Saturday, June 19, 2010

Comparing apples and oranges….

Lately, it seems that the topics of conversation in the yoga studio are revolving around whether yoga is enough to make you fit, give your heart a workout, increase your metabolism, and other similar concerns. So, let us take a closer look under the hood of the fountain of youth mobile and see what we can see.

First of all we need some definitions.

The first and foremost definition is the definition of “Yoga.” The word itself has been translated in varieties of ways from simply “yoking” (as in yoking with ultimate reality), to the classical definition of “Chitta Vritti Nirodha” meaning - cessation of the fluctuations of the mind; to the  Bhagavad Gita’s “Yoga is skill in action.” Also, “Yoga is Samadhi,” says Patanjali.

Yoga is one of the accepted schools of philosophy (dharshansa) within Hinduism, standing on its own feet along side Sumkha and Vedanta.  In Jainism, yoga is the sum total of all activities — mental, verbal and physical.  For Buddhist the yogachara path is a framework of philosophy and psychology for engaging in practices that lead to the path of the bodhisattva. Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh teacher referred to as the “Great Yogi” by Yogi Bhajan (the founder of Kindalini Yoga and the 3HO movement), taught to engage all beings as members of the one family, being in service to others and deepening one’s own awareness of the mysteries of the body and mind.

Other important definitions:
Physical fitness/Health Related Fitness comprises two related concepts: general fitness (a state of health and well-being,) and Specific Fitness/Skill Related Fitness (a task-oriented definition based on the ability to perform specific aspects of sports, or occupations).  There is no simple definition of fitness, but when spoken of, it is generally understood that fitness has to do with the ability of the human body to function effectively, efficiently, meet energetic demands on it imposed by physical activity and be free of conditions occurring as the result of sedentary lifestyle.

Therefore, there are 5 major areas that are looked at when Health Related Fitness levels are assessed.

Cardiovascular fitness (Aerobic fitness) which refers to the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen to skeletal muscles during sustained physical activity. Regular exercise creates cardiovascular fitness by enlarging and strengthening the muscle of the heart, thus making it more capable to pump more blood with each heart beat, thus supplying oxygen to skeletal muscles. In addition, it is shown that regular exercises increase the number of arteries in skeletal muscles that are regularly worked.  Further, the amount of oxygen being inhaled increases (lung capacity) and thus more oxygen is available for the system to function on.

Flexibility – this one should be self explanatory, but in case you are unsure – this is a measure of the range of motion in the joints of the human body. If one cannot tie their shoes, or scratch their head – there‘s not flexibility.

Endurance is a measure that shows the ability of the body to exert energy over a task and over a prolonged period of time.  The definition of “long” generally depends on the type of activity being performed and the level of intensity of that activity.

Muscle Strength and Body Composition are the final two parameter looked at when speaking of Health Related Fitness.  While muscle strength is an obvious one, body composition refers to the percentage of fat, muscle and bone in one’s body at any given time.  Two people with the same weight and height, but with different body composition will look completely different.

On the Skill Related Fitness end of things, things like Ability, Balance, Motor Coordination, Speed, Reaction Time and Power are relevant. One can take this in an everyday sense to determine if one can go up and down the stairs, bend over and squat in order to perform everyday tasks, or if one is coordinated enough to dance and play music, can get things done fast and is able to react to environmental stimuli appropriately. On the other hand, one can take that to the sports arena and depending on the sport in focus, these parameters must be within certain ranges, for the person to be successful in that sport. If you are going to be a soccer player but you can’t duck, kick, squat, take off running, change direction in an instant and jump, you will have a hard time playing at all.

Further on fitness, age and gender play a role in what is considered “excellent,” “good,” “moderate” or “poor” level of fitness.

Does yoga, then, have anything to do with fitness? 

Physical fitness is a way of keeping the body healthy through a cycle of exercise, nutrition and rest.

Yoga is a path to liberation and fulfilling your potential as a being while embodied. Physical fitness is only important as it enables the individual to proceed along the path with minimal distractions such as illness or discomfort.  Hence, the asana and pranayama practices.  However, physical fitness is not in and out of itself the goal.

The number of pushups one can do is absolutely irrelevant to personal freedom. Standing on one’s head is no measurement for wisdom. Ability to sit in lotus is no prerequisite, or a guarantee for fulfillment and enlightenment.  The number of pushups done with grace, the lightness and control of a head stand, the ease of a lotus posture are only indications, (not always good ones either) of the time spend in a committed practice. 

More important things such as mindfulness, equanimity and compassion have more of a chance of developing with a long committed practice. Think of it this way – the asanas will prepare your body for long hours of meditation, or the grueling demands of service to others. The asanas will give you the energy, stamina, and physical freedom to pursue other things you enjoy – from the great outdoors to cooking, writing music or playing sports. The asana will open the door for you to see and even understand many of your own traits and mental habits, teach you to be aware of your being physically, energetically and even mentally and emotionally.

Meditation will refine these skills and take them further into and outside of your being. 

Long and committed practice in itself is no guarantee for moral, ethical or psychological progress, not even for enlightenment. But as the yogis say, no effort is wasted on the path. You may get the point next time around. Meanwhile you are gathering the stones to pave the road when you are ready to do so, and while you are at it, you are still enjoying many of the physiological benefits of the practice.

If the ego owns your asana accomplishments, rather than viewing them as simply manifestations of possibilities, and opportunities to observe yourself in yet another twisted situation, than your asana practice is gymnastics and your time in a yoga class is strictly a work out.

