Never before in history have so many of the world’s great healing traditions been so accessible. Their teachers, texts, and techniques afford the opportunity to better understand our own fitness theories and practices in the light of so many other “ways of knowing.”
Yoga is just such a light. Despite its comprehensiveness (most of its techniques go far beyond the scope of this text), its antiquity (yoga is at least 3,000 years old), and its cultural ties (to India, China, and Tibet), yoga achieves a level of integration that enables us to bridge aesthetics, performance, and healing-in equilibrium.
“The power of landscape to restore and strengthen, to mind a spirit in turmoil rests primarily in one thing: A receptivity to the medicine it has to offer.”
– Richard Strozzi- Heckler
The West Differentiates the East Integrates
The East keeps us honest. Western Civilization’s propensity to fast forward ourselves into the future or to reclaim our past, as the only worthwhile quest, leaves the present as a casualty of oversight. “Anywhere but here, anything but this, and any time but now” ignores, denies, and dismisses today.
Traditions like yoga anchor us in the present moment. They remind us that to deny the present is to forfeit your freedom to change. Hollywood dubbed it the eternal Groundhog Day. The East calls it karma. We may know it as being “stuck.” Our Western culture has wonderful tools to manifest, to convert, and to “make things happen.” But without the context of now, you build a house without a foundation.
Contrast this integration with the West’s mastery of differentiation addressing fitness. As the West tends to compartmentalize everything, it divides fitness into individual components (e.g., strength, endurance, etc.). Add our appetite for speed and change, apply a generous portion of modern technology, and it is possible to create some amazing results in human performance and aesthetics quickly. Not surprisingly, all of this results in our preoccupation with the musculo-skeletal system.
Yoga, on the other hand, with its emphasis on integration, works particularly well with the aspects of the body that unify (the nervous system), coordinate (the endocrine system), and control (the breath). The potential dialogue between two diverse ways of knowing, East and West, is both exciting and possible.
To affect unity, coordination, and control of the human body, yoga relies on a prolific form of proprioceptive exercise. It is actuaUy a body/mind dialogue that is based on the implicit axiom that if the mind can influence the body (psycho-somatics), then the converse is true. In yoga, there is a shift of consciousness from the outside to the inside, from the cerebral cortex and all its analyses to some of the older regions of the brain, to the nervous system, and to the body’s innate ability to take care of itself. Thus, the body influences the mind (somatopsychics).
To these ends, yoga created postures or “asanas” which arc the equivalent of a gymnastic exercise-but without the movement. Or at least it appears that way to the casual observer. Consider the posture as a “study in stillness” (like a diver, poised at the diving platform, mentally rehearsing the dive, then clearing the mind and body of all superfluous tension). There is no movement of the bones, but all of the soft tissues, fluids, and breath are in symphony. It is the cultivation of the homeostatic ability (the ability to integrate tension successfully) that is the hallmark of the asana.
The posture (asana) is a proprioceptive exercise with endless variations (even though the most popular “classic” postures number less than 40). Any number of asanas can inform the central nervous system of where each part of the body is in space, how it relates to every other part, and the condition each part is into day. Postures are used to create a continuous flow of proprioceptive sensation that, brought into awareness, enables the student to discern between the troubled workings of the mind and the authentic needs of the body. Knowledge is power and asana provides it.
The energy and the safety of each posture relates to yoga’s use of the static and the proximity to, and use of, the ground. This makes yoga appropriate on some level for almost every person.
Asanas (Postures)-Positions and Orientations
Asanas or postures can be classified into four positions and five orientations. The four positions are related to the spine (which yoga places much emphasis on because of the spine’s relationship to the nervous system, and is yoga’s greatest asset and its greatest liability):
(a) forward bends,
(b) backward bends,
(c) side bends, and
The five orientations are
(c) kneeling (or sitting),
(d) standing and
The combination of these with symmetry and asymmetry of the limbs make up the various postures.
Pranayama is breath control or movement of Prana, or the Life force. With very Little precedence in the West (although that may change with the emergence of energetic medicine), it is best to keep it simple. The essence of yoga is simplicity. The breath is our link to that simplicity. To strip each body movement down to its lowest common denominator is the goal of each asana. The softening and deepening of each breath steadies the mind, comforts the body, and is the goal of each breath.
Fitness is a Two-Sided Coin
When you apply posture and breath to your fitness regimen, you will create a whole new vocabulary. Fitness is a two-sided coin. On one side it is a form of controlled injury. Various forms of applied force (intervention) are the basis of this. The most popular, of course, is progressive overload. The other side of the coin is the healing reflex. If walking is one of the most basic forms of overload, then a “good night’s sleep” is the body’s answer to inducing the healing reflex. (In fact, the replication of certain characteristics of a night’s sleep is an important goal of yoga.)
