(This is a guest post from NF Rebel Janine Pelletier. When I get to Ecuador in a few days, I’m putting a major emphasis on body weight training; I’m also going to put a major emphasis on improving my flexibility. Take it away!)
What do Spiderman, Catwoman, and ninjas all have in common?
They’re all freakishly nimble.
Also, they all rock. While strength and speed have their place, nothing can replace agility for impressing your friends and confounding your enemies. Just as button mashing will only advance your character so far before timing and dexterity is needed to advance, will power and endurance can only take you so far along the path to true fitness before muscle control is required.
The last piece of the great Triforce of Health is something that is part flexibility, part balance, and part pure style.
It is the missing link (zing!) that can stand alone or can tie everything else together.
You can get it through Yoga!
What is Yoga?
You ask, because you want to know more than what everyone thinks they know about yoga – that thing you do when you go into a room with a bunch of girls in very stretchy clothes and try to tie yourself into very complicated knots for an hour.
Well… Mostly wrong.
A long time ago in a galaxy far away, a bunch of Hindu wise men sat in meditation for hours and hours. For weeks and months and years they sat and chanted and read and talked with each other about what they learned, rarely standing or walking or lifting things. It probably didn’t take long for them to realize that as they tried to improve their minds and souls, they were absolutely neglecting their bodies.
While conventional wisdom might have shrugged and said “Meh. Bodies aren’t as important as the other stuff”, these wise men knew that their body and their spirit were one, and that losing touch with one aspect of themselves was harming the whole.
Clearly, their weak muscles, stiff joints, and poor balance needed to be improved. They had to reunite body and mind. The ultimate multi-taskers, they invented a system of movement that combined meditation, self-discovery, and seriously hardcore exercise, all in one. They invented yoga, which in Sanskrit means Union (or yoking, as in “harnessing together”).
Okay, but what IS Yoga, really?
You want to get to the point.
I respect that.
Yoga is a series of very precise body-weight postures and movements which are designed to improve the body in several important areas. There is an almost endless variety (over 908, last count I’ve heard) of poses that each work your entire body, focusing on different goals to develop both strength and flexibility at the same time. Generally they fall into the following categories:
- Forward bends
- Back bends
- Balancing poses
- Seated and twisting poses
- Standing poses
- Arm balance poses
- Core poses
- Inversion (Upside-down) poses
- Restorative poses
As well as various breathing techniques. Those ancient wise men realized that people spend a lot of time breathing, and it’s kind of important, so proper yoga requires a lot of attention to learn how to control and optimize your breath.
Each pose has both beginner and more advanced versions, ranging from simple, to extremely advanced. Beginner yoga can be done by ANYONE, regardless of ability, while the really advanced stuff puts acrobatics to shame.
Poses are carefully balanced so that your body is worked evenly:
- A forward bend is followed by a backward bend.
- Inversions follow standing.
- Left side follows right.
There are a few widely recognized sequences of poses, such as the Sun Salutation, which is either an incredibly meaningful ritual or a yogic pushup/backbend/stretch which is done in a few minutes, or the Moksha Series, which takes about an hour to complete and pretty much does everything most people want out of yoga. Outside of that, most practice sessions are rarely the same twice.
Why do Yoga?
“Sure, yoga was designed for people who were stuck sitting down for long periods of time every day, with varying levels of ability and a desire to better themselves, but why should I… wait…That kind of sounds like me!”
Its almost like yoga was designed for modern-day Rebels, who tend to work inactive desk jobs that lock our bodies into gargoyle-like lumps of stiff weakness. Raise your hand if you’ve ever decided to level up with your life, take off with a bang… and find yourself a month later with an injury or nagging pain that made an active life seem impossible for you. Yoga will prevent that from happening.
Unlike strength training (GO UNTIL YOUR MUSCLES FAIL), cardio training (GO UNTIL YOU CANT GASP ENOUGH AIR TO KEEP GOING) or certain modern fitness trends (GO UNTIL YOU LITERALLY VOMIT), yoga is a chance to relax and treat yourself right, to fix your neglected body and prepare for the next challenge.
