Yoga and Exercise
If you frequent your local recreation center, you’ve probably noticed “yoga instruction” popping up on the exercise class schedule, perhaps tucked between “aerobics” and “Pilates.” You may have seen flyers or advertisements around town for yoga classes ranging from Hatha to Bikram’s. Perhaps you’ve even tried some yoga asanas at home.
Whatever your exposure to yoga or yoga therapy, you may well have wondered how it measures up against traditional forms of exercise. Is yoga just another fitness fad? Or is there more to it?
In traditional exercise routines, the primary objective is to target specific muscles and work those muscles to the point of what trainers call “failure.” Even in running, aerobics, and sports training, the main objective is to challenge muscles and the cardiovascular system to the point where they will be spurred to rebuild themselves with greater strength and power potential.
In this way exercise plays an important role in keeping the body strong and vital. Anyone who has a regular exercise routine knows just how true the old adage “Use it or lose it” is.
So is yoga just another form of exercise? Most people with a long-term yoga practice will tell you that yoga is more than exercise for them. First of all, yoga tends to work the body in a more complete and holistic way than many approaches to exercise, thus balancing and conditioning the body as a whole.
Many types of conventional exercise focus on strengthening specific muscle groups. A regular yoga asanas practice, however, will provide holistic physical conditioning. It will strengthen all muscles and, at the same time, stretch and increase flexibility throughout all muscle groups. The result of this holistic approach is that instead of overdeveloping certain muscle groups, yoga and yoga therapy create greater balance in the body by strengthening weak muscles, stretching tight muscles, and improving joint health and the body’s range of motion.
More than that, yoga provides what is known as functional fitness. It doesn’t just train the muscles by simply repeating the same movement again and again. Yoga asanas also engage the mind through challenging skill-building, causing the muscles to work in a more coordinated and intelligent manner and increasing the connection between mind and body.
In addition, traditional exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response of the body. This can tax the endocrine system and produce toxins, such as free radicals and lactic acid. In contrast, the long stretches and slow breathing emphasized in yoga and yoga for therapy stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts the body in a “rest and digest” mode. This allows the body to rejuvenate itself, providing the body’s nervous system with much needed relaxation.
As the body relaxes, so does the mind. One of the reasons that yoga has become so popular is because it doesn’t just strengthen the body; it cultivates a relaxed state of mind. With a settled, clear frame of mind, many practitioners find that detrimental habits, such as overeating, no longer pose a problem. This is one of the reasons yoga therapy can help relieve many psycho-physiological ailments, such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression.
Not surprisingly, doctors increasingly recommend yoga physical therapy to their patients as an effective, scientifically measured means of coping with a multitude of health issues-not just emotional disorders, but as an aid, for example, in managing the side effects of cancer treatment or managing the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
So the next time you visit your local rec center or see one of those flyers on a local bulletin board, consider signing up for that yoga class. You will be amazed by the profound health benefits and the strength, balance, and sense of well-being that come from this gentle practice.