Tt is not that yoga has taken a separate path from the principle of overload (actually, overload is the primary concern of popular “power” yoga classes); it is just representative of many Eastern healing disciplines not to differentiate, but to produce both effects (overload and healing) as one and the same.
Consider the following: from a yoga perspective, strength becomes not so much a function of bulk (which it certainly is), but a function of flexibility.
Endurance has less to do with capacity and more to do with conservation or effortlessness. With yoga, balance has as much to do with”staying in balance” as it does with “catching one’s balance.” And flexibility is less a concern of creating it as it is to understand and undermine why we keep losing it in the first place. Yoga will add a fresh perspective and test every barometer, cue, and notion of fitness.
Simply put, yoga is a method-a way of attainment, The word “yoga,” derived from the Sanskrit word for yoke, means union. To some this could mean to join one’s hands to one’s feet (to touch one’s toes). To another, it suggests to unite with the Divine. And still another might envision the fusion of the physical, mental, and spiritual parts of the self through the practice of yoga. All are part of the yoga experience.
The Four “Ways” of Yoga
Yoga is actually represented as four “ways.” The way of harmony, or Raja Yoga (of which hatha is one), is the physical component. The way of unity is known as Jnana Yoga (the intellectual approach to yoga). Bhakti Yoga is the way of devotion (the religious orientation). Karma Yoga is the journey of works (the path of cause and effect). They each fit different yoga practitioner’s temperaments and form much of the comprehensiveness of yoga.
Styles of Yoga
There are a variety of styles for teaching yoga that center around the efforts and practice of several Indians that came to the West over the past 50 years. Iyengar teachers are the “engineers” of yoga, paying attention to precision and alignment. They will usually give you a good foundation. Bikram teachers take “heat and repetition” to a whole new dimension, giving you a way to measure progress. Satchadinanda teachers attempt to “integrate” the various components of yoga practice-asana, chant, breathing, relaxation, meditation-giving you a feeling of completion. Ashtanga teachers put “overload” back into the definition of yoga (this style will remind you of plyometrics). There is also the “therapeutic” value of T.K.V. Desikachar trained teachers, the “spontaneity” of some Kripalu teachers, and a wonderful sense of “belonging” in the Sivanada classes, to name just a few.
Yoga Education in Baby Steps
How do you learn to teach yoga? Do you take a weekend certification program or a home study course? Not completely, first and foremost, yoga is about practice over time, not merely discussion or observance. Consider whether you want to be a yoga instructor or whether you want to simply integrate the philosophy and postures into your present work. Either way, approach yoga in baby steps a very Eastern approach to learning anything. Practice a little bit, and then a little bit more, allowing for continuity over time-tortoise mind, hare brain.
There are three things you must keep in mind when attempting to integrate an Eastern method like yoga into your lifestyle: (a) comprehensiveness (the Indians have a method for everything and most go far beyond the scope of this text), (b) antiquity (yoga is at least 5,000 years old and although some things are timeless, some things like language and context do age), and (c)cultural ties (e.g., the Sanskrit, incense, and hip flexibility of India, Tibet, and China). Keeping these in mind, study all that you wish or have time to achieve. However, keep the actual work (your practice) task specific. To identify the task, look to the people you wish to serve (including yourself). What are the present demands being made on their (and your) lives, and what are their (and your) symptoms? The symptoms include exhaustion, stiffness, pain, and distraction while the demands relate to personal attention, time, and energy. Choose wisely from Eastern techniques so as not to replicate the demands. Also, choose techniques that help to alleviate and better manage the symptoms. The many ways of yoga are fascinating and some-times helpful. However, to be “yogic” is to use discretion.
Incorporating Yoga into Fitness Classes
How can an instructor slowly begin to incorporate yoga into a regular fitness class? First, begin to raise participants’ awareness of breath. The quality and the depth of the breathing pattern will indicate the quality of attention to the current activity. Succession of breath usually is a red light that the participant is ignoring pain, and experiencing fear or anxiety. A second element of yoga that can be incorporated is the quality of stillness. The end of class cool-down segment is an excellent place to practice the art of letting go. Learning how to ground the body is fundamental, so place participants’ supines on the floor in their most relaxed positions. Learn what stillness feels like; begin to create a muscle memory of it. The third step is to integrate actual yoga exercises that you have practiced over time into a class (even between or before strength exercises). As you will learn with practice, each yoga exercise has sequential variations.
“Traditions have great power precisely because they present us with possibilities and guides that can support invention … ”
– Charles Moore, Gerald Allen, Doylyn Lyndon
Psychological Effects of Yoga
1. Freedom from time
2. Inherent attraction-makes you feel good
3. A more positive outlook on life
4. More “connection” to others (empathy)
6. Improved listening skills
7. The power of moments
There is much to learn about the integration of Western and Eastern philosophies and practices. Yoga is one form of activity that brings comprehensiveness, antiquity, and culture together to achieve a level of integration that enables us to bridge aesthetics, performance, and healing-in equilibrium.