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