It is your health potion, your buff, your “Cure Minor Wounds” spell, helping you both physically and mentally in so many ways that the whole list is kind of ridiculous:
Yoga and the Body:
- increases flexibility
- strengthens the muscles and tendons, especially stabilizer muscles
- increases bone density of the entire skeletal system
- develops balance and coordination
- straightens posture and body alignment
- improves function of internal organs via (a) proper posture so they’re held correctly and (b) internal compression, wringing them out so they work better
- enhances cardiovascular ability, both lowering resting heart rate and making oxygen use more efficient
- burns energy (150-400 calories per hour)
- decreases chance of injury
- fixes muscular imbalances
- stimulates the immune system
- decreases cortisol levels, resulting in lower blood sugar levels and heightened insulin response, resulting in less inflammation and less chance of diabetes and heart disease
- Decreases the chance of arthritis and joint issues by moving full motion and “squeezing and soaking” the cartilage, giving it a flush and extra nutrients
- decreases pain and fatigue
- teaches you some cool skills like headstands, the splits and the ability to lift your leg higher than your head
Yoga and the Mind:
- increases happiness
- improves discipline
- Enhances focus
- Increases your energy
- increases Proprioception (the ability for the mind to direct where and how the body moves. Touching your fingers to your nose with your eyes closed, or stepping back and having your foot land perfectly parallel to your other foot without looking takes proprioception)
- decreases stress and tension
- improves reaction time
- inspires a better sleep
- improves performance on mental tests (studies have shown!)
- provides time for moving meditation, if you’re into that sort of thing
- enhances self-worth
- increases the chance of flow states
- gives a sense of accomplishment and pride
It does pretty much everything your body needs!*
No adventurer should leave home without it.
*Note: Yoga does not fix everything. It’s not Paleo**.
If you are already an athlete, then great! Yoga is the perfect supplement to any activity you care to do – be it weight lifting, running, specific sports, or that special brand of self-inflicted torture known as Crossfit. Because it is so all-inclusive, yoga fills in the gaps of your training, ensuring that you don’t have any weak links in your musculo-skeletal system, links that would otherwise break when you put too much pressure on the whole chain. Yoga speeds recovery and will improve your performance, as well as improving your life in a host of other ways.
If you AREN’T doing any other physical activities, then give Yoga a try!
When done properly, it is a comprehensive fitness program that will help you get strong, limber, healthy and happy for the rest of your life.
Putting physical fitness aside, yoga is fun. It’s play for adults, who never get to stand on one foot and pretend they’re a tree. Yoga gives you the excuse. It lets you try new things without fear. It’s a chance to meet like-minded people and learn something new. It teaches you about yourself – how you handle the frustration of falling for the sixth time when trying Crane Pose, how well you resist the many excuses to stop when holding One-Legged Pidgeon Pose for 120 agonizing seconds, and whether you laugh or swear when you somehow manage to knee yourself in the face when getting into Plow Pose. Yoga reconnects your mind and your body into a beautiful, self-aware, ever-improving whole. Why WOULDN’T you do it?
Also, it improves your sex-life.
The Union of the Mind and Body
“Isn’t it all hippy-like, talking about meditation and expanding consciousness and heart chakras and stuff?”
The nice thing about yoga is that, like the best RPGs, it has as much or as little content as you want. You can explore the rich mental and spiritual aspects of yoga, using the moving meditation to develop your mind and spirit and transform your life in ways you’ve never imagined. Or, press B and skip all that, using it simply as hardcore calisthenics to tune up your muscles and joints.
If the hippy stuff isn’t your thing, that’s okay.
There are plenty of styles, studios and teachers that agree with you. The more abstract language that some teachers use can be taken as fancy imagery to help guide your poses. For example, if your teacher says “keep your heart open” during a forward bend, you know to keep your chest open and shoulders back, not rounding your spine forward and forcing downward with your chin, thus avoiding hunching and putting pressure on your neck and spine. Yoga helps you use your mind to properly move your body.
If you ARE inclined toward the more esoteric side of yoga, then you are in for an awesome journey. If your teacher says “keep your heart open” during a forward bend, you will know to focus on your love and compassion, acting the way that feels right for you without trying to force what your mind thinks should happen. When you bend forward in that state of mind, your spine will be straight, your chest will stay wide, your breath will be deep and controlled, and your body will relax, lengthening downward without straining. And later, during stressful situations, you can decide to open your heart there too – straightening, breathing deeply, and acting with love and compassion to yourself, your circumstances, and the people around you. We are what we practice, and yoga helps you use your body to properly move your mind.
When doing yoga, take what you need, and let the rest go. No one watching will know.
They just see you touching your toes.
The exception to this rule is the phrase “Namaste”.
If you do yoga, learn it. Literally, it means “I bow to you”, but in the yoga world, it means “The light/spirit within me honors the light/spirit within you”. It is both a greeting and a parting. It is an acknowledgement that we are all fundamentally the same, fundamentally good.
It is saying that the person you are talking to has qualities you aspire to. It is code for “I do yoga.”
