Posts Tagged ‘health’

Why Yoga Isn’t Enough: The Strengths & Limitations of Yoga as a Source of Fitness

March 17, 2010

Let me start by saying I absolutely love yoga.  With over 15 years’ experience as a practitioner, teacher, and devotee, I can personally attest to the numerous health, fitness, and spiritual benefits of a regular practice.  With its impact on flexibility, core strength, balance, posture, and comfort in the body, yoga is arguably the best single activity for over-all wellness.  In fact, it provides so many benefits that, as a personal trainer, I’m frequently asked: “Can the right yoga routine give me full fitness?”  You may be surprised to learn my brief answer is: “Very much no!”  In the following article I’d like to explain why, in my experience, even a well-crafted yoga routine falls short as a sole form of exercise and what avid practitioners can add to their yoga routines in order to experience exceptional all-around vitality & performance.

The first step to understanding the limitations of yoga is to look at the natural design and function of our bodies. We are clearly built for a variety of activities and know that regular engagement in them is essential for both ability and over-all health. Yoga of course addresses many of these, including range of motion, basic strength & stability in the limbs and core, etc. But clearly there are forms of motion it is hard to replicate through yoga, the most obvious being cardiovascular fitness. Of course, there are more vigorous forms of yoga that clearly offer a degree of aerobic conditioning, but comparison with other forms of training makes it clear even dynamic yoga is not the most efficient way to build aerobic fitness. If you’ve done 100 sun salutations at high speed you know it doesn’t raise the heart rate to the same level as, say, running up a hill, and you have also probably witnessed it doesn’t generate the same cardiovascular capacity. Of course this isn’t to suggest there are no benefits to such a yoga practice, merely to note it isn’t the most efficient or effective approach. Simply put, a person who relies solely on yoga for cardiovascular training will never have the same aerobic capacity as a person who trains more conventionally.

While this might be the most obvious limitation of yoga, in my experience it is far less significant than the greatest shortcoming which is its limited impact on the primary driving muscles of body or what sports physiologists refer to as the “posterior chain.” Trainers have long realized that the largest muscles of the body — and therefore those that contribute the most both to function and to over-all health — are the hamstrings, glutes, and muscles of the lower- and upper-back. These not only propel us forward but also allow us to lift, carry, and climb, and thus could be called the most “functional” muscles of the body. And because they constitute the majority of our muscle-mass, their over-all function has the greatest impact on systemic health including metabolism, insulin uptake, HGH levels, and immune function.

Of course, in nature, these muscles were used constantly — for walking, running, sprinting, jumping, climbing, lifting, and carrying. And because these are the biggest, strongest muscles of the body, they are designed for and require considerable challenge for optimal function. While a balanced yoga practice clearly works these muscles to a degree, even brief consideration should make it clear it is difficult to simulate the demands of intense motion and heavy load-carrying using mere body weight and static exertion alone. For the yoga practitioners reading this, considering your own practice should make this apparent — you can feel there is a big difference between even a long hold in, say, Warrior II or Bridge pose and lifting a heavy weight or climbing a steep hill. This difference is why virtually every “physical culture” system developed by man has involved at least some degree of load-bearing and why yoga alone cannot generate the same systemic impact. Again, please note that I am not denying some impact, but rather pointing out that it is difficult to achieve the degree of demand for which our bodies were designed and in turn if we were to rely solely on yoga we would be missing out on many of the benefits derived from more “complete activity.”

In addition to the lack of systemic impact, there is also the fact that with bodyweight activity it is generally easier to challenge the anterior chain (the front of the body) than the posterior. Again, a true yoga routine strives for balance, but obviously it is much easier to target the front with poses like plank and downward dog than it is to work the back. As a result, long-term yoga practice as a sole fitness activity tends to lead to muscular and functional imbalances. In fact, many of my clients have been established students and even teachers who had become imbalanced through exclusive focus on yoga. Of course, this is in no way to criticize yoga itself: again, I feel yoga is arguably one of the most complete health & fitness approaches out there and I strongly recommend a regular practice to each and every one of my clients. The key in this regard is to simply make sure we are engaging in additional activity to assure the strength of the back of our bodies is matching that of the front.

The third major limitation of yoga has to do with the nature of motion engaged in and its relation to muscle fiber types. Research tells us every single muscle of the body are made up of two types of muscle fiber: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Most of us are probably aware that some people have more slow-twitch than others, but what we commonly don’t realize is that fast-twitch fiber still makes up at least 55% of our muscle mass and for some of us as much as 65%. Why is this so important? Well, fast-twitch fibers are only activated in two situations: during maximal lifts or explosive motion. That means that if you are exercising slowly or with moderate weights, even if you are exercising every single muscle of your body, you are only really activating about 35-45% of your muscle-mass.

The connection with yoga should be obvious: even the most vigorous forms never come close maximal speed — again, a fact that is easily witnessed. Even if you’re a regular practitioner of demanding poses, you can feel that there is a significant difference between, say, a long hold in plank pose and a set of explosive (“clapping”) push-ups. Likewise, while it is certainly true that the more advanced poses of yoga involve shifting our weight in such a way as to increase demands on certain muscle groups so that we’re approaching their maximal capacity, most people lack the flexibility to achieve them, and those of us who can seldom hold them as long as necessary to fully challenge the muscles. And that means we are only using a fraction of our muscle fibers and in turn receiving only a fraction of the benefits. Again if you are a seasoned practitioner you can easily witness this: clearly, there is a substantial difference between, say, a long hold in wheel pose and helping a friend move a refrigerator up a flight of stairs.

