parents or grandparents.

As a result, the claim that yogis have kept fit with yoga for thousands of years doesn’t carry much weight. We do know yogis have been exploring breathing practices and meditation techniques for thousands of years, though there’s not much evidence that they practiced Adho Mukha Svanasana, Bhekasana, or even Eka Pada Galavasana.

Since MPY doesn’t have much history, we are embarking on a massive experiment. Maybe we’ll find that MPY can and does keep us fit. And maybe we’ll find that the promise of getting fit by focusing on flexibility was largely an exercise in wishful thinking.

Individual Results
Whenever I cut back on biking or weight training in favor of more yoga, it was a lot of work convincing myself that I was still healthy. Sometimes I’d be out of breath when I climbed the stairs, though the party line was that our daily yoga practice conferred whole-body health. Surely I wasn’t that out of shape?

One of the most senior Iyengar teachers was held as an example of yoga’s capacity to keep you fit. Many years ago it was reported that this teacher had been thoroughly studied in a fitness lab. While I cannot recall the specific details, I do remember the enthusiastic announcement that he was pronounced fit. I respected this teacher quite a lot, and if yoga kept him fit, I felt reassured that it could keep me fit, too.

Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence was and is notoriously unreliable. Yes, it was their experience, though was there validity in generalizing from one person’s experience?

I think we’ve all read of the 100+ year old person who smoked and drank alcohol every day. Do we start smoking and drinking because of this anecdotal evidence? I don’t think many of us have tossed aside kale in favor of Marlboros because we recognize that the factors underlying longevity are vast and complicated.

Then there’s the matter of time. Many of the yoga teachers held up as fit were known for practicing yoga many hours per day. How many of us are willing or able to invest many hours per day in our physical health? What if the benefits to health were available in half the time? One quarter of the time? Or even less?

As I mentioned earlier, MPY is an experiment occurring on a vast scale. By many reliable accounts, what we’ve come to call yoga (MPY) does not have a historical precedent. Will the passage of time show us that MPY does, indeed, keep the body healthy? Does it do so in a time-effective way? Perhaps, though I have chosen to hedge this bet.

For my tastes, too many credible scientific studies have demonstrated that a baseline of strength and aerobic fitness is good for whole body health. In a previous post, I highlighted just a few of the benefits that have been attributed to regularly elevating your heart rate. And these benefits are available in as little as 20-30 minutes per day!

For these three reasons, I have chosen to make MPY part of my weekly routine, though not a part of my daily routine. While I do meditate each day, which is historically the cornerstone of yoga, I am no longer practicing the postures each day. Some days I go for a run. Some days I practice Pilates. Some days I jump rope and lift weights. And for those days when I’m feeling the need to be restored? I rest!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Yoga - Part of a Healthy Lifestyle

My yoga teachers used to tell me that yoga was all that was needed for a healthy body, mind and spirit. And for a long time, I believed them. While many of my friends openly questioned my faith in yoga, and my own doubts would frequently bubble up to the surface, I was fully committed to following what I thought was the yogic path.

While a graduate student, I consulted an MD for a required physical. At the end of the exam, the doctor removed his glasses, looked me right in the eye, and asked if I was keeping physically active. With a great deal of confidence, I responded that I practiced yoga for a few hours each day, and as a result, was in perfect physical condition. The doctor’s arched eyebrow should have been a clue that my perceived fitness was far removed from my actual fitness.

It turned out that perceived exertion and the benefits of working out aren’t always aligned. After years of exploring, researching, and experimenting, I have fully experienced the gulf between perceived exertion and actually deriving the benefits from working out.

You see, yoga can have a high degree of perceived exertion. You may experience trembling muscles and be drenched with sweat, but the benefits of exercise can be elusive. It may seem like you’ve completed a beneficial workout but perceived exertion can be deceiving.

Western science has quantified what it takes to derive maximum benefit from the time you spend working out, and it largely hinges on heart rate. Above a certain heart rate, exercise delivers the benefits I mentioned in the previous blog posting. Below this target heart rate, the activity may have benefits for mind and spirit, though in terms of all-round health, may be falling short. Perceived exertion can be deceiving: sometimes a workout that seems very demanding fails to elevate the heart rate into the beneficial aerobic zone.

Some of the sweatiest and most demanding forms of yoga have been thoroughly studied, and consistently fall short in delivering the measurable benefits of exercising. It’s not to say the yoga isn’t without benefit. But to suggest that yoga, yoga, yoga is going to keep you all-over healthy is misleading. Yoga can be part of a body/mind fitness program, though probably doesn’t merit placing all of your proverbial fitness-eggs in the yoga basket.

 I like how it feels to cultivate aerobic fitness. My body feels toned and energized, and my mind is noticeably calmer and more focused. Clearly aerobic fitness isn’t solely about the body – it also deeply affects the mind. And recent research is demonstrating the vast, often surprising, ways that aerobic fitness cultivates a healthier mind.

As an experiment, I’ve been wearing a heart rate monitor as I do various activities. If I walk briskly, I can just tap into my aerobic heart rate zone. But if I do a tough Pilates workout, even though I’m huffing and puffing and covered with sweat, I am nowhere near target heart rate. And when I do a bunch of yoga sun salutations, again covered with sweat and huffing and puffing, still almost no uptick in heart rate. While I perceive that I’m getting a good workout the reality is that the benefits of aerobic fitness are remaining out of reach in my yoga practice. 

If you’re seriously hoping to cultivate greater body/mind health, the best approach is variety: some yoga, some strength work, and some workouts to build aerobic fitness. Variety is the key! And in addition to working with the physical body, daily prayer and/or meditation helps keep us connected with the greater whole.