Good news is that yoga can be an excellent work out too. It is sad to reduce the practice to just a work out, but if all you want is to work out – than be my guest.

…Which brings us back to comparing what kind of fitness levels we can achieve with just doing yoga.
Since I have been a full time yoga teacher for many years now, and at least 75% of my physical activity is yoga (the other 25% being split between dancing, occasional bike rides, hikes, gardening and walking around town with the sporadic and unusual fun things like zip lining, swimming, etc., when on vacation), I decided to go through a few standard fitness tests just for fun. Please understand, that I am not the kind of person to work too hard at physical things. I like hiking but slowly, so I can enjoy the scenery. I like biking – the same way. Going at 12 miles per hour is like…way too much work, and there better be some kind of a treat. So... my long training days and competing have long gone!

I got on the scale noting my weight – 115 lb, body fat -21% this morning (it actually ranges from 19 – 22% depending on what I had for dinner, how much water I drank, and when I got on the scale). I am age 38, height 5.4. Here are the results of this morning’s experiments:

  • BMI is 19.7, which makes me normal (18.5 – 24 for female of 38).
  • Below 21% body fat for a female of 38 would be “too little,” and 21 – 33% would be normal.
  • Blood pressure – excellent 109/75…or something of the sort.
  • Resting heart rate while typing on the computer is 60 (female athletes ages 34 -41 get 54-60, excellent is considered  61-65, good is 65 - 69). 
  • Flexibility – off the charts.
  • Upper body strength (the push up test) - did 27. Excellent is 25+ push ups in a minute (and I did chaturangas which are harder)...and it's sucks to hurry up. I can do more s-l-o-w-e-r.
  • Abdominal strength (simple crunches for 1 min) – Excellent. I did a total of 54 no fuss, no sweat. Second try was 63 still no sweat. Hmm...  (39 + is considered excellent.)
  • Leg strength – that’s the infamous wall squat test. 3 minutes. Actually, my alarm when off at 3 min but I could have stayed longer. I’d say I was at about 60 % capacity at that point, but who knows. That’s also “excellent.” Excellent is considered to be something above 46 seconds for women of 38 and 51 seconds for man of 38.
  • Balance test – you’ve got to be kidding me, right? Anyhow, I did it. It’s a joke. They don’t have a category for a person that can stand on one leg for more than 3 minutes doing varieties of twisted things.
  • I did not do the Explosive Power test since I do not have the proper equipment and I am committed to none violence.  But I can open my own jar of spaghetti sauce, thank you.
  • Will do the running test and let you know how it goes soon. I need someone to spot me, but I am guessing I’ll score in the excellent category as well.
Furthermore, I am guessing that anyone who’s been doing yoga at least 2 or 3 times per week in the strong beginner to intermediate level will be able to score in the good to excellent category.

Why? Because WHAT IS CONSIDERED HEALTHY IS NOT THAT MUCH! To be healthy, yoga can give you more than you need.

Yoga is not Olympic training. It’s a health and wellness practice. If you want to win Ironman, you will have to train for that and push the limits. Winning the Ironman is not a measurement for either health or wellness. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment for which one will pay the price later. Just like all athletes pay the price later – physically, mentally, emotionally, there’s always a price to pay for our greatest accomplishments….Why? Because they are, most often, accomplishments of the ego and in most cases they are in disregard of other important things in life and in the body.

Did you know….. The average world class athlete retires from his sport at the age of 33. Incredibly, the average NFL player is retired by the age of 28, the average world class wrestler by 24, and the average elite gymnast by 19.

And here’s another staggering statistic: The average elite athlete will die by the age of 67. That is considerably lower than the 76 year life expectancy of the average American. According to the NFL Players Association, the average life expectancy of an NFL player is 58 years of age.

With yoga, on the other hand, since it is not about accomplishments, the only thing you’ll get over time is more health, more wellness and more happiness.  Lots of people I know began yoga at 58 – the age the average NFL athlete is already dead! There is a multitude of yoga teachers over 50 and a respectable number of them over 70. If you want to see what yoga can do for your longevity, see Patricia Walden, Iyengar, Dharma Mittra. Krishnamacharia died at a 100 years of age. Indra Devey at 101 and there a countless others, most of whom continue to practice all the way to the end.  There’s a reason yoga is called “the fountain of youth.”

So, to all my friends who are wondering if they are getting enough from yoga, I suggest you ask yourself the following few questions.
1) Why are you doing yoga?
2) Are you actually doing yoga?

Of course, there’s a lot more to be said about the incredible benefits of yoga physically. News and research is coming out regularly, expounding on what yoga can help you with, heal you from and in general what it does to your biology, physiology, psychology and spirituality. Since, I’ve written plenty on the subject, I will save my ink here. However, next time your doctor, or your friends tell you that yoga is not enough for you to maintain a healthy level of fitness, you go ahead and invite them to a yoga class with me.

This being said, if you are one of the folks out there, enjoying your really gentle and restorative classes, and you never find yourself physically challenged, you may consider trying harder classes, or supplement your yoga with daily walking, swimming, biking and whatever else you like. People do yoga for different reasons. Peace, calmness, relaxation and enjoyment ARE very good reasons to be practicing gently. Just realize that you are not addressing all of your body’s needs, even though you may be addressing all of your mind’s needs…. As always…there’s got to be a balance!