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Mind-Body Connection Optional?

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by J. Brown

I continually assert that yoga practice encompasses more than physical fitness. As much as I generally try to avoid admitting it, this does implicitly question whether the use of yoga poses for physical fitness alone can even be considered yoga practice. My interpretation of what constitutes a yoga practice aside for now, I am thinking of a specific example where a principle of exercise science is at odds with a holistic perspective.

In Yoga, the principle of Adaptation refers to the ability of a practice to meet the individual needs of the student, not just in physical terms but in every sense of the person. Adaptation in yoga is not only considered a good thing but the hallmark of a skilled teacher.

In the physical fitness realm, the principle of Adaptation refers to the concept of when an exercise is repeated often without variation, the body assimilates and the benefits are diminished. Adaptation in physical fitness is considered an impediment to continued growth and is the basis for another principle, Overload, which states that a greater than normal stress or load on the body is required.

My intent here is not to parse semantics. It’s just that there seems to be a lot of yoga classes that embrace the physical fitness sensibility. The enticing arsenal of classical yoga asana has made for a perfect marriage. Many yoga teachers are less concerned with any interpersonal realities that exist in their classes and instead see their role as someone to forever challenge students to do more with interesting sequences and playlists.

After a recent class of mine, a vinyasa teacher asked: “If we don’t take ourselves to the edge and beyond, how will we ever grow?”

I think of growth in yoga like I think of growth in plants. Watering a plant more does not necessarily make it grow faster or better. In fact, over watering plants will kill them. In order to grow, plants need the right amount of water on the right days and it happens over time like the way wind and water shapes mountains. Granted, some plants require more water than others.

I embrace a measured engagement in my practice. I’m not interested in pushing mine or anyone else’s physical limits. I discovered that it’s possible to be very strong and flexible, have amazing asana alignment, accomplish all kinds of miraculous feats with your body and still have lots of pain and feel miserable in life. It makes no sense to me that the body needs to be pushed, stressed or imposed upon in order to serve a persons growth. In my experience, forever taking the body to its “edge” leads to chronic pain down the road.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. If you enjoy physical challenge and want to provide that to yourself by forever changing up and increasing the intensity of your work out, rock on I say. I’m merely suggesting that yoga practice is not cross-circuit training. These two things can be complimentary but are not the same. Although, going to most yoga classes today, folks would have no way of knowing.

In layman’s terms, the aspect of yoga that makes it different than just working out is often referred to as the “mind-body connection.” This is a rote acknowledgment that the health of a person cannot be objectively measured in physical prowess. Recent studies in exercise science state that: “Low intensity exercise improves health, but may not be very beneficial for improving physical fitness.”

When it comes to physical fitness alone, the “mind-body connection” is optional. If you’re training for a marathon or particular sport activity, you need to tough it out and do that boot camp stuff if you want your body to be conditioned properly for the task. How you’re feeling, whats going on in your life or whether or not you’re enjoying the workout are largely irrelevant.

I maintain that yoga practice is not concerned with developing physical fitness beyond what is necessary for a healthy functioning body. If we use the forms beyond that, for physical fitness purposes alone, then I think it ceases to be yoga practice and becomes something else. Lose the mind-body connection and you lose the yoga.

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J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.Β  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Β Visit his website atΒ yogijbrown.com.

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14 comments… add one
  • Sondra

    J Brown,
    You are a high performance editorial machine, you hit all cylinders with this article. I wish I could post this at one of the health clubs where I teach, just to see what the dialogue would be with (member) yoga students and other members…beep beep!
    So grateful –peace!

    • Forget posting my piece, get it into your classes. Not always so easy at the gym, I know but certainly worth the try. Thanks for the supportive sentiments.

  • i’m with you on most of this, gotta have the mind-body connection

    i have intermittant articles on just one aspect, chest openers, that’ve been trying to encompass the depth of range of just that one type movement: physical rom recognition, visualization, prop use – and don’t much expect i’ve done much more than scratch around πŸ˜‰

    i do also feel though, true fitness endeavors, in dance or jogging, etc, don’t benefit the same without the mind-body connection, which might mean that a fitness only endeavor won’t benefit to the degree a more gestalt routine would

    wedmd this week tweeted a link http://bit.ly/mkKI0A to a nice slide show type post showing effective vs ineffective exercises, and near the end of the series, not reading while cycling or on the treadmill, was one of the suggestions

