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?

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.