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.