Over the years I have devoted a large amount of my time to endeavors related to personal physical fitness. They have all served their purposes very well, but I must say that I continually find myself coming back to yoga. Other than a few of the other eastern arts such as Tai Chi Chuan and Qi Gong, I haven't encountered a system of overall health that matches the capabilities of yoga in the rejuvenating, healing, and building of the physical body. Read on for my best sales pitch on why you should try to incorporate at least some yoga into your daily life.
Like I said, I've tried just about every method of exercise out there to try. I've been a gymnast, a rock climber, and a grappler. I've lifted weights to 'get big' and I've lifted weights to increase functional strength. I've been a crossfitter, run 60/120 interval sprints, flipped 300-pound tires, walked for miles and miles with a bunch of weight on my back, and designed my own Controlled Fatigue Training regime [a very effective approach to developing hybrid muscle fiber, btw] that left me in a puddle of vomit literally every workout.
Yoga is not these things. Yoga is so much more.
[The term "Yoga" in this article is meant to refer to traditional Hatha Yoga, as is taught in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika]
You see, all of these methodologies of physical exertion are fundamentally fueled by completely opposite goals than those that fuel the purpose of practicing yoga. These practices that have become so popular in the western world use the physical body as a focus point for desired outcomes and goals.
Do you lift weights? Do you make sure to get your 'cardio' in? Perhaps you are a martial artist, or an enthusiast of some other sport? Yea? Well let me ask you something pretty simple :
What is your motivation? Are you overweight? Self-conscious of your body with the up-and-coming beach season? Many men lift with the sole intention of increasing muscular size, which is laughable considering some of the absolutely ridiculous shit I've seen some do in the name of 'gettin swole'. Most women find themselves performing worthless 'girl exercises' which usually serve no purpose whatsoever, but hey gotta tone those gluts, right?
My point is that regardless of your motivation for performing exercise, they are all still fueled by increased awareness of the physical body. They build the physical form in order to further exploit the physical form, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. Yoga, however, serves the opposite purpose. The final goal of yoga is to attain a state where the physical body is entirely forgotten rather than focused upon. The actions taken in yoga serve to build and regulate the body sufficiently enough that there are no aches, itches, pains, discomforts, ailments, diseases, or stress. This allows the practitioner to forget that they even have a physical body at all under the proper circumstances.
'Exercise' builds the physical body for the sake of exploiting the body. Yoga builds and revitalizes the body as a side effect of the process of learning to forget the body altogether. When the physical form has been sufficiently tended to through the various practices of yoga the mind is freed from its constant entanglement with the physical sense of the body. This allows for true states of meditative awareness to spontaneously erupt, which is a euphoric event to say the least.
So what the hell is yoga?
When the typical westerner conjures up an image of 'yoga' in their minds, the image that they usually see is that of traditional hatha yoga: odd positions, strange stretching maneuvers, maybe the picture of some Indian guy sitting cross-legged with his hands on his knees. This is the sect of yoga dedicated to the overall maintenance of the bodymind complex. There are many other forms of yoga that have absolutely nothing to do with any kind of physical exertion as all, but by the time you are prepared for instruction in such things you won't need me to explain them to you. Generally speaking, the path of yoga should begin with the practice of hatha yoga in order to purify the body of toxins and waste products that have been allowed to build up over the course of the individual's lifetime. This can take years of regular practice in some instances where the person's body has been especially aggravated by epigenetic circumstances, but is more than worth it. One of the main components of yoga, both physically and philosophically, is flexibility. Based upon the most recent material I have been studying my current assessment is that inflexibility is one of the main culprits of physical degeneration in humans.
What is flexibility? Flexibility is the ability to manipulate the human form through the widest possible range of motion. Your arms, legs, hips, back, and neck can all move in ways that I'm quite sure most of you have never thought possible. Images of contortionists finding some weird way to bend backwards enough to shove their face into their own ass come to mind. Can you touch your toes? Great, that means you are currently capable of about 40% of your legs total range of motion! That's right, even those of you who believe yourself to be mildly flexible are likely still not experiencing even half your body's full range of motion. Can you perform a full squat? Chances are high that you can't even get close; our society pretty much refuses to utilize the squat position in lieu of chairs, couches, and other furniture, and as such most of us lose the hip mobility required to assume a comfortable full squat position before adolescence. Why should I take time out of my day to develop flexibility, you ask?
