Why yoga shouldn’t be your only form of fitness

I’ve been in love with yoga since 1987 when I picked up a copy of Teach Yourself Yoga from the Uxbridge branch of WH Smith aged only 16, and starting contorting myself on my bedroom floor while being grossed out by the dhauti cleansing practices involving swallowing lengths of cotton.

Yoga has certainly increased dramatically in popularity in the UK and US since the 80s and I ended up training to be a yoga teacher myself at the age of 42, after deciding to focus on a kinder and more compassionate form of movement after years of bruising martial arts. Guiding my clients through group and individual practices and seeing them grow in confidence remains one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my work.

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Is yoga really about fitness?

The older I get, the more I view my practice as a form of mental relaxation and focus and less of a physical discipline. Yes, I use it to stretch and maintain the body of which I demand a great deal each day, as well to devise ideas for teaching my classes, but I mainly see it as a quiet place to go and switch off, rather than as a way to bust some bendy moves.

Like most people, I came to it initially for the physicality and to achieve some of the more impressive poses, but it has become a much more spiritual practice for me over time, which is what many yogis will argue what yoga is in essence: something driven by mental discipline and not by physical accomplishment. It does grate on me personally to see yoga advertised as giving you a tight tush or as a form of calorie-burning exercise. That’s definitely not in Patanjali’s Sutras as a benefit of regular practice and there many ways to lift your butt without calling it ‘yoga’.

The way in which you choose to practise is up to you, of course but, if you use yoga as your primary form of fitness or just to improve flexibility, this post invites you to rethink your approach.

There are three aspects of complete fitness

To have a fit body means having a healthy heart and good cardiovascular capacity, muscular strength and power, and flexibility.  Most people neglect one or two of these in the pursuit of their favourite sport. For example, runners will often underestimate the benefits of strength training for their stability, while those who focus on lifting can neglect their cardio. The majority of my clients confess to forgetting to add stretching to their weekly programmes to develop or maintain flexibility.

To be fair, how you train needs to be appropriate to your goals, so we need to work out programmes proportionate to those. A runner will always need to focus primarily on running with shorter weight training and stretching sessions, and a lifter isn’t training to race. However, they will benefit from doing metabolic sessions occasionally by  not resting between sets and getting their heart rate up.

Which aspects of fitness can yoga support? 

Yoga will help to develop and maintain flexibility and, depending on the style being practised and level of effort applied, can absolutely improve strength through all those vinyasas, chaturangas and warrior poses. However, where yoga can’t help if you are trying to build complete fitness is with cardio. Yoga practices have been measured and shown not to push the heart rate into the zones which increase cardiovascular capacity. You may feel a little out of breath during all those jump backs and transitions, but it’s nothing compared to the cardio workout you would get from running even at a conversational pace for the same amount of time. To gain any additional cardiovascular fitness through yoga means you would have to been relatively unfit to start with.

While yoga can increase flexibility and strength, it will not give you cardiovascular fitness, which contributes to your overall health in important ways, including decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. So get running, on your bike, into the pool or find any other kind of activity you enjoy to really get your heart rate up. Yoga, I’m afraid, isn’t enough on its own.

Does yoga burn calories?

If you’re looking to burn calories, choose a different form of movement. Yoga burns surprisingly few calories even during a fairly vigorous practice and, even if you’re sweating your way through hot yoga, any immediate weight lost is water, which will be regained throughout the day as you eat and drink.

As a fitness professional with a lean muscle mass of 38% and weighing about 56.5 kg, I still only burn about one calorie per minute practising yoga, and just a little more in a very dynamic practice. That’s about 35-40 calories during a moderate 30 minute session and 50-60 for a tougher practice of the same duration. A 35-40 minute run sees me burning around 350 calories by contrast.

That’s not to say that yoga is not a worthwhile form of physical activity but you need to be realistic about what you can achieve.

IMG_4508What does yoga actually do for you?

There are however many excellent reasons to practise yoga!

increased range of motion and flexibility. Practised regularly, yoga can help to undo some of the damage done if you have a sedentary job and to complement and balance out repetitive movement patterns in sport. It will not, however, permanently lengthen your muscles. They will retract to their original size and shape post-practice but, over time, you will be training your nervous system to relax your muscles more readily. Note that most athletes require a degree of tension through the muscles for propulsive and explosive power. For example, super-flexible hamstrings are not a runner’s friend. Keep everything in balance.

increased core stability and overall strength. Working with your body weight and challenging your balance can strengthen the muscles around the lumbo-pelvic hip complex, abdominals and spine. You also get some upper body work if you regularly practise chaturanga. However, you need to complement all the pushing work in yoga with pulling movements, so get on the rowing machine, perform bent over rows or use a TRX system for pull ups.

greater focus and mental well-being. Yoga’s attention to the breath and its meditation practices, as well as broader mindfulness-based work, are being recognised as beneficial for mental health, in terms of helping to manage anxiety and pain. Learning to control the breath and relax is also hugely beneficial to many sports when training at lactate threshold or when working anaerobically. It has helped me enormously since I started learning to swim in February and with the cardiovascular demands of boxing.

