What Your Yoga Teacher Doesn't Want You To Know
#1 Yoga is not enough A few years ago I stumbled on research about Tabatta training. At the time, in 2010, the research struck me as interesting because it reinforced what I had learned swimming competitively. The idea behind tabatta training or high intensity training (HIT), is that muscles become more responsive, stronger, more efficient, etc., when they are exposed to short burst, high intensity, anaerobic sets. This form of exercise is super intense because you work at 85 - 95% of your maximum heart rate - so it is literally a sprint and then a short rest followed by another sprint. When I was swimming competitively one of the components we focused on were shorter practices made up of sprint sets. We even had our lactic acid levels measured to chart progress overtime. As painful as these practices were, they were very effective in making us faster. Fast forward 20 years and we now have a body of research that clearly indicates it is not the quantity of exercise that makes the body fit, it is the quality of the exercise and in some instances the intensity.
Yoga is wildly popular. I have watched yoga grow beyond anyones projections over the last 10 years. Yoga is touted as offering many things, from spiritual enlightenment, to healing the body from disease and definitely as a full body workout. Having taught yoga for half of my life, I can tell you that in its current form, yoga is fun and can have many positive benefits (like community) but it is not enough on its own - and it certainly does not produce the results listed above. In fact I would argue that practicing yoga alone could potentially do harm as a result of repetitive stress and one directional or what I think of as non-functional movement.
For many people today yoga is their primary form of exercise. They go to 60 or 75 minute classes in rooms heated to 90 or 100 degrees and believe they are getting a full body workout. Other students practice one sequence over and over again for years - the same repeating set of movements day in and day out. Sweating does not mean you are getting fit, in fact sweating alone is primarily a sign that your body is attempting to maintain homeostasis because it is being stressed. Repeating the same movements again and again often leads to repetitive stress injuries (ask any pro athlete!) unless you actively develop a workout that develops strength and flexibility in opposition to the primary exercise. For example squatting without jumping puts stress on the knees and the ankles and can lead to longterm problems in the muscles and tendons around the joints. Squatting alone only develops strength and movement in one direction and this can translate to muscle overdevelopment and stress related joint pain. I could go on and on…you can’t just do push ups, you also need to include pulling actions…this is basic functional movement theory.
Yoga teachers probably won’t admit it, but yoga alone is not a well rounded physical activity. There is no plyometric based jumping, there is no pulling and there is little pressing. There is also little if any anaerobic or high intensity training and this means that over the long term, you will see a decline in endurance and possibly be prone to certain kinds of repetitive stress injuries. Many teachers will balk at this because they want you to believe that yoga is an everything practice...mind, body and spiritual practice - THE vehicle for enlightenment. This is complete and utter nonsense! The physical practice is NOT the way to your inner genius or enlightenment or your souls purpose. The physical practice is meant ONLY to bring your body into a state of balance...period! Postures were never meant to be the thing itself (hello death). Only when the body is radiating energy, can the mind be brought into alignment with intention and purpose. Any teacher claiming a practice detoxifies your liver or stimulates your kidneys is either smoking weed or just making things up to get you to sign-up - don’t believe the hype!
18 months ago I was asked to participate in a mock HIT class at exhale (for the sake of transparency I work at exhale and have a vested interest in their success, etc.). I was excited and have been going once a week religiously. I love these classes, they are ridiculously challenging, highly effective and my body has never felt better (not to mention the natural endorphin high I get). I expected to get tight, have trouble doing my over-splits (just kidding) and back bends or generally suck in yoga. 18 months later my yoga practice has never felt better. I can backbend deeper than ever. My flexibility in my shoulders and hips is better than it was pre HIT. AND I can go toe to toe with any instagram celebrity, whipping out a handstand on a moments notice! From my perspective my yoga practice is better in every way and this is important to me because I teach yoga for a living. As it turns out, the benefits of adding a HIT class to my weekly practice have been huge - I am leaner, more flexible, stronger, my endurance is better and I feel great!
To my delight my anecdotal non-clinal experience is backed up by actual research. Studies have shown that while both endurance based cardio sets (45 minutes or longer with a maximum heart rate of 60 - 70%) and HIT classes produce a similar spike in oxidative enzyme activity within the muscles (an indication of energy being burned) only HIT classes produce elevated Glutathione peroxidase (GPX) levels. GPX is an antioxidant enzyme class primarily responsible for protecting against free radicals in the body. The etiology of many diseases are now often linked to poorly managed oxidative stress in systems within the body. The results of elevated GPX could mean less inflammation, shorter recovery times and better range of motion. Other studies have shown that HIT classes can safely increase bone density in post-menopause women aged 50 - 70. The list goes on with improvements in blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, reduction of abdominal fat and increases in lean muscle mass.
So back to yoga. Most teachers and yoga studios are so focused on selling the many benefits of yoga (and there are many benefits) that they fail to recognize how one dimensional yoga can become. There is also a big reliance on creative sequencing to keep a practice interesting. This means teachers must have the ability to choreograph a well thought out and balanced sequence. Unfortunately, teachers with average training and an average amount of experience generally don’t have all the pieces in place and the result are some seriously awkward, unbalanced practices. The other pitfall is the obsession with that AMAZING instagram pose before students have developed adequate body awareness to even consider being an instagram phenomenon = injury (I digress).
In reality most yoga studios offer an admixture of classes from hot to ecstatic dance with the hope that you will join up…today. Few offer a well thought out program that takes into account the longterm effects of heating the body to 105 on a daily basis or why you must develop strength as a counterpoise to all those plank pushups. Yoga has always been a hodgepodge of mystical practices, but contemporary yoga has become so popular that we have Dharma trained teachers teaching hot vinyasa and “hot” teachers trying to make Bikram more vinyasa like…wink, wink, nudge, nudge…its all good.
I love yoga, it will always be one of the primary components of my highly focused, functional movement based fitness regimen (the one I teach and practice)…but just ONE component. I like climbing trees and surfing and jumping around in my HIT class too much to make yoga my one and only true love. After 20+ years of practicing, I feel strongly students should be encouraged to look at their practice from the standpoint of long term functional movement - what is going to keep you agile and fit when you are 30-90. Over-splits and scorpion pose, while “cool” to look at, are definitely not smart choices for teachers with average level students.
As fitness leaders we should be selling our students on full body methods and programs that keep them in top condition for the big challenges of life and offer them a sound foundation from which to reach even greater spiritual heights. Touting yoga as the path to enlightenment or as a detox program from unhealthy or addictive life habits is a sham. Get your body working efficiently so that you can harness the power of your mind and then we can start chatting about the truth behind the truth.