Talk to any fitness/health professional and within most contexts of prescriptive beneficial activities it is inevitable to hear the word being thrust at you - YOGA! Even the most beginner of exercisers knows and almost dreads the simple four letter word as thoughts of contorted postures and held poses that stimulate an in explicable degree of pain all from doing almost nothing. We all know we should do it. We are always told that it is good for us and intrinsically this resounds within our minds and bodies as that yearning for the balanced person that we all want to be bounces forth in our minds with hands genuflectively poised in a humble position of thumb and forefinger touching, our legs easily and openly crossed in front of us and that sublime peaceful expression of calm across our brow.
Then why is it so bloody hard?
Yoga in the western world is enjoying a huge crescendo of populism with athletes and extreme sports people all praising the virtues of the restive exercise program. Far from being just physical, yoga also has a wonderfully mental balance and even a spiritual element to which it is easy to aspire. So why is this ancient practice so popular and why do we all have an impression of what yoga actually is?
In response and in answer to my previous article on Yoga as Cardio I felt it fair to offer a balanced perspective on why we should be involved in a yoga practice. Actually going through the real benefits and perhaps highlighting some of the benefits that some people may not realise yoga gives us.
In short Yoga has some primary benefits. Google ‘yoga benefits’ and the following list will consistently be plastered across the search engine:
muscle tone and strength
improved respiration, energy and vitality
cardiovascular and circulatory health
improved athletic performance
preventative injury management
So let’s look at these in more detail.
This is a no brainer. Yoga stretches you - it gets you into positions and poses (asanas) that elongate muscle fibres and more importantly tendons to create length. The tendons are important as not only does yoga work on working the physical tendons but it also has a neural component, working on the nerve cells inside each tendon (golgi tendon organs) to create lasting and true length. By this, yoga is working on the nerve reflex system, effectively convincing nerve cells that they want to be set at an optimal length. Essentially resetting lengths to be say 2.4cm as opposed to 2.3cm. This effect is easily one of the most recognised benefits of yoga and creates a ‘healthy’ length of muscular fibre and tendons.
Yoga also works on the all important fascial system (connective tissue) that is throughout our entire body. This network of connective fibres is vital to keeping our posture and joint spaces in place. Ensuring length in this system is vital to allowing joint spaces to have optimal range of motion and that shortening in other fibres (muscle and tendon) does not impact on the biomechanics of joints and associated structures.
MUSCLE TONE AND STRENGTH
We all want strong muscularity in our body. Some of us also need strong muscular tone (something that senior exercisers require as a priority). Perhaps the most pressing point of the yogic philosophy of muscular tone and strength is that yoga works the muscular system eccentrically (muscle stretches as it contracts) and this helps to create a healthy length of not only muscle fibre but tendons as well. Weight training is the opposite, creating muscle shortening and bulk via concentric contraction. However, when you speak to any athlete involved in strength performance, the optimum way to create a stronger movement is to work it eccentrically. Research has long supported that strength is achieved optimally through eccentric contraction generating 1.3x more tension than concentric training. Many strength training coaches support eccentric contraction as the best way to work maximal strength, muscular efficiency, hypertrophy and power. In this way, yoga by way of its transitioning through poses and also in its isometric holding as you go into asanas works the eccentric contraction intrinsically and also promotes the active lengthening of fibres under load.
This is an oft overlooked benefit of yoga but it has the greatest impact on our health and vitality. Breathing is paramount to life. Without breathing - we die. SImple. Yoga works specifically on our breathing via the practice of pranayama the ability to control the breath. This underlies all yogic asanas. When you are struggling with a pose - come to the breath. When you are preparing for your practice, start with the breath. When you are decompressing after the pose - come to the breath. It’s such an intrinsic function to our bodies and yoga focuses on the quality of the breath. in a 1988 study ‘complete breathing’ taught by a yogic practitioner was documented on a group of patients suffering from congenitive heart failure. In 1 month the average respiratory rate decreased from 13.4 breaths per minute to 7.6. Other studies confirm that a regular pranayama practice has had a direct increase of up to 19% in oxygen consumption.
This focus on breathing efficiency and quality has great effects on many other systems. We have talked about cardiovascular health and yoga previously but this improvement in the respiratory system can only add to the body’s ability to transport quality oxygen throughout the body. The efficiency of breathing also helps in helping to develop cardiovascular health as the respiratiion needed to perform cardiovascular training has already been influenced by a yoga practice. Rates of respiration directly effect how much we can help to limit and push our bodies. There is also evidence to support that a yogic pranayama practice also has direct influence on blood pressure, influencing a decrease in both systolic and diastolic pressure.
