Yoga or exercise: Which is it?
The human body is designed to move. Our spines, like our bodies, are designed to move in all directions. Contrary to popular belief, our bodies are not really designed to sit on the couch on Sunday afternoons and watch the Patriots dismantle opponents. In fact, all that soft furniture on which we’re sitting and reclining is part of the problem. It’s a strange paradox in our modern world: as we get busier, our bodies get more sedentary. As our productivity increases, our mobility decreases. And the health costs of a sedentary population are staggering. Let’s skip the statistics. I think we can all agree that we need to keep moving!
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in downtown Concord, I was thinking about movement and yoga. As a studio owner, teacher and student of yoga and Pilates, this is not unusual. It was one of those early April days when the chill of the morning gives way to bright sunshine, and it made the 50-degree Saturday feel even warmer. I decided to walk down Main Street, from Strings and Things to the State House, and conduct a little informal survey. I asked 40 people three questions: 1) When you hear the word “yoga,” what comes to mind? 2) Can you name a yoga pose? 3) Do you think yoga would be good for you?
The first thing I’d like to say is that Concord is one friendly place. Every one of the 40 people I spoke with took a few moments to answer these questions. The walk down Main Street was great, and the people I met were even better. In the results of my little survey, I’ve combined some answers, and simplified the categories. Admittedly, it’s a small sample size, and hardly a scientific study, but here’s what the folks of Concord had to say:
When you hear the word “yoga,” what comes to mind? Stretching: 28. Stillness: 5. Postures: 5. Breathing: 2.
Can you name a yoga pose? Downward Dog: 19. Tree Pose: 14. Sun Salutation: 3. Dancing Shiva: 1. No answer: 3.
Do you think yoga would be good for you? Yes: 29. Not flexible enough: 6. No time/No: 5.
The first thing I noticed from my two-hour stroll and survey was that everyone had heard of yoga. Yoga is everywhere now: there is goat yoga, beer yoga, gentle yoga, hot yoga, ashtanga yoga, iyengar yoga, even heavy metal yoga. And though 28 folks mentioned “stretching,” no one mentioned strength. All but three people could name a pose, and 35 felt yoga would be good for them (though there were those six who felt they were not flexible enough).
So I’m here to tell everyone that yoga is for every body. Yoga is movement. Though there are eight limbs of yoga, most people enter the world of yoga through the practice of ASANA: the postures. This is the limb of yoga that everyone knows. We use our strength to move into the posture, hold it still for a bit, and move out of the posture. We fine-tune our abilities to control our bodies, and move them through our own range of motion to improve our overall health. This modern world we live in is constantly pulling us down and forward, unsupported by our strength. Yoga improves our overall health by teaching us to use strength to move our bodies, our spines, in all directions. We counteract the “down and forward” with “up and back.” Indeed, yoga is stretching. It’s learning to use the strength that we have to stretch, and to improve circulation. This is how yoga works, from the most gentle forms to the most athletic.
I think we can all agree that exercise is a good thing. Movement is necessary for a healthy life. All we really have to do is start. That is sometimes the hardest thing. So if yoga is movement, and if movement is how most of us enter the yoga world, how is it different from other forms of exercise? If you ask a yoga teacher this question, you might get very different answers. I’d offer these three: 1) Yoga is low impact, and easy on the joints. Students can start right where they are, and begin with the range of motion they have. 2) Yoga does not require any gear, and only requires the machine you were born with: your body. 3) Yoga is “fun with bare feet.” By reconnecting with our feet (a quarter of the bones and muscles in your body are below your ankle), we also reconnect with muscles that support us. We literally root down to lift up.
I’d say that the folks I met on my stroll down Main Street in Concord on that beautiful sunny day are not only friendly, but right on. Yoga is good for you. Movement is certainly good for you. So what’s a body to do? Start. Start right where you are. There are great yoga studios, and great teachers, right in your community. Walk into a class and connect. You’ll be glad you did.
(Mike Morris is the owner of Hot House NH Yoga and Pilates.)