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It almost always starts the same way: There’s a new guy in yoga class, not there of his own accord, but because he’s been dragged there by some girl he’s trying to date. No doubt he’s enjoying the scenery: cute, fit women in tights and skin-tight pants, showing off their assets in the downward dog pose.
Chances are, however, that he’s also pretty skeptical about the workout element of the equation. He may have assumed that yoga was just a lot of stretching and breathing; which it is. But he soon finds that there’s a serious component of strength required to hold those poses, still and steady, breathing deeply and consistently, with a peaceful, non-reactive expression on his face. Within minutes, there’s a growing pool of sweat puddling underneath him on his mat. He’s amazed at how hard this is. And he’s equally amazed at how good it feels. Chances are, he’ll be back, girl or not.
Interestingly, although women seem to have cornered the market so far on yoga here in the West, that’s far from the case in India, its birthplace. Krishnamacharya, one of the fathers of what we consider “modern yoga,” developed his physically demanding poses at a school for boys, and many of the moves incorporated into today’s yoga sequences remain elusive for women, because they lack the upper-body strength to fully attain them.
By now most of us have heard about the health benefits of yoga. Certainly the “yoga body” is desirable for both men and women alike. Lean, toned, symmetrical, and well-proportioned, it’s sexy because it’s flexible, not bound or tight. What you might not know is that yoga also super-charges and regulates the metabolism and digestive system and invigorates the nervous, respiratory, and circulatory systems.
Study after study has linked yoga to healing of various chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, MS, and Parkinson’s. And for those among us who seem to be growing older every day… it takes the kinks out of every nook and cranny of the body, leaving us deliciously renewed, open and fluid, and—when practiced correctly and with an experienced instructor—wonderfully pain-free.
There are many different forms of yoga, all of which have gained varying levels of popularity in the West. One of the most widely practiced is a form of vigorous Vinyasa or “flow” yoga, also called “power” yoga. The Bikram, or “hot” method, utilizes a heated room to up the sweat factor and increase flexibility in muscles, while Hatha and Iyengar emphasize perfecting body alignment, symmetry, and form. Ashtanga yoga is a set series, akin to a martial art form. There are four levels of series; most students won’t fully complete the first, or “primary” series, in a lifetime of practice, and there are currently only a handful of people in the world who have advanced to the fourth series.
In addition to breath, a central tenet of this form of yoga is the idea of the Bandhas, or the “locks,” which focus energy into the core and quickly develop a strong and lean stomach and abdomen. The Bandhas are continually lifted and engaged throughout the practice, bringing a lightness and strength into the Asanas, or poses, which combine flexibility with strength, alignment, and symmetry to create pleasingly lengthened, toned muscles.
Since it helps smooth out tight muscles, yoga can be a wonderful complement to weight training. One Asana that’s ideal for those looking to develop upper body strength and muscularity is the chatturanga dandasana, which differs greatly from the standard push-up we all learned in gym class. This yoga push-up is a precise, contained movement in which the body is held firm in one line like a plank of wood, leg muscles as tight as iron, and lower belly drawn in, hollowing out the abdomen. The hands are flat and fingers spread, and the elbows are pressed into the side ribs, as opposed to jutting out like chicken wings. This pulling back of the shoulders protects vulnerable shoulders from strain and wear.
The pose itself requires a tremendous degree of overall body strength—especially core—to correctly execute it. Many strong guys who’ve put up impressive numbers in the bench have come into my class and been totally floored in attempting the correct practice of the chatturanga.
The intensity level of the Ashtanga series, and to a large extent the “power” or flow class too, will appeal to those who enjoy a challenge, and who appreciate clocking their progress day-in and day-out as they steadily advance through the poses.
It’s important to acknowledge, however, that we in the West approach exercise as we were trained to approach most everything else: as a competitive, goal-oriented project. Most of us grew up in the “no pain, no gain” school of physical exertion. We were not necessarily taught to link physical exercise to a time of healing or spiritual connection with ourselves.
Yoga, on the other hand, offers us the chance to take a break from the noise of our lives and to hone our inward focus. When ideally and correctly practiced, the intention of yoga is a deliberate and conscious nurturing of ourselves. It is a well-deserved “time out” from the overwhelming sensory overload of our modern lives.
The most surprising and liberating byproduct of a consistent yoga practice is the realization that the doing of the yoga is the benefit; the experience is the goal. It’s the old adage of “the journey is the destination,” but rather than trying to understand this concept intellectually, the body and spirit begin to embody it.
And that’s the “goal” of yoga, if there is one: calm, clear, internal focus. The fact that it will also empower your body and give you a strong, muscular, defined and long-lined physique happens to be a nice bonus for the yogi’s efforts.
Sara Melson is a devoted student of Ashtanga and has been teaching yoga in the Los Angeles area for over a decade. For more information or to study yoga privately with Sara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.