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!


Nancy Giguere said...

Eka Pada Galavasana isn't necessary for enlightenment? That's a relief!

Raghav Singh said...
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iYogaprops | Wholesale Yoga Mats Supplier said...

Another person's physical accomplishment should not be the sole benchmark of another's. There are some fine print to be considered when thinking about the capacity of the body to remain fit while doing yoga. There are those who will remain healthy through yoga alone, while others need cardio and weight training to be "fully fit." There are also a lot of factors like food, environment, sleeping habits, etc, that can greatly affect one's physical condition.

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