Friday, July 12, 2013

Yoga and Fitness: Some Early Observations

I've always had an interest in fitness and health but I've never found a workout routine that I could commit to and stay with. I think boredom was the most common eventual excuse for no other reason than if you stick to a regular routine, your body will get used to it. And soon you have to up the intensity to keep developing or keep to the same routine just to maintain. And then you get bored. And then you quit.

The current answer to this is Crossfit and it solves the boredom issue by varying the routine daily.  This also means your body will not get used to one routine and you will advance, sometimes at phenomenal pace. It's challenging but I think it's unnecessarily hard on the body. Joints and muscles are pushed to breaking points and cardio sometimes goes to the point of puking. Better trainers will hold the initiates back from these points but how easy is it to find the better trainers?

Watching recipients of a Crossfit or a Crossfit-ish workout limp and stagger around for days after does not sell me on the craze. I get flashbacks to Basic Training where drill sergeants would find creative ways of pushing your young body to new levels of pain once you got used to pushups.  It was Crossfit: Army Style and this was back in the late Eighties. Yes, it got me in the best shape of my life but I wouldn't pay someone to do that to me now.

I'm in my mid-forties and after the Army and various jobs that involved manual labor and my own workout routines that usually involved weights, my body has taken some damage. I have a herniated disk in my lower back and the knees grind on cold days or right before a good rain storm. I think I've done all the damage I'm going to do voluntarily so Crossfit and its ilk or out.

I do enjoy running, especially in the country but think I mentioned the grinding knees. I could do bicycles which is easier on the knees and a good mid-range cardio workout but I don't really enjoy bicycles. Crazy-ass drivers always aim for bicycles anyway and I hate being outgunned on the road. Plus, biking does do the cardio and a leg workout but then I have to think about the upper body. I think bicycles are a great option for some people but they're just not for me.

I do enjoy weights but think that a lot of the Crossfit craze grew out of the fact that weights and weight machines get boring pretty quick unless you really push it but then you risk injury and it sucks being that sore all the time. I may pick up weights again though, just because.

So now we come to yoga.

To be honest, I was looking at yoga to get my stress levels down and as a preparation for meditation.  That's one of the sources of yoga, by the way. The poses stretch and train the body for extended periods of meditation. I was not expecting the physical challenge that I have discovered. The need for strength and endurance are inherent in the system. Now add balance to the equation. And even coordination. And breathing.

So you have strength training, endurance, balance and coordination integrated with breathing techniques. And I'm probably leaving something out.

Sounds like a workout to me.

I've even noticed a cardio element I didn't expect.  During a really vigorous workout, as in moving from pose to pose fairly quickly, the heart rate eases up and stays up for the duration until you start to cool down. I was worried about adding a cardio workout to my schedule but I'm not sure I need it. But I want to investigate this a bit more before I scratch a moderate cardio routine off the list.

Now here is the real magic of yoga as a fitness system: It's self-limiting. Which is what makes it available to any fitness level. You move to your limit and, if you're comfortable, you move a little more. Teacher talks about finding the edge and playing with it, listening to your body and avoiding injury. The movement is just reminding the body of what it is capable off and the body responds. You are stretched and maybe a little sore after a good workout.  But I have yet to be in pain. Even after some of the more strength based sessions that involved squats and planking.

This has lead be to wonder about the physiology and adrenal response to the various workouts. Does a heavy Crossfit style workout send the body into the flight or fight response, dumping stress hormones into the body? And is that a good thing? I mean, the body doesn't know that it's just a workout. It just knows that the body is under stress and starts pumping adrenaline and endorphins into the system to try to survive which of course gives the athlete that natural high so many strive for but it is also masking pain and possible injury.

Like I said, yoga finds the edge and, as far as I can tell, the stress response is not there. The body (mine, at least) is responding to work and movement not a dangerous situation.

But that's just a thought.  Someone should find a doctor and ask if studies have been done.

Now what about the boredom factor?

I don't think it's there. Teacher switches it up a lot. I've heard from classmates that it's not like that at other studios and that some teachers just run through the same routine every time but Teacher doesn't do that. I've been going a little over a month, I think, several times a week and not one class has been the same in terms of flow. The dynamic is the same which is comforting but she is amazing in that she always puts it together in a different way so you can't beat her to the pose. You have to be mindful and pay attention and is always challenging without being discouraging.

The other benefit of "changing it up" is that my yoga toolbox for my home practice is filling up rapidly. That's important because that means I won't get bored at home. I can switch it up every day just like in class if I want or I can stick to a standard routine that just wakes me up and gets me going.

On top of all that, there are various levels of challenge to work up to and that keeps me engaged.  I can't get into a headstand. But I will. I can't get my legs into a full lotus. And I may have to let that one go.  But I'll try and that constant challenge, I think, will help keep me in the game.

So, in terms of comparisons of fitness routines, I think yoga is coming out ahead of any routine I've tried. But different people are looking for different things from their workout. For instance, some may be using a hard, heavy work out to bleed off aggression or tension. Others may have a completely different set of motivations and everyone should find what works for them and then do it. I think any kind of movement is honestly good for any body. But I'm happy that yoga is turning out to be the right movement for me.

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