Because increased flexibility will deliver unto you a proven longer life span, and will improve your functional capacity significantly in your later years, that's why. Nobody ever lived longer by gettin swole. Strength never ensured anybody any extra longevity on this plane. Flexibility does.
Think of all the shit that starts goin wrong with the human body in old age: stiff backs, stiff knees, arthritis, reduced hip mobility etc. Being more mobile, supple, and rubber-y helps and prevents literally all those ailments. By freeing your body from your self made prison of immobility you begin to allow it to assume positions that it actually finds much more comfortable with its newly gained range of motion. Certain sitting positions, such as Siddhasana or Lotus Pose, while quite difficult for the average man to attain (took me like 4 months to get my knees loose enough for it to be comfortable) are actually far superior in comfort to the standard cross-legged position because they more efficiently distribute the bodies weight over a greater surface area. This reduces the pressure that one usually experiences on the tailbone when seated Indian-style.
By remaining supple late into your years you can help ensure that you will be able to reap the maximum amount of functionality and joy from your whole life. With this added flexibility your joints will rebound much more quickly from injuries, and will remain resilient to all the stresses of the world.
Rub Your Guts!
On top of the benefits to your overall mobility, yoga offers you an even more important benefit: the regular message of your inner organs. Through the miracle of your heart you continually pump blood all throughout your body's tissues, but the pressure generated by your heart is not necessarily enough to ensure the regular cycling of blood from certain areas very well. Think of your body tissues as big sponges. Your arterial blood flows through major channels out to these spongy tissues where the diffusion of oxygen and other vital nutrients takes place in capillaries. The key word in that last sentence is 'diffusion', and it is important at this point for you to understand what diffusion means. There is no specialized pump in the cell membranes composing your tissues to ensure all waste products are squeezed out into the veins for elimination. There is only the passive movement of fresh blood coming in as a result of the pressure generated by the heart-pump, and this new blood only has enough space to diffuse into the cells if there is room within the cell for it to flow. Since there is nothing built-in to 'wring out the sponge' of all the old used-up blood, much of this fresh blood ends up flowing past the uptake site and the stale blood is left within the cells. What does this mean to you, the individual?
Well, what happens when you leave a wet, dirty sponge out on the sink for a while? Starts to smell a little, don't it? If this happens on a regular basis the sponge stops acting so 'spongy', gets worn out more quickly, and generally may not be the best thing to do dishes with anymore.
This same thing happens to your body's tissues my friend. The exact same thing.
So long as stale blood remains within your tissues you will never be operating at peak efficiency. It's quite akin to the idea of not changing the oil filter in your car . . shit just gets gummed up and sloppy. In your musculoskeletal system you are probably familiar with the manifestation of a "cramp". Cramps are nothing more than your muscles generating waste at a rate higher than that which waste is being removed. The burning sensation results from the fact that the waste products of muscular activity have fairly acidic pH levels. Notice how our natural urge upon experiencing a cramp is to stretch the area afflicted. It is quite instinctual to 'wring out the sponge' when these things begin to accumulate; observe any animal upon its rising from sleep and you will see an animal that is stretching because of the instinctual drive to aid the body in eliminating built-up wastes deposited from remaining motionless (I like to say that Atticus does yoga too). The problem is that most of your body's tissues aren't nearly as easy to wring out as, let's say, your hamstrings. One can manually message their legs, arms, and abdomen, and one can enlist the aid of another person in the message of the dorsal muscle groups. How does a guy go about messaging/stretching the hard-to-reach organs, though? Nobody can manually message your heart, and the manual message of organs such as the kidneys, spleen, pancreas, and liver can be pretty tough. The intestines receive amazing benefits to digestion by gently messaging the belly, but organs such as the Thyroid gland are too sensitive to manually message efficiently while still maintaining a relaxed state.
Hmmm. . . Well we know that we don't want stale blood sitting around. We want all the used up blood to get pushed back into the venous system to be recycled and cleansed. But, if we can't manually wring out the stale blood from some of our tissues, what are we to do?
