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 replicable. 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!
Gary Weber highlights the misapplication of yoga as a fitness pursuit:
Yoga is not about flatter abs, tighter buns, a perfect Pincha Mayurasana or being really comfortable in full lotus for an hour. Yoga is about stilling the cacophony of thoughts and achieving unending, natural, uncaused happiness and peace. How many yoga classes really lead you to this state? How many yoga students realize that yoga can really end the psychological turmoil and chaos in their lives?
In many yoga classes, the meditative awareness which can be created is destroyed by doing postures in a broken fashion with little regard for a holistic sequence. There is much verbal instruction, stopping for alignment corrections and adjustments, get- ting and adjusting props, watching demonstrations, etc.
There is also often the com- petitive environment created with levels, variations for some but not for others, having the most flexible student demonstrate asanas, etc. In a culture saturated with competition, this quickly creates in the student’s mind yet another venue for com- parison, judgment and angst, precisely the opposite of “stilling the modifications of the mind”.
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. It’s a strawman argument for people to dismiss yoga as ineffective exercise. If you want bigger arms, do a bodybuilding program. If you want to improve your VO2 max, do hill sprints. Pick the right tool for the job.
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.
As far as specific physiological mechanisms go – this is where it gets really fascinating. There’s mounting evidence that the breathing patterns and postures are eliciting specific, replicable and cumulative physiological effects.
Piqued your interest? Listen to our podcast with Kit Laughlin for more.
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).