As a yoga teacher, practitioner and general devotee of all things yogic I have noticed that among those new to yoga, there can be a certain reputation to it which comes from various beliefs or rumours.
Yoga means something different to everyone, but generally, there are a few myths which can scare people off from classes.
This article is the first in a series of 5 parts.
And the goal of each part is to destroy those horrible myths, and point out a few truths to give you even more reasons to practice yoga (like you need them)!
The first of these myths I have witnessed first-hand, and I believe it is a common misconception. When recently asking someone if they have ever tried yoga and hearing the answer ‘no’ I was met with the reasoning that yoga ‘just isn’t a real workout.’
Allow me to present my case…
Yoga is a different type of workout
Yoga is a very different type of physical activity to the sort of thing you may do at a gym.
It is neither running nor lifting weights nor circuit training. However, it does phenomenally beneficial things to your body.
For starters, it strengthens your core.
Poses that encourage core strengthening are:
- Navasana (boat pose)
- Virabhadrasana 3 (warrior 3)
- Bakasana (crow pose)
- Sirsasana (headstand)
Need I go on?
Even a pose as simple as Tadasana (Mountain pose) engage so many different muscles, a key one being the abdominals.
In yoga, we use something called Bandhas, or ‘energy locks.’
Physically, there are two main ones which we engage with our muscles. The first of these is called Mula Banda, and it is located at the perineum/pelvic flaw. In order to engage this Bandha, we tighten this muscle slightly to create lower-body strength. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, imagine you really have to go to the toilet and there’s no toilet around.
That muscle you’re holding, that’s the one.
The second Bandha is called Udyana Bandha and it is located at your navel. In order to engage this, we lift our navel up and back towards the spine slightly, thus engaging the abdominal muscles, creating a core-strength.
Using the bandhas in the majority of poses (particularly strengthening or balancing poses) helps us to maintain stability throughout our practice, and moreover works out those rock-solid abs we’re all aiming for.
Yoga encourages endurance
Traditionally when we think of endurance we think marathon-running, or completing a workout class without breaking a sweat or being out of breath.
Endurance is actually defined as ‘the ability to persevere’ which is not only a physical thing, but a mental thing too.
Both sides of this are encouraged by a yoga practice.
One key part of both the physical and mental endurance is utilising your intake of oxygen. I often tell my students about the benefits of yogic breathing, pranayama, and the different techniques they can use. I sometimes see it going in one ear and out the other but it really can make a huge difference to your health, particularly when exercising.
The body relies on oxygen in the body to create energy so the better that oxygen is used, the more energy you’ll have.
And that means you’ll have more endurance!
Also, when oxygen is delivered to the appropriate cells used for metabolism this will affect your weight loss. So the more oxygen you intake, the higher your metabolism, the more pounds drop off!
What was that about not a real workout?
If our bodies are limited to certain breath duration — for example if our rib-cage is tight or our spine is stiff — our breathing will be limited.
Yoga helps us to lengthen our bodies as we breathe, so this becomes a regular habit even when we’re not physically practising yoga, our bodies become more open allowing more room to breathe and take in that much-needed oxygen.
Some poses which are great for this are heart-opening poses, e.g.
- Ustrasana (Camel pose)
- Urhdva Dhanurasana (Upward Facing Dog)
These open the chest by extending the spine, thus creating more space for breath.
In Ashtanga yoga we use a breath technique called Ujjayi breath. It is a simple technique created by deeply inhaling through our nostrils, and as we exhale through the nostrils, slightly closing the back of the throat to create a nice gentle ocean sound.
Using this throughout our practice has numerous benefits which include:
- strengthening the diaphragm
- building internal body heat
- clearing toxins out of the body
- increasing oxygen
- creating a rhythm to the practice and balancing and calming the mind.
This deep and slow breathing can also help to reduce your heart rate, which is great if you have high blood pressure. There are even some Sages in the Himalayas who claim to have completely stopped their heart through yogic breathing! Please do not try this at home!
But some deep breaths during your practice can do you a world of good.
Does something so simple need any more reasons to do it?
Endurance not only covers breath but also muscle endurance.
Yoga can strengthen our muscles
Many yoga poses focus on lengthening of the muscles which then helps to make them stronger and suppler so they do not tire as quickly.
Meaning you do not tire as quickly!
Poses great for this are:
- Uttita Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose)
- Virabadrasana A (Warrior 1)
- Uttita Trikonasana (Triangle).
Standing poses such as these help to strengthen the leg muscles.
Arm balances and inversions help to build muscle in the upper body because they flex groups of smaller muscles, which are not just the big muscles you would work out when lifting weights but all the extra ones we tend to ignore. These muscles will, over time, build endurance because yoga poses are typically held for a certain length of time, so with each practice your body will become accustomed to staying in this pose.
In yoga we move on many different planes and in many different directions.
Our body can do this because it was designed to.
The reason we may find some of these poses challenging is because our traditional exercise techniques in the west (e.g. bicep curls, running, squats) are all in a one-dimensional and one-directional plane, so we have become used to these methods of moving.
Using yoga poses which incorporate twisting, arching etc can encourage the body to function in a healthy way.
This short article would turn into a novel longer than War and Peace if I continued to list the physiological benefits of yoga, but you get the point.
When we engage in a ‘real workout’ (as my naïve friend put it!) what outcomes are we really looking for?
- Weight loss?
- Muscle endurance?
- General feeling of health and wellness?
Check, check, check check check. Yoga can do it all.
But remember, physicality is just one eighth of yoga, and though it is a very crucial part, it is not the overall goal.
When you start the physicality of yoga, over time you will begin to notice the less tangible and arguably more beneficial aspects of the well-being. Aspects such as patience, calm, stillness in our otherwise manic lives.
But without a strong, calm and stable body, how can we expect the same from our minds?
So think twice when writing off yoga as ‘not a real workout’, you may not sweat buckets or have a pounding heart when you walk out of class, but you’ll feel great, and you’ll have an added physical feature…a massive smile.