    my own experience, roofing in houston heat for nearly a decade as a teen and young guy, and from “trying” to excel at track in jr hi, was that i wasn’t able to ignore my body’s pains and attempts to cope with being pushed –

    doing roofing for a whole day every day no matter how hot, demanded i find a way to swivel right to left with shingle and nails and hatchet in hands, motion after motion, breathe in a way i could keep it up, get a decent amt of work in, then repeat again the next day –

    jogging in my 20’s was similar, finding the motions and breaths to enable me to do what i wanted, jog longer distances, and, enjoy it

    so i don’t think you’re incorrect, i just think your definiton of what yoga is, is very much what dance and jogging and sports are also about – take away the mind-body feedback, and it’s no longer dance or sport or jogging cross country one with nature

    chopping any of these usually fun activities away from my own mindfulness of what i’m doing, would mean i not only wasn’t really doing the activity, but gaining a diminished personal and fitness enhancement, which is of course what you’re saying happens to yoga reduced to merely asanas (though iyengar does saying beginning this way is more than valid)

    re the body’s ability to adapt to a level of exertion, i really think that that type adaptation is a different definiton from the adaptation in yoga to oneself, or to an individual by a teacher

    though not exact, i think the differentiating idea, for me, about the two types of adaptation, is like white in the color wheels for light and physical matter – in one all the colors make white, while in the other no color means white – ie, the word light, or adaptation, differs in meaning and experience, depending how it is applied

    lastly – i know, i’ve run on longer than i have in a long time huh πŸ˜‰ – as we get old(er), there’s a tipping point, where, in my experience, less intense exertion is required to maintain, or re-fitness-fit, a body that’s requiring less energy to maintain health – sure, my 60 year old body isn’t as strong as my 20 year old memory of how i was πŸ˜‰ but the strength level appropriate for me, and that i am able to achieve and maintain, is lower than then, thus requiring less intensity, even if only slightly so –

    anyway, the subject you featured, mind-body vs body-only (and probably also true for mind-only!) is extremely important –

    and continuous exertion to the point of pain, simply to increase one’s physical numbers, without an accompanying complimentary mindset, seems, well, unnecessary, and counter-productive

    and the reason my blog is yoga-adan, and not dance-adan, or jogging-adan, is because, like you, i sense a more easily complete connection to my wholeness via yoga – not impossible, and actually desirable via other activities, but sure a lot more conducive πŸ˜‰

    i hope i’ve only added to what you’ve said; thanks so much j brown

    • You make great points here Adan. I think we are in agreement that its possible to bring yoga to any activity, even physical fitness. I do think there is a difference between having yoga in your physical fitness and a hatha yoga practice.

      The example that comes to mind is when I was at a workshop with my friend and teacher Mark Whitwell and he was being asked about the yoga of playing electric guitar and surfing. The question had to do with a boyfriend who was a surfer and was experiencing yoga in his pursuit and Jimi Hendrix.

      The question was do you have to do yogic breathing and moving exercises in order to experience yoga? Can’t playing guitar or surfing provide the same experience of mind and spirit? The answer is yes. It is possible to experience yoga in anything; however, there are lots of very spiritual guitar players and surfers who still act like jerks and are not altogether healthy.

      The implications of a real hatha yoga practice encompass the health of a person. This can certainly be applied to everything else. You seem to have learned how to do this quite well.

      The point is…….if we don’t learn yoga first, how will we be able to apply it to our other activities. As far as I know, no one has ever learned yoga from cross-training.

      Also, you are right that the word Adaption can have different meanings and applications. I was just hoping to illuminate some conventional thinking in the yoga world that I think is more about physical fitness than yoga.

      As you say, “continuous exertion to the point of pain, simply to increase one’s physical numbers, without an accompanying complimentary mindset, seems, well, unnecessary, and counter-productive.”

