What do we want?
When do we want them?
Thus, we go to the gym and do squat after squat after squat…. Oh, yay. Let’s change it up. Lunge for eight, seven, six… that is an interesting shade of blonde… five, four… need to pick up broccoli… three, two… do I even like broccoli?… one! Let’s change sides!
That is definitely one way to build strength. In fact, it is an arguably more efficient and effective way to strengthen the legs and glutes than yoga is. All things considered, yoga is not the total body workout that it is so often marketed to be. Its cardiovascular benefits are minimal, the potential for overuse injuries is high, and while some muscles are used almost excessively, others are barely worked at all!
And yet, somehow, yoga works. I could go on ad nauseum about the psyco-spiritual benefits of yoga. That is a given. But the physical practice of yoga, not some ancient practice but one that is a mere hundred or so years old, works. It is like a bumble bee that shouldn’t be able to fly. Since it doesn’t know that it keeps flying anyways. Considering all of the reasons that Hatha yoga should not be a great workout, it actually is. It makes people strong.
Several years ago, I read an article by a prominent yoga teacher who believed yoga was the perfect workout and the only one you really needed for health and vitality. Science disagrees. However, these days it seems in vogue to diminish yoga’s contribution to building a healthy body. I believe the answer is somewhere in between.
Yoga means “to yoke” or “union”. I believe hatha yoga’s edge over more traditional forms of exercise is that it intentionally seeks to unite the physical and the metaphysical. The first step is for us to realize that we actually have a body. This may seem obvious, but outside of your yoga practice, how often were you really acutely aware of your soul’s embodiment today? For most of us, not very often.
We live very heady lives. Most of us have mentally, emotionally, and physically imbalanced occupations. We spend our days separating our bodies from our minds, and certainly from our spirits. This dissociation is actually quite practical. It would be torturous if we actually stopped to consider how uncomfortable it is to sit at a desk or stand on our feet all day. In a sense, we leave our bodies. To compensate for our disembodiment, we engage in numbing out behaviors, such as overeating or indulging in too many YouTube videos. We may even forget that we have a body! When was the last time you really felt the hot water running down your shoulders as you took a shower?
Many of us disassociate when we exercise as well. We find the activity uncomfortable or boring, so we go into our head space. We ruminate about the past, make plans for the future, and otherwise keep our minds occupied on anything but how our bodies are feeling!
It is not so easy to disassociate in a yoga practice. First of all, your yoga teacher is there constantly reminding you to breathe and be present. It isn’t that your mind does not begin to wander away from your practice. It is that the wandering and returning of the mind to the present is the practice! When it comes to yoga, the ways that we disassociate are not problematic. In fact, they are front and center.
More importantly, yoga’s edge over more traditional forms of exercise is intention. It isn’t that one cannot create intentions when running or participating in an aerobics class. Theoretically, anything can be transformed from mundane to mystical if that is your intention. It is just that hatha yoga lends itself so well to being more than a physical practice. What it lacks in kinesthetics and bodily mechanics, it makes up for in awareness.
In a hatha yoga practice there is an understanding that we are doing more than just physical exercise. We set an intention for our practice, devoting the labor of our physical body to something bigger than our individual ego-selves. Throughout our practice we build fortitude as we remind ourselves of our intention when feeling particularly challenged in a pose. I can’t think of any other workout that combines physical exercise with working towards world peace, can you?
And if you are still not convinced of hatha yoga’s ability to challenge and strengthen the physical body, add Utkatasana (Powerful Pose) to your workout and then we’ll talk!
Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Remember, Tadasana is the foundation pose for all standing postures. Inhale. Bend your knees as you exhale. Your knees are the vertex of the angle you are creating with your legs. That angle is about 60 degrees. Your hips and ankles should be flexing. Your heels are on the floor. You are grounded and should be able to feel your legs working.
Stretch your torso upward. Firm your abdominal muscles. As you extend your arms upward, keep them very straight. Your palms are together and fingers and thumbs are uncrossed. Make sure that you can still see the tops of your thumbs. You may feel the urge to scrunch the shoulders up towards the ears. Resist that urge and keep your shoulders relaxed. Gaze forward. Take five to eight breaths. On your final exhalation straighten your legs and return your arms to your sides.