Why Yoga Rules
Despite a robust body of evidence citing its numerous health benefits and recent popular media exposure, yoga still resides somewhere between trendy exercise and mystical meditative mojo only achieved in far flung Instagram-worthy locations or expensive hardwood studios. While those truths still remain, yoga isn't limited to those simple stereotypes and just may be the most effective exercise around for both mind and body health.
Yoga (a sanskrit word loosely meaning to unite or in reference to a method of discipline) goes back thousands of years, originating through oral tradition in India. The sage Patanjali and his teachings are collected in the 195-statement Yoga Sutra, the philosophical underpinnings of facing the challenges of being a human being and foundation of modern yoga.
The basis of this philosophy varies in practice, but essentially yoga teaches us to find peace through awareness, which can be found with stillness and breath, both states difficult to achieve in our modern society. What most people associate with yoga are physical poses and challenging stretches ("hatha yoga"), but the true purpose of yoga's physical process is to prepare the body for mindfulness and proper breathing, both necessary for unifying the body and mind as one conduit through which we gain awareness of ourselves and the environment around us.
But what does this mean in reality? Just a bunch of downward dogs and planks? Partly. But it is the intent of practice that largely determines one's experience "on the mat" and ultimately guides us on the path toward any gains in mind and body. Today, yoga is as popular as ever but still remains somewhat mysterious to those not familiar with its benefits or in some cases, dismissed as an activity for women in expensive gear at even more expensive studios. The reality is yoga can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. For me, yoga changed my life.
Back to late 2011, I walked into a vinyasa yoga session at a local health club seeking more flexibility and some sort of "counter" activity to all the other types of exercise I had done in my life up to that point. Since that day I've never looked back and now consider yoga to be the single most valuable exercise of my lifetime. It's given me increased flexibility, core strength and an avenue for breathing and stillness I had only toyed with off and on prior to starting six years ago. I played basketball in high school and college and kept playing in various adult leagues well into my forties, compiling over thirty years of wear and tear on my body. I also began using weights in college, keeping it up as a staple strength building exercise along with mountain biking and hiking. I picked up using a heavy bag for boxing workouts a few years ago. I've also kept up an interior and exterior painting business for fifteen years, mostly during summers in between my school years teaching but inevitably my business spilled into some school breaks and spring and falls if necessary. All told, I haven't spent much time in my life being idle.
These activities are perfectly fine independently and have brought me great health benefits. But they are all pounding, taxing activities that require recovery periods and pacing over time. I've been lucky; I've never sustained a serious injury despite years of doing these things year in and year out. No breaks (other than a pinkie finger that remains crooked after a weird break during a warm up for a men's league basketball game) or surgeries or anything. I don't take ibuprofen or use any form of brace on my knees or feet or back. I pretty much prep for activity the same way I did years ago. But I still felt some limitations over the years and experienced some scary back pain months prior to my foray into yoga. I always scoffed at "back trouble" when I heard about it in others. It's not that I didn't believe its severity or effects; I just never thought I would have to deal with it. With some stretching and rest, my back pain went away within a few days and I was on my way. Or so I thought. It reared its head again months later. Same thing--rest and stretching and all was good. But I now knew I never wanted to experience something that limiting again. Not being able to stand for extended periods of time was incredibly limiting and putting on my shoes was an ordeal of comedic proportions. I could barely back my vehicle out of the driveway my muscles were so strained. It was absurd and alarming. Enter yoga.
Within minutes of my first yoga class I was shaking and sweating as much as I ever had lifting weights or playing basketball or anything else, trying to hold planks and getting myself into positions never before attempted. I was flanked by two women who were easily in their 70s but clearly fit and having no such struggles like mine. They moved with ease and grace. A grade school aged girl (nine years old at the most) blasted through the poses with alarming familiarity while an older man in back of me smiled and breathed with enthusiasm during downward facing dog (which, I was reminded repeatedly, was a "resting" pose--not for me). It was a humbling experience but I went back again. And again after that. I did everything the yoga instructor led us through even if I could barely manage it, trusting it still made a difference. Side planks, "warrior" poses galore, with frogs, dogs, bears and crows thrown in for good measure. But strangely I felt great. While I could more than hold my own in terms of strength and endurance, I was clearly the most novice of anyone in the class when it came to poses and breathing. But it got better over the next few weeks and months, to the point where I was no longer the beginner and actually could do some of the poses for sustained periods of time and breathed more effortlessly, with more control. I had no problem lining up in the front row of any class. Honestly, I didn't care and gave myself so thoroughly to the effort each time out I actually preferred it. I was done hiding in the back corner, grunting and gasping through needless holding of breath to gain strength in my routine. The key was just the opposite; breathe more to gain more, rest when needed and then continue. My first instructor repeated similar statements each week: "it's your practice", "be aware of your breath", "child's pose is always available", things I took in but thought very little of since I equated success in yoga to doing all the poses to maximum capacity and "outlasting" someone next to me at times. This was an absurd notion in retrospect but one borne of years of physical activities predicated on measurable results and not those viewed as continuous and in constant growth. I now look at those activities differently as a result of my years of yoga practice. I still hit the weights but breathe better while doing so. I play basketball each week but concentrate on movement and process, not the wins. At my job I allow myself time to breathe and be still, even if just for a few moments. Mountain pose is something I consider an elixir for anything which ails you, mental, physical or otherwise. Physically, yoga has made all the difference in my well being. I am stronger, lighter, more flexible and can sustain movement better overall. Strangely, it helped me paint houses better and hike more and maintain a better perspective in my everyday life.
Yoga has grown in popularity in the last few years, perhaps due to its increased accessibility and having its supposed veil of mystery lowered a bit due to the rise in mental health awareness and activities related to stress reduction and increased meditation. Yoga isn't the only way to improve your mental and physical health but it does a lot with relatively little, both in terms of time and effort. Twenty minutes of beginning poses and movement each day can have a tremendous effect on one's mood and physical well being. Yoga can help anyone feel better, regardless of age and gender or athletic experience. It can be done virtually anywhere. I recommend getting clothes you can forget about once you're in practice (no need for expensive brand name gear although there are plenty of quality choices available). Most critical is a good mat. Since I am well over six feet tall, most regular mats aren't long enough and preclude proper execution of poses and stretches. If you have to choose, go cheaper on the clothing and invest in a quality mat (I bought an extended length, 15 pound mat (Manduka brand) that comes with a lifetime guarantee, a purchase worth every penny spent. Other than that, yoga requires very little gear or expense.
Studios remain a point of contention given their sometimes hefty fees, but if you can find a relatively affordable situation where you can practice with others and have an instructor you enjoy and helps you grow, it's worth it in the long view. Yoga can be done individually (there are some excellent tutorials online and great apps associated with yoga) with very positive benefits, but the effects of practicing in a larger group or community brings with it another level of connectivity not possible alone. So if you can manage it financially and can make the time, it's a good move. We are built to move and breathe yet most of us either don't do it or don't even know how anymore. Try sitting still for one minute. It's hard. Try breathing normally for a minute. In and out. Deep breaths. It's harder than you think. This is only for a minute. Now do it for two minutes. Five. Ten. You get the idea. One minute of deep breathing will offer more of a release than most anything else you could do for yourself. And it's accessible anywhere. The best exercise for many of the modern ailments we encounter has been around for thousands of years.