Next steps 

If you decide to attend yoga classes to increase your flexibility, then be prepared to learn to meditate and do breath work, too. It all comes as part of a more spiritual practice. If that doesn’t appeal, then you don’t have to practise yoga at all to improve your range of movement. Pilates could also work for you and there has been a recent increase in the number of mobility classes available in gyms.

You can look on YouTube for videos helping with stretching and mobility, as well as lots of free yoga content. I would also highly recommend a 1:1 with a qualified teacher to look at some of the basic postures to bs sure that you don’t reinforce any movement imbalances and actually create a problem.

Yoga is often touted as a miracle cure for a wide range of movement problems as well as mental and physical ailments.  But like any discipline, it has its limits and should be seen as appropriate in some scenarios and maybe even irrelevant in others. What it can’t be is a complete movement and fitness system. It never evolved to be such a thing, no matter what modernmarketing may tell you, but its benefits can be significant and potentially life-enhancing, if you are willing to embrace it as more than some fancy moves.

www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

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Yoga for my (real) life

I spent yesterday at the OM Yoga Show in London, a massive festival and trade event, and I usually make the trip each year to network, touch base with my yoga contacts and stock up on new clothes and products to try. It also offers a vast programme of free classes, so it’s a great opportunity to practise with new teachers. I took a great workshop with Katy Appleton a few years back and got a fabulous hug from Tara Stiles, too!

My visit usually prompts reflection on my own practice as well as on my teaching, which are two quite different things. Teaching group yoga sessions is one of the most enjoyable parts of my work. Creating a space for people to feel safe, relax and feel confident in their practice is the essence of my teaching. My home practice is probably not as much as you think.  My sessions can be quite short and often focus on meditation and breath work, rather than on gut busting vinyasas or trying to nail a fancy new pose.

And that’s where my approach to yoga has changed so dramatically since my first visit to the Yoga Show more than five years ago. I went back then as someone with a long standing home practice, not a keen class goer, and not only felt like a bit of a fraud but was a bit too impressed by all the green juice-drinking contortionists. Now I go as a teacher and a well trained fitness professional with a nose for bullshit and a lack of tolerance for a lot of the nonsense that comes with the yoga world. I have met some horribly aggressive people there as well as stalls peddling totally useless products ‘guaranteed’ to change your life. The yoga industry, like any community, contains a cross-section of humanity, with all the good and the bad and the greed that entails.

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(My own teacher, Sally Parkes, leading a session at this year’s OM Yoga Show London.)

These days, my focus on yoga is very different from that first visit. I used to want to be ‘good at yoga’, whatever that means, whereas now I prioritise it as self-care, which means gentler practices and a lot more regular meditation. My priority for teaching is now based much more on the wealth of anatomical knowledge I have acquired in the last three years and is focused completely on client safety. The idea of correcting and adjusting people to fit the preconceived idea of a perfect pose (if such a thing can exist) leaves me cold. I am far more interested in clients working with what their bodies allow them to do and ditching a pose completely if it doesn’t work for their anatomy. Again, meditation is a key part of my teaching, as is reflecting on how we live yoga outside the studio. You can be all sweetness and light on your funky Lifeform mat, but if you’re rude to staff on the way out then you ain’t no yogi, no matter how many turmeric lattes you drink.

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If you want to expand your practice, think about living your yoga, going deeper into your practice and not just throwing shapes, as fun as that is!

Great books to read include:

Donna Farhi – Bringing Yoga to Life

Judith Hanson Laseter – Living Your Yoga

Deborah Adele – The Yamas and Niyamas

Richard Rosen – Yoga FAQ

Sally Kempton – Meditation for the Love of It

If you would like to practise with me, you can find my current Bristol teaching schedule here. You’ll be well looked after in a friendly group with lots of laughter and plenty of personal attention for a safe practice. Beginners are always very welcome.

You are also invited to join myself and Jenna Freeman at Foundations Cafe, Baldwin Street, Bristol at 10am on Sunday 26th November for our first yoga brunch: one hour of a relaxing flow plus protein oats or waffles and coffee for just £15. Places are limited and booking is essential so email me at info@brainboxcoaching.co.uk to pay for your place with YOGABRUNCH in the subject box.

Looking forward to seeing you soon!

 

 

Fittie Over 40: the sometimes relevant ramblings of a middle-aged personal trainer

I thought it was time to offer a few musings about my own life as a fitness instructor, yoga teacher and personal trainer at the grand age of 45, given that I have plenty of clients over 40 these days who seem to enjoy my social media posts and look to me for fad free, no frills advice on healthy living.

I want to share the truth behind being a middle aged female working in the fitness industry, dealing with all the physical and hormonal delights that come with ageing. And yes, that means talking about menopause, ‘cos it sure isn’t going anywhere and is a natural phase of life that all us female badasses have to learn to negotiate.

So stand by for some fairly honest observations about trying to stay fit as a middle aged training professional when you’re hormonal and knackered and yet still needing to perform and set a good example to everyone else. Because in the face of green juice, I’ll always take a chocolate milkshake instead, and *no one* will replace my love for Dairy Milk with raw cacao.

If you’ve had enough of quick fixes, eating clean and trying to reach unattainable standards of six packs and svelteness, you’re in the right place. I’ll be sharing my own struggles to keep myself on track while offering some sound advice on how to succeed for yourself. Until then, where’s my next client?

Find me at www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk and on the telly box with www.befitbristolfit.com