Wringing out the sponge = Message = Stretching
Know why message feels good? Because your cells love to be cleansed, and they love to be fed with fresh blood. The primary benefit of message is this cleaning action. Likewise, stretching has the exact same cleansing effect, albeit indirectly. Difficult to reach organs, namely those contained within the ribbed thoracic cavity, are only able to be cleansed through yogic stretching maneuvers since manual manipulation of them is very ineffective. Due to this fact yoga is, in my opinion, vitally essential for every individual's continued vitality. These vital organs control your fate. All disease sprouts from imbalances and impurities within your internal structures. Failing to eliminate built-up stale blood from these organs forces them to work overtime as they strive to maintain homeostatic chemical levels, and as we discussed a few weeks ago the increased stress upon the cells causes the overall rate of their genetic telomere shortening to increase. This effectively shortens the lifespan of the DNA responsible for the tissues of the stale-blood affected site, and therefore also shortens the life of the organism that owns said stale tissues. Therefore it is literally in every one's best interest to adopt at least a few poses, or 'asanas', from the practice of Hatha yoga in order to properly cleanse these tissues and restore them to their optimal working state.
Details Details Details
I am not a certified instructor of yoga, and as such I am going to keep my recommendations a bit vague. I believe that many of you will benefit from the approach to yoga that I have adopted myself, which is an honest approach based on spirituality and genuine self inquiry. Yoga is not my exercise. Yoga is not my 'work-out'.
Yoga is my blissful morning. Damn near every day of the week I arise around 5:15 a.m. to begin my morning Sadhanna, or spiritual practice. I immediately walk into the kitchen and put water on to boil. While the water heats up I prepare a mug with the juice of half a lemon and a teaspoon of ground fresh ginger root. I pour the water in and let it steep/cool for a few minutes while I take a piss and set up the living room for my routine. This consists of nothing more than clearing the carpet off, and folding up a blanket into a square to use as padding under my knees for certain asanas. Once my tea is cooled off a bit I drop a glob of raw local honey into it, stir, then take a seat out on my deck so that I can listen to the sound of the world waking up while I do the same.
My point is that I do not approach yoga with any form of intense mindset at all. I actually do my damnedest to shut my mind down as much as possible prior to beginning my routine. My goal is to remain in such a calm and relaxed state that even my inner monologue starts to fade away. I completely understand the reasons why one might sign up for yoga classes, but I don't see myself ever partaking in them myself. Why not?
- More often than not I notice studios are tainted with the stench of commercialism; overcharging for simple classes while reaping even more money through the sale of "yoga pants", "yoga mats", or whatever else they can sell to the ignorant new yoga student. It hurts my soul to see an ancient and beautiful spiritual practice have its name pimped out for the sake of selling useless garbage. . . a tragedy in my opinion.
- I prefer to perform my morning Sun Salutation movements with the rising of the sun, and to my knowledge studios are not open at six in the morning.
- I love my solitude; I love my silence. I don't like music being played, and I don't want someones soothing voice interrupting my void of 'no-thought'. I have a hard time entering a state of true identity-less meditation while such distractions are around me.
- I don't go to a gym because I find it weird to pay for exercise that is already quite free and abundant. Likewise, I don't go to a yoga studio because I find it equally ridiculous to pay for spirituality.
- As of right now the only place I feel personally drawn towards for instruction in yoga would be the Ashram (Hindu Temple) here in New York at the base of the Catskills. I plan on taking a weekend to go and spend some time there. . . more on this at a later time though.
Now there is nothing saying that you have to approach yoga from a spiritual angle. Perhaps the spiritual side of yoga intimidates you, or makes you feel like a 'sinner' based upon your current religious beliefs. That is completely fine, as you do not need to participate in any kind of spiritual practice to reap all the physical benefits of yoga. It is in these circumstances where your best bet might actually be to enroll in classes, as it is in classes that you will be overseen by trained and qualified professionals that will help guide you to your natural bodily composition in the most efficient manner. From what I hear there are a couple of quality places here in town that offer yoga classes geared towards varying levels of mastery, for those of you that are interested. I advise remembering to use keen discretion in your selection process, though.
