To achieve a healthy balance in an exercise program it is important to include three aspects: strength, flexibility and cardio fitness.
Strength without flexibility tends towards stiffness or rigidity. Flexibility without supporting strength tends towards weakness and a lack of vitality. Everyone needs a healthy heart and circulatory system.
It might surprise you that Yoga can give you all three of these essentials, but (there is always a but) the practice has to include:
- Weight bearing postures combined with bandhas
- Active stretching involving reciprocal inhibition
- Vinyasa or linking the postures together in order to elevate the heart rate
Yoga is generally known for its emphasise on flexibility and this is what the public generally associate it with. But there is a category of asanas known as Arm Balancings which involve lifting your body weight, e.g. Handstands, Elbow stands, dynamic push-ups called “The Crocodile”, and a host of others called “Bird Poses” and there are plenty of them. Have a look in the book ‘Light on Yoga’ at Bakasana, Parsva Bakasana, Urdhva Kukkutasana, Parsva Kukkutasana, Galavasana, Eka Pada Galavasana, Dwi Pada Koundinyasana, Eka Pada Koundinyasana ! & II, Eka Pada Bakasana I & II. These can be performed individually or if you want to turbo charge your practice, you link them with a technique called “Tick Tacks”.
Tick Tacks are where from a standing position you bend forwards and place your hands down on the mat and jump up into a handstand. You catch the handstand at the top, and then you drop back into the upward bow position and from this backbend you then jump back up into the handstand and back down to your feet. In other words, you are going from a standing forward bend via a handstand into a backbend and then reversing the process. As you can imagine this will get your heart rate going.
You don’t have to be at this high level of Yoga practice to include strength aspects. The Sun Salutations are an invitation to build upper body strength when they are performed correctly. The Standing Poses build lower body strength. Even a beginner’s program can build plenty of strength when properly designed.
Before leaving this strength talk, we need to discuss Bandhas. These are internal muscular activations e.g. lifting the pelvic floor muscles and when they are applied, they firm up the body and make the postures much lighter and safer to perform.
Whenever one set of muscles (the agonists) contracts, the opposing muscles (the antagonists) release. This is a built-in feature of the autonomic nervous system. To experience reciprocal inhibition firsthand, sit down in front of a table and gently press the edge of your hand, karate-chop style, onto the tabletop. If you touch the back of your upper arm, your triceps muscle, you notice that it is firmly engaged. If you touch the opposing muscles, the biceps, they are relaxed.
In the seated forward bend called Paschimottanasana (Western Stretch) the same mechanism is at play. Your hamstrings are released when you engage their opposing muscle group, the quadriceps. In Yoga whenever we want to stretch a muscle (antagonist) we always consciously contract its opposing muscle (agonist).
In passive stretching this mechanism is not activated and while you gain some flexibility with this relaxed approach, it leaves you loose like a noodle; floppy with no strength. Plus, you do not apply the mental focus required to activate reciprocal inhibition, which is part of the mental internalisation which calms the mind.
Another aspect that passive stretching misses out on is the pumping of the lymphatic system through the contraction and release of the muscles. The heart pumps the blood and the muscles pump the lymph. So, you can say that correct Yoga practice gets you “pumped” and you can definitely feel it.
Vinyasa is the connecting or linking of yoga postures in a smooth and fluid sequence in order to maintain focus, concentration and mindfulness as you move from one position to the next. This linking the poses and not resting in between generates heat and elevates the heart rate.
It is easy to adjust the amount of effort, depending on your fitness level by doing full, half, quarter or eighth variations of the Vinyasa.
With Vinyasa you can get your heart rate up sufficiently to make Yoga a viable fitness practice.
One of the major benefits of Yoga is that it is comprehensive in its effect. You get three aspects of health in the one practice. And the benefits don’t stop there. All of the techniques of Yoga are designed to turn the mind inwards; to pay attention to what is going on in the moment. When Yoga is practiced correctly it becomes a moving Meditation, so it is not three in one, but four in one and that is a bargain.