If you can say this word, you are in the club.
“But my friend pulled a muscle doing yoga! WTF!?”
Did they stretch first?
Har, I joke.
Yoga, like weight-lifting, mountain climbing, complex medical procedures and every single thing in the universe ever, should not be done above your skill level. The difference between yoga and all those other things is that yoga doesn’t LOOK difficult. You KNOW you cannot deadlift 300 lbs without training, but bending?
Come on, 5 year olds do that, what do you have to worry about?
NO. WRONG. Your body has decades of damage and rust that needs to be fixed up before you can move as well as the average 5 year old. You must accept where you are before you can advance. Get through the tutorial and beginner levels before you take on the epic bosses. Poses done shallowly but properly are beautiful. Poses forced beyond all recognition are ugly things, and do more bad than good – a pose done badly will never improve, but you’ll expect it to and either get frustrated or push even harder until you wreck something.
You need a lot of backbend skill points before you can even begin to take on King Pigeon Pose, but even the easy-looking poses are more challenging than they appear. If something feels wrong, don’t push it until you learn how to do it properly.
The Yoga Waif-Girl Myth
“Okay, I get why people do yoga, but I’m still not doing it. You know that it’s mostly tiny girls in there.”
Just as strength training used to be exclusively done by men, yoga has traditionally been practiced by women. Possibly because it doesn’t look like a challenge to the uninitiated, possibly because women as a group might have been more comfortable sticking their butts in the air like they just don’t care. But the times, they are a-changin’, and just as women are discovering that strength is kind of awesome, men are discovering that balance, control and flexibility is sweet. Men, you have so much to learn and to offer the yoga-world, don’t let out-dated conventional wisdom prevent you from joining your bendy sisters in levelling up your life.
As for the “tiny”ness of the average class-attending yogi, I could say something pithy about “how do you think they got that way”, which is a factor (we know that form follows function and, when paired with an appropriate diet, yoga is great for building hot bodies), but more than that… it’s mostly not true. There is no specific body type required to do yoga.
There isn’t a single person of any weight-class that doesn’t benefit from regular practice, and see real, tangible benefits from it. I’ve seen yoga instructors who wear a size 16, and they blow the rest of us out of the water in terms of ability, health and happiness. Don’t let the yoga models deceive you. They are the same as any model – the ideal, not the reality.
If you want to do it, then do it.
“Okay, you’ve convinced me. How do I do this thing and what do I need?”
Yay!!! There is a whole bunch of different styles of yoga, but the three most common are:
- Ashtanga (long holds to build up strength)
- Hatha (more stretching for flexibility and rehabilitation)
- Vinyasa (more transitions, leading to more grace and agility).
To the absolute beginner, any style or mix of styles will be great. Pick whatever seems appealing, and off you go.
Equipment is easy. Bare minimum, all you need are appropriate clothes, a water bottle, and a non-skid surface so you don’t do the splits without meaning to. The clothing should be comfortable, durable, and will move with you – you don’t want tightness binding your movement or a lot of fabric flopping about getting in your way. Shorts and a t-shirt are fine. Fancy yoga wear is good for fit and the ego. Gents, you’ll probably want shorts with a bathing-suit style liner guard to protect your bits, and ladies, there isn’t a whole lot of bouncing so you don’t need super-supportive sports bras, just something comfortable that won’t stab you (I’m looking at you, under-wires).
In terms of a stable surface, you can get by on the floor in a pinch, and I’ve seen nifty sticky gloves and socks, but generally people use yoga mats which can be purchased for anywhere from $30 to $200 depending on how serious you are. Yes, the more expensive ones are better. No, you don’t need them. You’ll also need a spray bottle with some very diluted soapy water and a towel to clean your mat every once in a while.
There are all sorts of additional toys you can buy, the first being a bag to hold your yoga-mat (I use a 4 foot ribbon with loops on both ends. Very minimalist-classy, holds my water bottle with some creative knot-work, doubles as a yoga strap, and it cost a dollar). There are also blocks to support your poses, straps to help with stretches, and weirder things like yoga swings. If any of these seem cool to you, then get them.
You’ve got the what, now you just need the know-how.
Ways to Practice Yoga:
Group Classes: Probably the most common way to practice yoga, you can attend group classes with live yoga teachers. You’ll have the advantage of a trained teacher (though skill levels can vary. Find someone who instructs well and inspires you), and the support of your classmates. You’d be surprised how much observing others can help your own practice and the experience of a whole class in flow is indescribable.