      • j. one of the things that came to mind as i jazzercised with my wife here in burlington this morning, was how much participating in some of these comment threads has helped me either clarify or recognize (or both) my own thoughts and feelings about yoga, fitness, and the arts – for me, they are only separated by convenience of notation (nothing to be ignored, and, i believe, extremely useful in living in our everyday world)

        so we kinda see where our communication of our ideas’ edges match enough for us to agree on the issue of the value of mind-body connectedness

        i actually was gonna leave it at that, but, as mentioned, during some jazz dance routines (modified for aerobic fitness of course) during class this morning, the question about yoga & cross-training, kept coming up in my thoughts :

        “if we don’t learn yoga first, how will we be able to apply it to our other activities. As far as I know, no one has ever learned yoga from cross-training.”

        i realized that, for me, yoga, as a mind-body-activity-necessity, is not dependent on any one system, whether it be a 5000 year old ancient durable art, such as texts on yoga, or the latest jazz beat mind-body pulses done to jennifer lopez’s latest hit –

        …realized that, that type yoga, existing as a description of a valued human condition, existed in me, and many other people apparently, separate and in unknowing benefit, since first aware of being an individual as a child –

        my jogging poem on my blog, “cross country,” my scattered remembrances of growing up doing construction in houston, my years of dance aerobics, my decades of art and poetry production, all have given me experiences descriptive of yoga when referenced to a fullness of connection with all the parts of oneself –

        i didn’t have to “do” yoga to be that, or learn that, or enhance that –

        in that sense, yes, one doesn’t learn yoga by cross-training, one would learn yoga either before, after, or during cross-training, because yoga, universal yoga, is not dependent on even the very wise ancients that’ve preserved an articulate roadmap to wholeness, more articulate than what i’ve “generally” read or been taught in track, art, literature, dance, fitness, etc

        but – anyone who’s studied or practiced art or dance or literature or fitness “deeply” ie personally, has encountered experiences and/or other people who’ve expressed much similar experiences to what yoga offers, in their own iconic languages, without being trained in yoga

        so why, i ask myself again πŸ˜‰ did i choose yoga-adan as my handle, and not dance-adan, or art-adan, or just “adan” ?

        because, though i recognize that most the things yoga claims as “yogic” – if stripped from masters and texts, and described as simple human experience (as i’ve seen iyengar express on dvd), i already experienced, and became more aware of, while painting, dancing, writing, singing (before my voice changed πŸ˜‰ ) – these, the more generally-thought-of day to day yoga activities of :

        mindfulness, breath, meditation

        these three elements alone, i experience on a daily routine basis from as far back as i can remember, while roofing, running, writing, painting, loving – but,

        yoga speaks directly to these elements…

        thus yoga has clarified and enhanced my understanding of what i was experiencing –

        and i’ve always contended, in my writings and posts, that i believe yoga’s true enduring quality, in particular for me, is awareness…

        thanks so much for your thoughtful article, and especially for spurring even further clarification in my own thoughts and feelings – that was very yoga of you πŸ˜‰

  • JeffreyD

    And why should J. Brown be the one who gets to define the word? I say that yoga is a strength/gymnastic exercise that arose in India in the last hundred years. If you’re not getting stronger, it’s not really yoga.

    • For the record, I did not claim to define yoga for anyone else. I stated clearly that I was offering “my interpretation as to what constitutes a yoga practice.” You are most certainly entitled to yours.

  • abbylou

    Thanks again for the well-reasoned post, J. Brown. I have been having a very hard time going to classes for the past 6 months or so. I really need to slow down, not speed up! So many classes move really fast–no time to become more aware. Even though my teacher really tries to emphasize the inside and non-physical, it is clear that most of the students are in class to exercise.

    I am attending a weekend-long viniyoga workshop this weekend. I hope to learn how to better adapt my practice to my needs. The timing of your post could not be better!

    • Viniyoga is totally in line with my sensibility and the sentiments of this post. Gary Kraftsow is an inspired teacher. Have a great workshop.

  • Erin

    Thanks for this article!

    In my never-ending development as a student and a teacher, I have made my way from one end of this continuum (yoga as physical exercise) to the other (yoga as a way of living), and it hasn’t been a linear journey. I had a chuckle of self-recognition when I read your reference to teachers who “see their role as someone to forever challenge students to do more with interesting sequences and playlists”, because I’ve totally been that teacher! I pressured myself to deliver a particular type of product that wasn’t authentic to me, and I wasn’t doing myself or my students any favours.

    I recently had the privilege of attending restorative yoga teacher training with the amazing Judith Hanson Lasater. At one point we were discussing more physically demanding styles of asana practice, and she talked about her experience practicing “advanced” poses (arm balances, inversions, and the like). She asked, “Do you know what happens when you finally get into an advanced pose? NOTHING!” I am still laughing about that one. A great reminder to not let my ego dictate my practice or my teaching.

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