Contorting into the most extreme positions requiring the core strength of a Hercules and the suppleness of a snake. Flowing the fastest. Sweating the most. Leaving newbs in the dust. Aching for days after class. Sound like yoga to you? In expanding to the gym environment, yoga has become, sometimes, just another notch in one’s Belt of Fitness Badassery. Darlings, allow me to say, this is a very bad idea.
There is strength in simplicity. Standing in Mountain, the simplest active pose, can strengthen the legs and the core through internal actions scarcely visible to the eye. Pressing into the feet, “lifting” the kneecaps, spiraling the thighs, expanding the distance between ribs and hips. Add awareness of the breath, soft gaze, fingertips reaching downward. Anyone can stand there, right? Well, mindfully? Relaxed but attentive? Athletes and dancers do it all the time. In the general population, it used to be called Good Posture. For most people, that went the way of cursive handwriting with the advent of all our digital helpers. The same helpers have many of hunched forward with an overstretched upper back, tight chest, rolled-in shoulders and collapsed belly. In psychological terms, it is recognized across cultures as the posture of defeat. It used to be a posture seen mostly in the elderly, the infirm and unwell. We see it now in the young. The collapsed posture charges a high price in neck pain, low back issues, even depressed mood. Mountain reminds us to lift skyward. When we are fully present in Mountain pose, how much more ease we have in moving into a pose that asks for more of us, as does Tree, when one foot is lifted and we must explore our balance.
There is suppleness within many ranges of motion. A student may observe the position at which I can turn out my hip but have no idea of how it feels to me or how their internal experience of the pose differs from mine. We cannot see each others’ hip joints! There is a variety of joint shapes that determine a lot about one’s range of motion. Many people, especially those with sedentary jobs or even fitness activities that are repetitive, may not use their individual range of motion to its fullest. This is something to explore, gently and with compassion for one’s body, through yoga. Pushing past one’s limits can do internal damage over time. It is not Badass to force a limb where we believe it should go in order to be correct or to succeed or even to win against other students. It is foolhardy. The no-pain-no gain ethos of some sports cannot apply here.
Can yoga enhance or increase one’s overall fitness? Considering that it began in India over 5000 years ago as a way of training up young men to be warriors, it certainly can. And, there are many different schools of yogic teaching that offer a variety of paths. Some purposefully more regimented or sweaty than others! Students may explore to find the format that resonates most, that opens doors to strength, balance, flexibility and relaxation. Raised on a Western diet of grades and medals and trophies, my own ego certainly enjoys a little massage when I do a pose that previously seemed impossible. In studying the philosophy of yoga, especially the yamas and niyamas, I am learning to view those moments not as triumphs of will but as evolution arising from stilling of my ego and increasing mindfulness. Every day on the mat is different. When I need to feel like a badass, I can throw some iron around in the gym. Mindfully, of course!