Now there is some conjecture on whether yoga directly impacts the metabolic rate of the body. Some research indicates that the mere movement of the body in a yogic practice helps to activate metabolism and assist with increasing a metabolic rate. Others claim that there are certain postures that directly act on organs such as the thyroid and the digestive system which again helps to kick start metabolism. Others claim that yoga actually downgrades metabolism. From an understanding, there are certain types of poses that stimulate endocrine activity and others that downgrade it. In any yogic practice, you will usually find a combination of these factors at play and a combination of both of these types of poses. Thus metabolic rates ARE influence by yogic practice and results can be influenced by certain poses.
Scientifically there is an agreement that yoga decreases metabolic rates. It is clear in measurements, we don’t ramp up metabolism to the rates that a 5km run or 45min training session fo calisthenics will do. Yoga has a much more subtle effect on Base Metabolic Rate (BMR) The main advantage here is that yoga moves you. It moves on a very deep level. It is movement orientated and you are utilising not only many large power muscle groups, but also smaller muscle groups in more subtle ways of holding and breathing. The recruiting of more muscle groups means that these muscles are being worked and toned. It stands to reason that an increase in muscle recruitment = an increase in basal metabolic rate. The more muscles being utilised means the more metabolic activity. The overall downgrading of metabolism is achieved from yoga due to the nature of the breath and its slowing down of the respiration rates. This does reduce metabolic rate but it is also the increase in carbon dioxide metabolism.
Slower breathing increases CO2 metabolism and it is THIS effect that has many repercussions on metabolic rates and excitation of the metabolism. So metabolism is directly influenced by yoga in that it DECREASES the metabolic rate but the overall effect of yoga has huge physiological and even psychological influences (pertaining to appetite and digestion) that creates a general increase in the body’s homeostasis and balanced health. After all - you don’t see many fat yogis! Metabolism is downgraded by yoga so the claims of weight loss and cardiovascular exercise via yoga are flawed - HOWEVER the counter argument is that yoga works on a much more subtle level making changes to other elements that are directly linked to BMR so the overall effect is one of increasing efficiency of the system that directly acts on the BMR axis.
WEIGHT LOSS AND CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH
Now we initially talked about both of these aspects in a previous article on YOGA AS CARDIO. The science supports that yoga does NOT build cardiovascular fitness and as a weight loss technique it is fundamentally flawed. HOWEVER, the ongoing subtle effects of lowering metabolic rates and inducing increased respiration and CO2 metabolism does have an indirect effect on these systems.
IMPROVED ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
A great advantage for yogic practice for athletes is the effect yoga has on cortisol. Cortisol for recovery is bad. Inflammation in the body when you are trying to recover from athletic performance is a negative element. Yoga reduces cortisol. The downgrading of metabolism, the effects on respiration and the CO2 metabolism all point to a reduction of cortisol in the blood which is a primary advantage to any athlete trying to recover from activity. The general lowering of the sympathetic response in the body that is achieved from yoga assists with the increase in the metabolism efficiency of replenishing lost oxygen stores and perhaps most importantly, downgrading the stress response of the body illicits an improvement in recovery and the minimising of harmful effects of post exercise endocrine activity. This recovery aspect of yoga has a direct effect on the body’s balance and ability to turn around again and perform more actions the next day.
I have often talked to my clients about the active and passive exercise regimes. Active is our gym, our running, our sports where we are pumped up, performing and stressing our muscles so that they regrow and regenerate stronger and efficient. Our passive exercise is our yoga, our meditation our post exercise destress that helps the system to reset, efficiently downgrade our stress response and quieten the immune response to stressors. Here the science is clear. Yoga helps to decrease the stress response on the body thus making it efficient in it’s recovery from the active state.
PREVENTATIVE INJURY MANAGEMENT
Due to the nature of active exercise and the stress it places on tissues and structures, yoga has an added benefit of working completely to unwind tightened soft tissue (such as muscle fibres). As yoga works not only on muscle fibres but also on tendons and fascial lines, the unwinding of tension in these tissues is vital to ensuring maximal length and space for fibres to operate. Tension in muscle fibres and even in connective tissues such as ligaments can create inefficient biomechanics and operation. Continual tightening creates less space, less length and this ultimately can lead to more strain as tight tissues cannot allow maximal range of motion. The nature of not only muscular fibres being addressed by yoga but also the fascial (connective) tissues that support so many of our joints and our basic postures means that our ‘unwinding’ of closed joint spaces and postural adaptions leads to keeping our joints and skeletal system in the most proactive positions and alignments. We are constantly resetting our positions when we engage in yoga. Resetting and realigning our body.
There is so much to consider with yogic practice. It’s such a large part of what can be achieved with a balanced lifestyle. To be active in your restive is a difficult thing for some. Surely just lying on the couch can do just as much. Well the science says no. The advantages of a regular meditative practice that slows breathing, opens connective tissues and tendons and unwinds the body with many endocrine and immune responses has to be a good thing.
So get on your mat and trust that even though we all know it is good for us, there are so many reasons to regular connect with your yoga.