Will doing just yoga make me fit?
Yoga – that is the physical, exercise-related aspect of yoga – is often hailed as the panacea for lack of fitness. Do nothing else but practice yoga, every day, and you will be in in the best shape of your life. Right? Well, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but not quite.
Don’t get me wrong. If you were to do nothing else but yoga, you would still benefit greatly. Yoga is fantastic for a million reasons. But, like any other activity, it should form only a part of your wellness and fitness regime, not the only part. Remember; we are animals that have evolved to survive in our environment. Our modern comforts are just a blip on the unfathomably long line of evolution. Although most of us are hopelessly domesticated, and spend our day flattening our behinds in front of a computer screen in an air-conditioned office, the truth is that each one of us still has a body that is made for life in the savannah.
We are designed to walk and jog for miles through the plains, to sprint when in danger or when hunting, to lift and throw rocks, to catch and then carry our prey back home, and to drag fallen trees for firewood. We are made to squat comfortably while preparing food (or eliminating it), or when giving birth. We are built to swim, climb trees, fight, throw spears, and cover vast areas of Africa with our babies strapped onto our backs. We are not necessarily built to put both of our legs behind our head or spend prolonged periods of time in sirsasana, because that would not have been awfully useful.
Spend a moment and watch this youtube video called The Workout the World Forgot. It thrills me each time I see it. One day I will go and train with this man.
Before we became civilized, and turned from a wolf into, say, shi-tzu, we all used to be athletes. We had real fitness, because without it we wouldn’t survive. Have you ever noticed how much more children move than adults? Their instincts are preparing them for a life in the wild. If you are a parent, you will know of the incessant need of your small child to move in every possible way. To accommodate children, we build jungle gyms and play areas for them so they can develop the strength, agility and confidence they would need when living out in the wild, while we watch them sitting on a bench with a cup of coffee in one hand and iPod in the other. And sooner or later they follow suit. Instead of easing into a life of daily varied physical demand, they become less and less physically active as they get older, until they reach the stage of the average grown-up who sits or lies down on average for 20 hours a day. A horrible statistic, isn’t it?
Now, back to yoga. To see how, and also how much, we should move we should look back at our early days as humans, as mentioned above, and also into the rest of the animal kingdom. When choosing a yoga style to improve your physical condition, consider the hallmarks of overall fitness, the kind a caveman would have: strength, some flexibility, balance, agility, speed, and serious endurance and cardiovascular fitness. A truly well-rounded yoga practice will cover most of these, but not all. Be honest about what it does not cover. Do you break a sweat in your class? (And no, sorry, not counting hot yoga here, because you sweat as a result of the heat, rather than exertion). Yoga is not, unless you are really, really going for it in an ashtanga or other very high-intensity vinyasa class, a good cardio workout. And we need cardio. So head out there and go dancing, running, swimming, do kick-boxing or anything that will get your heart-rate up and keep it there for at least half an hour. Or do HIIT, high-intensity-interval-training, which is all the rage now. You can download an app that gives you a seven-minute workout that, if it doesn’t kill you, will definitely make you radically fitter.
I do lots of yoga and Pilates as a teacher, naturally. I try to make my routines and teaching as wholesome as hanging about on a sticky mat allows. In class, I work a lot with one’s own body-weight – there is no need to bench-press 100kg to develop tone and core strength – but apart from that I also run. I used to hate running as a child and even as an adult I thought I was just not naturally good at it. But running is natural, for all of us. We just need to get off our butts and start slowly. It’s not comfortable, but 30 minutes of running a two or three times a week will increase your cardiovascular fitness more than hours and hours of yoga.
More and more yoga teachers recognize that classical yoga alone won’t address every aspect of fitness. That is why there are so many hybrids in the world of yoga today, styles that borrow from other disciplines or blend them together with yoga – for instance, Budokon developed by Cameron Shayne or Duncan Wong’s Yogic Arts. Both connect yoga with martial arts and bring into it a good deal of explosive movement (plyometrics) and, as a by-product, cardio as well. Cameron goes as far as to study the movement of animals and integrates it into his teaching; the first try of his various “animal jumps” will have your thighs throbbing in pain for a week, but it only shows how little most of us, even regular exercisers, do these sorts of moves, and how untrained our muscles are in many respects.
Our body also thrives on variety. I like the concept of the body being “homeodynamic” rather than “homeostatic”; we improve when challenged in various ways, mentally and physically. Just as we need variety in the foods we eat, we need variety in exercise and movement. You should alternate between only sports and types of exercise, but also between kinds of yoga practice. Change your routines regularly and go to different teachers, or at least find one that continually offers good and challenging variations. If you do the same stuff all the time, your body — and you — will get bored stiff.
So, whether you are a novice or a seasoned yoga practitioner and wonder about your own fitness level, ask yourself this: can I pick up a skipping rope and skip a hundred times without spluttering my hearth out of my mouth? Can I run at least five kilometres at a decent pace without stopping? Can I hold a good, strong plank for at least two minutes without it morphing into a bad variation of down-dog or, worse, up-dog? Can I do a chin-up? If you’re a man, you shouldn’t do just one, but at least half a dozen. Now, these are not some incredible feats. The caveman would have likely found these laughably easy. But given our sheltered, urban environment, this is probably as much as most of us can reasonably aspire to, while still holding down our office jobs.
What if you can’t do some of these, or any of these? Then you’ve got work to do. Time to get off the Warrior mat, put on some trainers and head out of the door. Your body – and your yoga practice, too, will thank you for it.
© Barbara Helisova, BraveBodies 2013