I was recently leading a meditation and mantra workshop, and after sitting for an hour straight I suggested that we take a break and do a quick stretch. Unguided everyone stood up and did some basic stretches and asanas (poses) to relieve the stiffness that had set in. I said, ‘Thank God for asana, the gateway for most of us into the yoga practices.’ Heads nodded in agreement and verbal confirmations arrived from everyone.
The asana practice is important to maintain a strong and supple body, but alone is it enough to keep us physically fit and healthy?
We all know that yoga goes much deeper than the body. Yet, the physical and therapeutic benefits, were what attracted many of us to the practice in the 1st place. Plus, the balanced feeling state of the body and mind that’s generated through yoga practice play an important role that keep us coming back to our mat.
For the last decade I have used yoga almost exclusively as my physical exercise. I also enjoy long, outdoor walks, mostly for the therapeutic qualities of nature. Living in coastal Virginia I don’t hike or snowboard as much as I was living in Colorado. Nor am I biking as frequently, but I still bike periodically. My asana practice has been the one thing that is non-negotiable, and I hadn’t visited a doctor in more than a decade. The yoga practices have brought me santosha, contentment, in many area of my life including feeling happy with where my body is, my level of stamina, flexibility, and strength. However, I did notice, about a year ago, that although in pretty good shape there were a few areas that my yoga practice was neglecting. I decided, with the influence of my better half, to get a gym membership to supplement my yoga habit.
I turned 35 earlier this year. This hasn’t fully sunk in, what this means, although increasingly being called a grown man has been more than a bit startling – I suppose I should get used to it if I am going to run for president. Meaghan (who would certainly want everyone to know that she is not yet 35) and I were discussing that staying in shape seems to be requiring a bit more work than it used to. I grappled with the decision to get a gym membership for a couple months since I much prefer the vibe of a yoga studio! It’s turned out to be a good thing though, as well as a yoga-related endeavor of svadhyaya, self-study. On one of our 1st visits to the gym, Meaghan asked me what I thought, and I said, “I think all of these people should be doing yoga.” Although I wholeheartedly believed my statement, thankfully she laughed at me, helping me realize that I have become a tad self-righteous about yoga as ‘the way.’
The main pitfall of solely doing yoga and no other fitness routine is slipping into a yoga practice that speaks only to the physical layer. We have bodies, called koshas, that are sheaths for our consciousness. They are ways that our consciousness manifests. The koshas encapsulate our core being, or eternal nature. Similar to an onion once you peel back a layer you move closer to that essential core. Our consciousness manifests as body awareness, then as energy awareness, then as mind awareness, then as wisdom or pure intelligence, and than as bliss or feelings of ecstasy when awareness itself has evaporated.
Yoga teachers say that even the most physically-driven yoga practice can impact all layers. This is a good thing since much of the yoga practiced in the West is targeted at the physical layer. The downside of focusing solely on the physical aspect is that our progress on the path of yoga is slowed considerably, or another way of looking at it is that our journey’s road will be much longer. By simply including pranayama, to purify our energy body, meditation to bring our mental body into balance, and the study of scripture and Self to harmonize the wisdom body, we are accessing a more direct route to the bliss body and ultimately pure consciousness. However, for many pure consciousness is not the aim, and in that case I wouldn’t recommend yoga as the sole endeavor for staying fit. If one’s interest are in fitness alone, then a well-balanced exercise routine that includes yoga will be most valuable. For aspirants who seek liberation from the bondage of suffering, which often manifests as disease in the physical body, then yoga is recommended. Whether you choose to include other physical activities for keeping fit is a personal choice that depends on if you see value in the other activities.
In a time where more and more people are coming to yoga for health and fitness it feels relevant, and a bit liberating to write about using yoga as your fitness routine. I utilized the physical practices of yoga, asanas as well as pranayama to stay healthy and fit for more than a decade. Add in the layers of mental and emotional peace that meditation and the other limbs provide and yoga can serve for a complete wellness experience for any level of practitioner. For the last 6 months, I have observed that with a little more commitment and some new activities to my routine that I have toned several targeted areas considerably, such as the internal and external obliques. On the flip side, thanks to a healthy does of Romanian deadlifts my hamstrings are probably a bit stronger, but are certainly tighter when I move into forward bends. It will be interesting to observe further changes to my level of fitness, as well as, how gym-related results may impact my yoga practice.
It’s important to stay balanced. Certain activities are adding tension to your body, while others are releasing it. How much tension do you need? It depends on the individual. If you are really active and tension and stress exist in large quantities, then focus more on yoga practices that will assist in releasing tension. If you’ve been inactive for long periods, then focusing on building strength will be healthy, which can be accomplished through yoga. The yoga practices can be beneficial either way, and knowing what your fitness goals are will determine the appropriate style of yoga practice and whether or not you would like further activities in addition to yoga.
Here’s a yoga journal article with some scientific background on this question of is yoga enough to keep us fit?
Let me know if you’ve found a perfect mix of yoga and other activities, or whether you think yoga works just right for you on it’s own. I look forward to reading your feedback and comments.