So often I am asked if I “work out” or do a weight training circuit, due to the way my 46-year-old physical body looks. It is a great compliment to be sure, however I am careful to appropriately assign the credit to yoga. Yes it is true: yoga has been my single most consistent and effective tool for all-over body fitness. I can honestly say that at my age, I am fitter and stronger now than I have ever been in my entire life. This month I would like to address some of the reasons why that is so and some of the ways you can make that so in your own practice. I would also like to address in the “Yoga Page” the phenomenon of men and yoga and how men can benefit from this truly amazing practice and some of the tools they can use to overcome the natural and imagined barriers from getting to a yoga class, because the benefits for them are perhaps even more profound than for the opposite sex. The fact that yoga is my primary source of fitness and that many ask me if I weight train may not convince much that yoga is enough to keep one fit. You may recall from my August insert on fitness the definition of “fitness”, which was “the quality or state of being physically fit; the quality of being suitable, qualified or morally fit for something”. I like that definition in that it describes a total approach to fitness – physical, mental, and moral. In any case fitness as described by a physiologist may have many different meanings from cardio respiratory, muscular and overall body composition.
“Experts have long recommended that we do at least three different types of fitness activity to achieve optimum cardio respiratory and muscular fitness, flexibility and body composition. For example the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) recommends building cardio fitness by exercising at an intensity that raises your heart rate to at least 55% of your maximum heart rate, muscular fitness by targeting each major muscular group with eight to ten repetitions of weight bearing exercise, and flexibility with stretching.” (Yoga Journal Sept 2002)
Recently yoga was put to the test to see if in fact, yogis like myself measured up. The tests done at the University of California at Davis tested all areas of fitness mentioned above, on a group of 10 college students. The students attended four sessions of yoga a week and were measured before and after. After eight weeks the students’ muscular strength had increased by as much as 31 percent, muscular endurance by 57 percent, flexibility by as much as 88 percent. Other benefits gleaned from the study included increased concentration; body mass composition, endurance and balance. In addition the results were derived from only a short period – eight weeks, which to some research experts was the most astonishing finding.
Why yoga works, is an exhaustive subject covering many areas. Suffice it to say the word is out and we know it does work because we can see the results. In terms of development of muscular strength, the Davis study at UCLA suggest that muscles respond to stretching by becoming larger and capable of extracting more oxygen more quickly, in other words one of the side benefits of flexibility include increased muscle strength and endurance.
Another great boost to the strength component of your yoga practice lies in the benefits to your joints. This is an example of the age-old wisdom of yoga. Many of the postures involve bonding or contracting one side of the body and then releasing. In this process the joints involved become what is called “close packed”. In a closed packed position no movement is possible because the joint surfaces fit snuggly together and this “locks” the joint. The least amount of muscular effort is required to stabilize the joint in the closed pack position, so muscular strength can be addressed in other areas, say the triceps in a pushup position with the elbow snuggly tucked in at the waist. The core body musculature can also be addressed when the ligaments around the joints don’t have to do all the work.
Another benefit of this concept and an affirmation for yoga and all of its wisdom, is that this very “closed pack” position, common in most yoga postures, is incredibly nourishing for the joints and bones. When a joint goes into a close pack position all of the naturally occurring fluid that surrounds the joint to keep it mobile are squeezed out into the capsule, and when the position is released the fluid comes rushing back in, replenished by the blood supply and new positioning.
The other way yoga helps to increase and develop strength is that everything in yoga is done bilaterally – or both sided, this not only develops symmetry but also balance, coordination and strength from the “inside out”. I remember being asked by a student why it may be important to hold my own body weigh in space, and quite simply I can’t think of any other weight I would rather hold – but also what a gift to be able to “hold oneself up”.
Men, who are naturally stronger than women but often more inflexible, may need to take heed as yoga moves into the world of fitness. Often they have steered away from yoga due to not wanting to have to do a pose that exposes their tight hamstrings or their egos. However with the new styles of yoga focusing on heat and power they can join in without embarrassment and usually do very well. Men do have somewhat of an advantage in that strength allows for flexibility in most cases. According to Men’ Fitness, Sept 2000, “Yoga may well be the greatest form of cross training available to men. What makes yoga unique is its ability to loosen up muscles while simultaneously strengthening them, giving the most amount of cardiovascular, anaerobic and flexibility benefits in the shortest period of time.” “Yoga develops a form of lightweight muscle that is powerful, flexible, and most important, usable.” Tom Birch.
“Yoga’s fluid like movements build thorough strength throughout the body that teaches the arms and legs to work with the torso, not independently from it.” Mens Fitness 2000.
So what are you waiting for? There are scads of yoga studios and classes out there to choose from. Next issue we’ll look into getting to your first yoga class – some tips and pointers. Be sure to check in.