“Is Yoga Really About Exercise?” Maybe.

Let’s talk about balance.  I really enjoy talking about balance in fitness circles, because there is often two tiers of balance discussion.  The first tier is obsessed with turning the FMS hurdle step into symmetrical 3’s, balancing on one foot on an airex pad for a few seconds, or relative acetabulofemoral movement during gait.  Let’s just put those all together:

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While those green behind the ears are focused on the sentence, the second tier of wisdom is looking at the whole book, if not the library.  The second tier has the wisdom to understand that focusing on fitness doesn’t mean that it runs your entire life.

Most importantly, that second tier realizes that perfect is the opposite of good, and that are more important things in the world than nailing your Smolov squat cycle.

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You don’t have to be a logician like John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt lyrics over here to create your own version of ‘best life’ or finding some balance, be it with under training, over training, or just simplifying how we look at exercise.

To complicate or aid in how we look at this, there are some folks in Washington, D.C., who are asking the question,

“Is yoga really about exercise?”

This article from the BBC looks at some yogis who insist that yoga isn’t about exercise, but about the full human experience.

“With yoga, exercise is “a by-product in the same way as it is with dance or Tai Chi”, says Richard Karpel, president of the Yoga Alliance, a US non-profit association. While the type of yoga practised in many gyms may have little to do with Buddhist or Hindu spirituality, he says, the primary purpose of specialist yoga studios “is to integrate the mind, the body and the spirit”. Getting fit is a happy side effect.”

This is a great conversation to have, but unfortunately it’s timed up with a 5.75% sales tax that just dropped in DC at gyms, fitness centers, and other premises “the purpose of which is physical exercise.”  So, while you’re sweating through asanas, meditate to the question, “Why am I doing this?”

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Many of those who I’ve encountered out in the world seem to use yoga as an exercise practice. They practice yoga because it’s purported benefits are flexibility, strength, or endurance.  Curiously, many of my friends who have integrated yoga into their regular exercise plan aren’t exactly using it this way.

You don’t need a degree in exercise science to realize that if the only physical activity that you’re doing is yoga, it’s going to make you stronger.  That being said, if you’re doing almost anything else that requires a modicum of muscular strength activity, yoga probably isn’t going to make you stronger.

It may still serve a mobility, physical activity, or spirituality benefit, but let’s be honest: 3 minutes of downward dog doesn’t develop your deadlift.  Challenging your chaturanga won’t change your chest the way a well executed push-up or bench press will.  That is, unless you want the anterior humeral glide and excessive anterior pelvic tilt seen in the first YouTube search result:

Here’s my preferred push-up technique:

Examining the different functions that these two moving planks serve is great, but consider who’s doing the talking:  Is it the person who’s defending their yoga practice as something that’s highly effective, or is it the person who simply wants to glean the best of all worlds.  If it’s the former, be cautious.  If it’s the latter, grab a cup of empowering chai tea and have at it.  (I couldn’t help myself.)

For many who are strength training and including conditioning workouts several times per week, yoga can be the perfect blend of gentle movement and recovery activity.  Ironically though it’s a secret recipe for over traning.  The person who squats 5×5 on Monday, and runs hill sprints & 3 miles on Tuesday, doesn’t need a 90 minute Power Vinyasa Flow Hot Tickling class to calm themselves down.  That’s not called recovery.  That’s called exercise.

As Ben Bruno points out in THIS article for T-Nation:

If you’re already training 5-6 days a week, then “recovery workout” is really an oxymoron. Just rest. I always chuckle when people ask what they should do on off days. Do nothing! As in nada, zilch. If that’s just too much for you to handle and you insist on doing something, here’s a tried-and-true recovery workout for you to try:

A1. Eat – 3 sets of AMPAP (as much protein as possible)
A2. Take a nap – 3 sets of AMMAP (as many minutes as possible)

Finding balance in these cases is about finding an activity that blends some of the desired spiritual benefits with some physiologically recovery that actually enhances the other things that you’re doing, not hinders it.  That’s where it all started, right:

It’s true that for many centuries yoga was primarily practised as a form of meditation and as a path to spiritual enlightenment. Hare Krishna monks, for example, are adherents of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. Theasanas or postures of hatha yoga only took off in popularity in the west during the 20th Century. For this reason, state authorities in New York – where the activity is hugely popular – ruled in 2012 that yoga was not“true exercise” and thus exempt from local sales taxes.

In the District of Columbia, the local tax authorities are clear – yoga is exercise. “It’s an existential question,” says David Umansky, spokesman for the city’s chief financial officer, “but the city council passing the law made it very clear that yoga is included.” Elsewhere, it might not be. At a stretch.

Areas under religious law may force change in traditional yoga practice, and more secular areas may de-mysticize the more traditional practices, but for almost all, yoga is a calming activity.  If it’s physically demanding, or regenerative, is largely up to what practice you partake in, and what else is on your physical activity plate.

Is yoga really about exercise?  That’s entirely up to you.  Is yoga really good exercise?  Eh, that’s closer to what else you’re doing, and some of the rules of exercise science.  What’s indisputable however, is that finding balance between what we should do, we prefer to do, and works best for living our best lives.

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