Yoga to Complete Your Fitness
“Down Dog, Up Dog!” my instructor calmly commanded. No, I wasn’t at a puppy obedience school. I was in my first Yoga class, and I was loving it. At this point in my life, I had lifted weights and had trained in the martial arts for over 15 years, so I thought something like Yoga would be no big deal. I was wrong, it was a big deal…in a GOOD way. It was challenging, but not impossible. In fact, every movement has a modified version, which allows any practitioner to scale down the difficulty of the movements or poses to a beginner, average, or advanced level. The instructor spoke softly and clearly, gently adjusting each person in the room, but only to the ability of the practitioner, not adjusting to the point of perfection. I knew right away that I would be coming back.
What I love most about Yoga is how similar the benefits of the workout is to lifting weights and martial arts, yet attained in a completely different manner at the same time. Yes, I know that makes ZERO sense…let me explain. Weight lifting obviously uses the contraction of muscles to make you stronger. While you are not lifting objects in a yoga room, you are lifting your body in various ways. The plank to upward facing dog position mimics a pushup (Hell, it basically is a pushup), strengthening the triceps, chest, abs, and lower back. However, at the end, there is a pause in the upward position, which not only strengthens the triceps a little bit longer by holding the contraction, but also works to open up the chest AND decompress the lower back, which works wonders for helping to alleviate back pain.
This combination of strength and stretching is one of the hallmark benefits of Yoga. There is also an emphasis on breathing calmly through the movements, a feat that at times is a mental challenge and a workout all on its own! The basic components of any Yoga class are to:
- Move with control into static poses (such as Warrior 1 which strengthens and sculpts ALL of the leg muscles)
- Practice balancing poses (such as the Tree pose which requires good balance standing on one leg)
- Breathe, breathe…BREATHE!!!
It is the controlled movements with the synchronized breathing that reminded me most of my martial arts practice but also, some of the stance training that I noticed was very similar. such as Warrior 1 compared to a basic Kung Fu forward stance. In both stances, the front leg is bent at the knee at approximately 90 degrees while the back leg is stretched out behind you, almost like a lunge, and then held for time. This static stance calls for a prolonged contraction of the leg muscles, leading to improved strength and balance. The flexibility aspect was also very similar to martial arts, again the emphasis was breathing into the stretches as opposed to forcing them. The obvious difference is that, although there are the Warrior Poses, there is no fighting technique, and of course NO sparring with other students!
In addition to strength and flexibility, the benefits of Yoga also include longevity and improved health when confronted with certain chronic disease types, such as osteoarthritis (a bone and joint disease that causes stiffness and pain). In 2012, a study was done to examine the benefits of yoga for senior citizens with arthritis. In this study, Yoga was instructed with the participants using a chair, meaning the strengthening static stance work was taken out. Even with this modification, most of the subjects were able to reduce their joint stiffness AND increase their daily physical function. A follow-up study was proposed to add in the static stance work but was never done.
Another measured advantage is decreasing stress and increasing feelings of well-being. Another study conducted in 2012 studied the effects of “well-being” after introducing Yoga to high school kids. As we all know, teenagers aren’t always the best example of cheerfulness, but who can blame them. I mean with all the bills they have to pay, homes to maintain, and mouths to feed…yeah actually the reasons for the constant moodiness is beyond me. So anyway, this study introduced Yoga in a P.E. class three times a week to a select group of angry, emotionally imbalanced, Emo music listening teenagers. Compared to the students that did conventional P.E. during the study, the yoga kids reported more improvements in stress and psychological well-being (measured by a before and after questionnaire) while the regular P.E. class kids reported NO improvements at all. If a form of exercise can improve the moods of a bunch of…well…moody teenagers, I think the rest of us have an extraordinary opportunity to gain some benefit in our moods as well!
Let’s review the benefits that you can expect from starting yoga practice:
- Mobility (moving the body fluidly without pain)
- Stress relief
- Elevated mood and well-being
Ready to give it a try? Not sure where? No problem, just head to a snow-capped mountain top and seek the wise, old sage dressed in robes that will teach you all the ways of physical and mental transcendence. Or just Google search a local Yoga studio. Chances are you will have MANY studios around you as Yoga’s popularity has been steadily increasing over the years. Most chain gyms such as LA Fitness or 24 Hour Fitness even include a Yoga class with membership. Not sure which place is best for you? That’s ok, most, if not all studios offer a free class or even trial of classes. One thing to be aware of before beginning is that there are different styles of Yoga. Some emphasize stretching, others emphasize power stances, flowing through movements, or a combination of all. There is a particular style called Bikram Yoga (hot yoga) that practices all movements in a room that is set to 95-108oF and 40% humidity… this particular style normally isn’t well suited for beginners as it is the most strenuous of all the styles, it is a good idea to have a strong base of physical fitness before attempting.
For more information on the different styles, a quick Google search will give you MORE than enough information, but my advice would be to just find a class and jump in. You likely will not be disappointed!
- Noggle, J. J., Steiner, N. J., Minami, T., & Khalsa, S. B. (2012). Benefits of Yoga for Psychosocial Well-Being in a US High School Curriculum. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics,33(3), 193-201. doi:10.1097/dbp.0b013e31824afdc4
- Park, J., & Mccaffrey, R. (2012). Chair Yoga: Benefits for Community-Dwelling Older Adults With Osteoarthritis. Journal of Gerontological Nursing,38(5), 12-22. doi:10.3928/00989134-20120410-01