Most teachers are very helpful and might correct you if you aren’t doing a pose properly, especially if you let them know you’re open to correction before class. You can also ask them questions after class, up to and including “This pose feels… weird. Am I doing it right?” The disadvantage of this method of practice is that finding a studio with a convenient location, a good teacher, and with classes at the right times can be challenging. It is also somewhat expensive, with individual classes in the range of $10-20 and unlimited monthly class passes costing as much as gym memberships. To combat this, many people practice at home, and go to class a few times a month as a refresher. Whatever works.
A Few Things to Know About Group Classes:
“Foundations” is probably the first class you’ll want to try. It is an introduction to basic poses, with beginner tips and lots of peers at your level so you won’t be tempted to push beyond your ability (see above re: “Don’t be dumb”).
“Hot Yoga” is any type of yoga done in a very hot, humid room (generally 40 C / 105 F and 40% humidity, or “balmy afternoon in India”). The theory is that it relaxes your muscles to promote stretching, encourages sweating to eliminate toxins, requires focus under extreme conditions to build discipline, and prevents you from pushing hard to remain conscious (if you get dizzy, go into Childs Pose until the room stops spinning. It happens to all of us. Hopefully just once). You’ll love it…or not love it.
“Restorative Yoga” is very easy on the body, with mostly long stretches and nurturing poses. If you thrashed yourself in a workout the day before and DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is bringing you creakily to your knees, you MUST try one of these.
You will need a mat for group classes. If you don’t have one, you can usually rent one for a few dollars.
Get to the studio about 15 minutes early. It’s polite to get set up and either quietly warm up with a few stretches, or sit/lay down and prepare your mind for the class.
Most studios are awesome places filled with good, gentle people. I almost never hear of any problems, but I’ve had something stolen once, and once is enough. Keep your valuables in your car, or in a bag against the wall or at the base of your mat.
Fun fact: If your cellphone goes off during class, you will find out how quickly peaceful serenity can turn into murderous rage.
DVDs: DVDs are inexpensive and can be watched at any time of day in whatever space you want, allowing you to get skilled and knowledgeable instruction from very successful, world-renowned yoga teachers. There is a fair amount of variety out there, allowing you to buy anything from “Yoga for Beginners” to “Intermediate Ashtanga Yoga for Runners”. On the down side, there is no variety to a video (you’ll want to buy more than one DVD pretty quickly), and there’s no individualized instruction or answers to your questions. If you have special health concerns, DVDs are not for you. Also, unless you have the room to invite a few yogic friends over, it means you’ll be practicing alone, which is good or bad, depending on your tastes.
Online Videos: Online videos are often either free or very inexpensive. You can find pretty much any kind of instruction you wish for, and can use them to practice at any time, day or night. Of course, while there are real youtube gems out there (Yogis, if you know some, post in the comments below!), there are also videos being produced by completely unqualified yutzes. Watcher beware.
Yoga Websites, Journals and Books: There is a surprising amount of text and pictures devoted to yoga. These are fantastic for explanations of the poses and the deeper philosophy of yoga. You can get great ideas and things to ponder, but looking exclusively at still photos of poses might be frustrating for the beginner student trying to fit it all together.
Individual Practice: Once you’ve got a feel for things using the above methods, you can absolutely make it up as you go along. There are a thousand resources out there to give you ideas, and you can customize your practice to fit your hang-ups, preferences and goals.
A friend of mine is into capoera and thus decided to become an arm-balance master. She can balance on her hands as easily as I can balance on my feet, but she’s shockingly inflexible for a yogi, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others customize a sequence to strengthen their individual weaknesses, even it makes for a weird-looking series to outsiders.
When you make a practice yourself, you create something uniquely you. And self discovery is what yoga is all about. Just remember to balance the poses – try to include at least one pose from each of the categories above.
Obviously, practicing more is better, and if you practice a bit of yoga every day you’ll probably see more benefit over-all then if you do just one longer period once a week. You could spend ten minutes or two hours a day, or an hour or two a week. Whatever works for you.
However you do it, fit yoga into your life and schedule and your body will thank you. Not literally. That’d be weird.
K, Give me something to try out NOW
Go try the first day of 30 Days of Yoga, found here:
So, what is your experience with Yoga?
Is this something you want to tryt?
If not, what’s holding you back?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Janine is a free-lance writer and full-time desk jockey who has been practicing yoga on and off for 8 years. She lives in Canada, which is probably why she prefers to spend her time in a 40 degree yoga room. When she’s not doing yoga, playing video and computer games or reading obsessively, Janine does tai chi and pilates, attempts to run on a treadmill, and chases her cat around the house, which is enough exercise in itself. Occasionally, she goes outside.