For those who pursue strength and fitness as a lifestyle, the idea of surrender often looms as something foreign or frightening. We teach our bodies to push through barriers and our minds to block discomfort as we chase new levels of ability.
Yoga, on the other hand, asks us to feel uncomfortable, notice barriers that arise without blasting through them, and accept the healing of wounds that we’d often rather not admit to. And while the message is distinctly different from that inundating the fitness industry, the end result of simply allowing the possibility of that path can mean a new relationship with your body and its ability to build strength and surrender deeply.
Yoga intimately touches upon the connections between body, brain, and drives. By strengthening that connection, you can experience greater flexibility and less chaos in the gym and in your daily life.
Yoga asana or “pose” practice builds resilience in your structural tissues, while breathing awareness and practices can develop elasticity in your diaphragm, increasing lung capacity and breath control. Muscle tissue is like a rubber band in that it gains resilience from the ability to “snap” back when stretched and, much like a rubber band, tissue that is tight or brittle is unable to maintain tensile strength. To increase strength and tone, the tissue needs to be supple, and the surrounding joints strong and healthy.
Even greater results happen in your brain and nervous system. As you focus on the yoga postures and breath, the chatter and static that naturally occurs in the mind begins to slow. The chaos subsides, replaced with the ability to cultivate quiet and allow healing. This translates wonderfully to a strength routine by quieting the voices and push-back that often precede a lift, clearing the way for awareness and clarity.
That quiet continues to create ripples. Your autonomic nervous system comprises two parts: sympathetic (flight, fight or freeze) which controls what was previously survival mechanisms and what we now put to use as athletic performance; and parasympathetic, which manages digestion, sleep patterns and the processes which govern healing and recovery in the body. Most yoga practices stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, and help dial down your adrenal response after a lift or run. You naturally experience higher fat burning potential as cortisol levels fall, faster recovery times through increased healing capacity and lower incidence of physical and energetic burn out.
The real “magic” in yoga is in embodiment, or what I call “getting under your own skin.” Much of athletic achievement is focused on what happens at or above skin level – how you look and how you perform – which creates a sense of accomplishment based on output. Yoga connects you with a much deeper sense of awareness and helps you build a relationship with your very cells and the energies that move them. When this happens, there is a transformative shift to joy and energy in simply being alive!
Types of Yoga
The yoga practiced in the West today is the meeting of thousands of years of Eastern tradition and a few decades of Western physiological studies. We live in an amazing time to practice yoga because we get the best of both worlds! There are literally hundreds of styles of yoga, but the types you are most likely to see in the gym or at your local studio are:
Ashtanga Yoga – The primary ashtanga series cultivates focus, breath control and physical strength through fluid movement. It is a physically rigorous practice and, because the series doesn’t change, it is easy to see progress and mark changes in your state from practice to practice.
Iyengar Yoga – Iyengar yoga was one of the first bridges to the West, bringing Eastern meditation and yoga to us through B.K.S. Iyengar. It is based in strict alignment, often using props to assist students in achieving the ideal “shape” of the pose for a period of time. Many people have used Iyengar yoga to address back pain, as well as structural imbalances and mental clarity.
Bikram’s Yoga – Bikram’s yoga (or an offshoot of this practice often just referred to as “hot yoga”) is a set series of breathing exercises and 32 held postures performed in a room traditionally kept at about 108 degrees. It is focused on detoxifying the body, developing focus and building whole body flexibility. Like Ashtanga, Bikram’s yoga can provide easy feedback on progress as the series does not change.
Flow/Vinyasa – Yoga Vinyasa (often called “flow”) combines the fluid movement of the Ashtanga series with the alignment focus of Iyengar Yoga and, sometimes, is practiced in a heated room. The sequence is not set, and teachers combine postures to create a flowing, often dance-like, practice. Vinyasa yoga is highly focused on linking breath to movement and brings a level of spontaneity to the physical practice.
Power Yoga – Power yoga is typically a Vinyasa practice with a deep focus on building strength and increasing metabolism. It is sometimes practiced in a hot room and will often include arm balancing, heating inversions and core work.
Yin Yoga – Yin Yoga addresses the deep connective tissue in the body, using holds of up to five minutes in a posture to release tendons, ligaments and fascia. The physical practice is less vigorous, but the real challenge comes in maintaining stillness while addressing deeply held tension. Restorative yoga is similar, but uses props to help maintain the pose.
Which Type of Yoga Is Best For Me?
We all bring different experiences and needs to the mat, and sometimes a specific teacher or practice simply cannot meet those needs or hold space for those experiences. Even if you’ve tried yoga and decided you hate it (like I did after my first class), it doesn’t mean yoga is not for you. I encourage all my students to try different styles of yoga and, once they’ve found one they like, try several teachers within that discipline.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for where you might start:
If you enjoy a rigorous practice with a set routine: Ashtanga
If you are seeking to detoxify and increase flexibility with a set routine: Bikram’s
If you enjoy creativity and spontaneity: Vinyasa
If you are looking to increase strength and flexibility: Power Yoga
If you need healing, surrender or a deep sense of quiet: Yin or Restorative
So… Why Yoga?
At its heart, yoga is about gently re-patterning how we live our daily life, in and out of the gym, so here is some food for thought: Yoga offers a beautiful counterpoint to the patterns and routines we set for ourselves in an attempt to control our environment.
While power and strength-focused practices build mental and physical ability, and typically speak to the athlete that resides inside, it might be time to step outside of your comfort zone and try the gift of a gentle practice. Yin and Restorative practices develop a willingness to let go and lay down our defenses, and for those that need to cultivate a warrior spirit, the strength and power of a strong class can build confidence and energy in someone on a path to wellness and health.
One of my favorite teachers once said, “Any yoga is good yoga.” So maybe you start by adding one class a week or 10-15 minutes a day. Maybe that practice grows into a few classes a week. If you simply allow the yoga to do its work in your body and your heart, the results will come with quiet strength.