If signing up for classes seems a bit much for you don't worry, you're in good company here. There is little need to follow any formal or structured format of yoga routine at first, but for those of you like myself that are interested in delving into standardized practices I highly recommend reading "Hatha Yoga Pradipika" by Swami Muktibodhananda, and "A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya" by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. These two volumes will set you on the proper path to performing effective yoga in the safest possible manner. Otherwise one may simply start out with the following protocol:
- Set aside as much time as you feel comfortable at a point in your day where you have an empty stomach and will be free from distractions. I prefer to get it done first thing in the morning before the stress of the day sets in.
- Do whatever it is you need to do to ensure that your surroundings are relaxing to you. If there is a type of music that soothes you, play it softly in the background. If there is a certain scented candle or stick of incense that helps calm you down, light it up. Soft light works best, nothing that will be glaring you in the eyes.
- Shut off your damn phone.
- Begin stretching in whatever fashion you have been taught in the past. You might find that your muscles are too stiff to jump right into stretches, like me. This is fine. Simply stand up, hold your arms out in front of you, and squat down as far as you can while keeping your heels in contact with the floor. Hold this position for a count of ten, then recover. That is one rep, perform fourteen more and you should feel some decent blood flow.
- To ensure a complete routine take care to perform at minimum a forward-bending stretch, a backward-bending stretch, a spinal-twist stretch, and a hip-opening stretch. For example:
- Reaching for the floor from a standing position, the goal being to place your palms flat on the floor behind your heels while keeping your legs completely straight. [forward bending]
- Laying flat on your stomach, and while maintaining hip/floor contact thrust your chest and shoulders up with your arms. Many people know of this movement as an abdominal stretch, but it is actually much more beneficial for the stretching of the lumbar spine. [backward bending]
- In a seated position place your legs straight out in front of you. Now cross your left leg over your right, and bend it so that the knee is pointing towards the ceiling. Using your now-bent left leg as leverage, twist your upper body to the right as far as is comfortable without straining. Repeat process for the opposite side. [spinal twist]
- In a seated position place both legs out in front of you. Now curl your right foot in towards your groin to assume a figure-four position. Grasp your right foot, and place it on top of your left thigh. Applying gentle pressure, slowly begin to push your right knee down towards the flood as far as is comfortable without straining. Repeat process for the opposite leg. [hip-opening]
- Throughout your entire routine ensure that you are maintaining steady, slow, and full breath through your nose. Completely inhale; first filling your belly with air before allowing your chest to expand. When you exhale, do so fully but avoid straining towards the end of the breath out. There is a tendency in some to attempt to rid their lungs of all residual air; such is simply not possible and will only serve to increase your heart rate through the exertion of diaphragm muscles. If excess body heat needs to be released feel free to exhale out of the mouth.
Got a stiff back? Do yoga. Stress management issues? Anxiety problems? Yoga. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease? Yoga, yoga, and more yoga. At this point its hard to find a human condition that has not been proven to be significantly improved by the regular practice of yoga. Hell, even dementia patients have been shown to degenerate at a markedly decrease rate when put on a yoga regimen, extending valuable time with loved ones. Whether you do it to expand your consciousness, or to contract your waistline, yoga can play an absolutely vital role in your day to day existence.
There is a public park near my house here in Gates, NY. Once the weather starts to catch on to what freakin season it is I plan to start bringing my morning yoga practices over to that park every now and then. There is something magical about planting my bare feet in the grass and watching the sun come up while I practice my Sadhana, and at the very least it should be a bit more quiet over there in the park than it is here in a neighborhood. Though I do enjoy my solitude, I feel as if in that natural setting the vibe of communion with others would be quite beneficial and soothing. If when I finally start to make it over there in the morning any of you want to join me please feel warmly invited. We all have things and insights that we can learn from one another, and not all of us feel as comfortable in so structured a setting as a studio or class.
There are many religious, spiritual, and philosophical schools of thought out there that will tell you that your body is the temple of your soul. I tell you point blank that this is false. Your body quite literally is your soul as viewed through third density goggles. The body-mind-soul complex is inseparable; none containing the other for they are all unified as a singular entity. One can not advance spiritually if the physical body has been neglected, because a malfunction of the physical representation of the soul will aways act as a binding tether to the physical world of pain and suffering. Yoga provides you with a scientifically proven method for purifying the physical body, and heightening the overall quality of your life. It is now up to you whether you have enough respect for your 'solid soul' to adopt some of these practices into your day to day existence.