I’d always resisted yoga. I didn’t like the idea of pretentious mid-life-crisis new-agey types doing a bit of stretching, thinking they were so special because of it. But yoga is pretty old, and you can’t knock it until you’ve tried it – so I recently booked a 1-month pass. Turns out I was wrong.
I went to regular sessions of ashtanga and vinyasa yoga over the month, which was a big stretch (pun alert) for me: I was usually the only male, and everyone there was all very adept, while I wasn’t quite as graceful. Both styles are physically demanding and involve static and dynamic postures. This is my humble experience with 1 month of the classes, I hope it inspires you to try yoga.
Anatomy of the yoga class
Stage 1: 0-15 minutes – The Whine
The thought process starts something like this, where your mind throws all of the nonsense and complaining at you:
- ‘everyone’s judging me, I’m the odd one out. I’m not even supposed to be here, being male and that. I bet they all just think I’m here to ogle the ladies’
- ‘OK try to ignore everybody and just focus on the ‘ujayi breathing’ (throat breath)
- ‘This is really tough, so much lactic acid… I wonder if this translocates GLUT4 enough to warrant a backload… STOP IT. Focus on the breathing’
-’I don’t bend this way’
- HEY why has the teacher stolen my water bottle? I need that…
Stage 2: 15-30 minutes – The Wall
As the practice becomes more difficult, thoughts start to hone in on your body, and how it’s feeling (or for me, how much pain I was in). Lactic acid builds up and you become acutely aware of how physically taxing yoga is. You want to leave, but you’ll look like a pussy if you do.
‘This is getting pretty tough, I just want to go home and do something easier like deadlift 500lbs.’
The feeling intensifies until you hate life.
Stage 3: 30 – 60+ minutes – The Void
The restrictions, pains and burnings start to become pure sensation as the suffering detaches from the feeling, and your breath naturally rises to the forefront of your awareness. You Suddenly you realise you absolutely do not give a fig about any of the worries from stage 1 anymore. In fact, all of your concerns become very distant.
The mind becomes profoundly quiet, the senses dim and it seems as though the only sound is your breathing.
You float out of the room by the end of the class. That wasn’t so bad after all.
In the spirit of self-experimentation, I wanted to ensure this was no placebo effect, and that the phenomenon was repeatable. I took scores out of 10 for 4 variables of mood before and after each session. The average increase was 4 points on each variable, which lasted between 24-36 hours, with some residual effect over the rest of the week.
The majority benefits lasted 24-36 hours on average, with some residual difference over the rest of the week.
Some slight improvements in flexibility, but not as much as if you had spent the same amount of time doing dedicated stretching. Being a gymnast, I was surprisingly clumsy.
No noticeable increase, but I’d have been very surprised to see one. Yoga would be unlikely to provide adequate strength stimulus given the nature of my training.
Unlike some disciplines that provide diminishing returns with the effort you put in, yoga seems to provide increasing returns the more you do it. To get the most out of it, you’d be best served to sustain regular practice for an extended period of time.
Yoga for fitness
If you’re doing yoga for the physical benefits, then you’re being very roundabout with how to achieve your goals. Instead, pick an attribute and focus on it:
Flexibility: Ming chew’s fascial stretches
Cardio: Do some cardio.
Strength/toning/fat loss/looking better: Do the Propane Protocol!
Yoga as meditation
Although yoga is physically demanding, that’s not really the point of it. On the surface, yoga is a physical discipline, but it really shines when it comes to its meditative benefits and how it makes you feel.
However, it is not quite like meditation, in which you achieve a sharpened state of consciousness through sustained mental focus. Rather, yoga happens to you. I can’t explain it, and would be very interested if anyone that knows its mechanisms could post in the comments. Just moving through the postures brings about a profound shift in consciousness, without any conscious effort on your part.
One theory I am told is that certain postures stimulate the pituitary gland, causing higher amounts of growth hormone to be released, or that yoga’s benefits come from increasing intervertebral disc space. I can’t verify these theories, and can’t speak for the mechanisms.
What I can say is that it the effects are significant, repeatable and the benefits are cumulative.
Give it an honest shot for a few weeks. (This is a great youtube session if you don’t want to go to a class).