We had a recent discussion here on this blog about what why anyone should bother with having open hips. I don’t think we resolved anything in that discussion, and this article in the NY Times about flexibility suggests there’s even considerable debate among “experts” about the usefulness or healthfulness of stretching and being flexible.
In response to this article, I’d like to take up two of my favorite rants in defense of yoga. (I should make a disclaimer beforehand that I’m restricting my comments to certain types of yoga, namely, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, and probably Anusara and Bikram too.)
1. Yoga is not stretching. There are, indeed, many types of yoga that emphasize flexibility, but plain old stretching usually involves a complete or near complete relaxation of the muscle, whereas most yoga poses actually require you to engage your muscles, sometimes for long periods of time, while being in a “stretched” position. Yoga is more about isometric strength building, in a wide range of positions, than it is about simple stretching. (There’s also a lot of isotonic movement in yoga.) I’m constantly frustrated, as a teacher and as a practitioner of yoga, that people don’t get this. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that there are many bad, out-of-shape yoga teachers out there who can’t even do the physically strenuous yoga poses themselves, so they tend to teach basic stretching, instead of the all-around practice that is yoga. (Alas, this is what happens when any old Joe with $3000 bucks can get a yoga teaching certificate, even if he’s only been doing yoga for 2 weeks…)
2. Yoga is not (really) about relaxation or destressing. If you’ve ever taken a Bikram class, a proper Ashtanga class, or a challenging Vinyasa Flow class, you know that yoga can be one of the most physically demanding forms of exercise in the world. You need explosive strength, balance, cardiovascular fitness, endurance, mental focus, etc. just to be able to survive a (good) yoga class. There is, however, a sort of relaxation/destressing aspect underlying all of this. I’ve been taught by my teachers that the point of pushing our bodies to these extreme challenges in our asana practice is to push our minds. We are learning tolerance in yoga. After all, we will be better able to manage stress in our lives when we are better able to stay calm within a firestorm of stressors. The most immediate and alarming kind of stress that can be introduced into our bodies is physical stress, like the pain of sustained muscle contraction in, say, Warrior II pose. If we can train our minds to be calm in the midst of this kind of stress, we can learn to be calm and less disturbed by other stressors in life. That’s at least the philosophy I’ve learned about yoga. So I’m perpetually amazed when people come to my classes thinking that it’s going to be some kind of spa enviroment where they are pampered and coddled like babies. I think this (incorrect, or at least overly simplified and misguided) notion of yoga comes from popular media portrayals of yoga. Between Sex and the City and Bank of America ads, people are bombarded with images of the relaxing, blissed out yoga chics. So it’s no wonder that people view yoga in the way that they do, to the point where this conception of yoga is influencing (and I think ruining) actual yoga classes.