Does this mean a long hold of wheel pose has no benefits or that there is no merit to a slower, more meditative form of motion as found in many yoga traditions? Not in the least. The point is, once we see these basic limitations, it becomes possible to compliment our practice with the missing activities that will restore muscular balance and stimulate the full, natural capacities of our bodies. By supporting the numerous benefits of our yoga with the other activities for which our bodies were designed — cardiovascular activity, including high-speed training; posterior-chain activity such as climbing and lifting; and explosive- or near-maximal training such as sprinting and the lifting of heavy weights — we can experience even better health, greater capacity, and even more joy in our yoga practice itself….

About the Author: Michael Lloyd-Billington is a certified Integral Yoga Teacher (Levels I, II, and III), personal trainer & yoga counselor with over 25 years’ experience in the fields of health & fitness.  He currently offers private guidance integrating yoga, strength training, conditioning & optimal nutrition.  To learn more about classes or private sessions, please call (970) 412-4526 or visit his website at http://alternativepersonaltraining.bravehost.com/index.html

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Spiritual Nutrition: How Food Choices Can Fuel Inner Growth

June 3, 2009

For many of us, the term “spiritual nutrition” seems like a strange pairing, if not a contradiction. We tend to think of nutrition in terms of the body, which in turn we see as distinct from spirit. But we also know traditions around the world speak of the link between food choices and our connection with the divine. In this article, we’ll look at how diet can impact our spiritual growth and some simple, practical steps for bringing this into our daily lives.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between diet and spirit is how food impacts our mood and mindset. We all know certain choices can leave us tired or lethargic while others make us “spacey” or restless — all things that can conflict with our spiritual goals. We know compassion can be harder when our stomachs ache from over-eating or when we’re restless from too much coffee. The Yogic tradition, which offers considerable insight into the connection between spirit and diet, observes how certain spices and forms of preparation can impact our clarity, mood, and vitality. Spicy foods, for example, tend make us more agitated, while leftover or overcooked dishes tend to be draining. Simply being aware of this can be a big step toward achieving a mental state that allows us to put our spiritual values into practice.

A related issue, of course, is over-all fitness and energy. We all know certain foods serve better than others when it comes to providing energy and health. And we also know our spiritual values ultimately require us to have the energy to act. When we decide to eat things that aren’t ideal, we know on a certain level we are choosing to limit the energy we have to live our beliefs. Of course food is also a source of pleasure, and virtually all spiritual traditions would say it’s something we’re meant to enjoy. But this complex balance between “food as fuel” and “food as fun” gives us an opportunity to examine our self-awareness. Each time we eat, we have a chance to look at how much we wish to focus on our own pleasure and how much we want to think about serving those around us. By being more mindful, we can move toward a balance that runs closer to our beliefs, choosing foods that provide the right blend of pleasure and energy for service of others.

This brings us to another spiritual aspect of diet, namely the highly social nature of eating. From the pleasure of sharing with others to the act of sustaining and being sustained, food nurtures our social connections as surely as it does our bodies. On this level, every meal can be an opportunity to think of the joy of others and to deepen and expand our social bonds. Even when eating alone, we can take a moment to reflect on our connection with the many people who labored to bring that food to our tables. Even those who support our labor are present through the financial support they provided. By thinking of this, each meal can be a chance to nourish not only our bodies but also our sense of interconnection, of belonging, and of being supported. And these feelings, in turn, naturally lead us to want to sustain and support others….

Taking this interconnection to the next level, food also represents a direct connection to the world as a whole. Even in its most processed form, our food still holds a deep connection with nature, and, for many, with God or the Divine. Again, simply reflecting on this can turn each meal into a form of communion — clearly a large part of why Jesus chose bread and wine to represent him and his teachings. Whatever our faith, each meal can be a sacrament, a chance to witness our connection with something “bigger” — to celebrate it, to gain strength from it, and to reinforce our desire to honor it through our choices. Obviously, this is why every culture has a concept of saying “grace,” seeing each meal as an opportunity to appreciate our community, our connection with nature, and whatever we might sense beyond that….

Ultimately, the more we see food as a blessing and connection, the more we will want to honor it — to make the best choices we can in what we eat and how we think of it. For example, part of the Yogic view of spices comes from the fact they tend to mask the natural tastes of foods and stimulate the appetite, causing us to eat more than we need. Choosing to lessen our dependency on them not only makes it easier to find a healthy balance of “pleasure” and “fuel” but also allows us to enjoy foods as they are. And the more pleasure we derive from foods in their natural state, the more we feel directly cared for — again, by nature or the Divine.

So the next time you sit down for a meal, take a moment to reflect. And remember that the choices you make — both in what you eat and also in how you think about it — can be another significant step toward embodying the principles by which you wish to live….

About the Author: Michael Lloyd-Billington is a certified Integral Yoga Teacher (Levels I, II, and III), personal trainer & yoga counselor with over 25 years’ experience in the fields of health & fitness.   He currently offers private guidance integrating yoga, strength training, conditioning & optimal nutrition.   To learn more about classes or private sessions, please call (970) 412-4526 or visit his website at http://alternativepersonaltraining.bravehost.com/index.html

Spirituality & Fitness

May 26, 2009