This is a standard question a personal trainer might ask you, and I once saw a comedian say his goal is to get fit and then never work out again. But beyond the first few things that come to mind (lose a few pounds, feel better) what do you really want out of this body you have been given?
One of the main ideas in yoga is that there is real value in knowing yourself more deeply. There is often some assumptions around what constitutes fitness and health and we have adopted the attitude that the person who spends the most amount of time at the gym wins. We have current cultural ideas about what good health looks like but less than 100 years ago, we sat less, ate less, carried more and never imagined people would be running (nowhere) on a treadmill for their health.
So say your goal is to improve your health, then lets start with what we think good health looks like. Many of us imagine someone who works out or runs is in good health, or that an athlete must be the pinnacle of healthy. The movement protocols (or the required body movements) for a tennis player or a long distance runner are set up to help her achieve her goal of winning the game or completing the race. But they are not necessarily the best movement protocols for longevity in a pain free body. While athletic endeavors are important to inspire and move us, athletes will live with injuries and often overuse their tissues in pursuit of their goal. The short, large muscles with limited range of motion in a body builder are the GOAL of the training. Most of us are not professional or competitive athletes and our goals for good health may be different.
Even certain types of yoga may not always be right for everyone. Some yoga practices are designed with young, flexible people in mind and the implicit goal is the achievement of certain poses outside of normal range of motion. I know yogis who can not practice anymore because they have blown out their shoulders or wrists or knees seeking a perfect pose or even the ‘classic form’ of the pose. We need to be self aware enough to know what our goals are. The goal of pushing yourself to the limit in a sport or in a yoga practice are not bad goals. They just might not be your goals.
Your body becomes a matrix of what you are asking it to do.
The goal of optimal biological health involves many aspects. A truly healthy person eats a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and quality proteins, has good mental health support systems (relationships), gets outside and connects with nature, and has good lung and cardiovascular capacity (I’ll explain why I think purposeful walking is a great addition to a yoga practice in my next blog).
A very healthy person is like a self winding clock, with just enough movement (the kinetic energy) to charge her. She can create more prana (or life force) than she spends.
This is why in my yoga classes we modify, modify, modify poses. Not just to make them easier on the joints, but sometimes to make them more effective in supporting areas of the body that get underused and overstressed. I sometimes make things a little harder to stress you in a good way! We get creative in order to build a well rounded practice and some people’s medicine is a gentle and restorative practice while others of us need to move more to continue to build capacity. The poses are a means to an end not an end in themselves. I want you to be as functional as you can for as long as possible so you can do all the other things you love.
Here is the geeky formula I learned from Katy Bowman (natural movement specialist ) not only for a yoga practice, but for optimal postural alignment in general:
Minimal friction + Maximum flow (of the blood, lymph, and electricity) = Optimal Cellular Regeneration.
Your body has the capacity to heal many of your own wounds, we just need to get out of our own way sometimes.
I hope you can start to vision what good health might look like for you. I want to stress that some things are beyond our control and no ill person wants to be ill. But beyond those cases of just sheer bad luck, much of life is what we make of it. As for what yoga should be or can be doing for us, the answer to the question is going to be different for everyone. What I know for sure (to quote Oprah) is that yoga is about much more than good posture and body awareness. If it only accomplished that, it would be great but it is so much more. I think the practices of yoga can add a richness to life that will eventually touch all aspects of yourself. I think it is worth asking ourselves this question if only to see if the yoga we are practicing is effective -what is your criteria?