Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Power Yoga: Part 6

Power Yoga Workout

One day in early autumn of '92, we received a call at our yoga center (The Hard & The Soft Astanga Yoga Institute) in New York from an enthusiastic triathlete in his mid thirties. He had just moved to New York from California and was referred to us by friends in L.A. I figured he was in a bit of culture shock and needed all the help he could get. He was mostly interested in the physical aspects of what this yoga program could do for him.

"A yoga system that builds strength?" he asked.

"Yes, strength and endurance," I replied. I try to keep it simple, especially when I'm attempting to tell an endurance athlete that yoga builds strength.

"Well, how does it build strength?"

Uh-oh! This could get complicated. "Through static muscular contractions and weight work," I explained.

"You use weights in yoga?!!"

Oh boy, now I've done it! "No, but you do lift the weight of the body and its parts, in various ways and combinations, which is similar to using the arms and legs to lift anywhere from ten pounds to your body weight." He was quiet for a minute.

"Is it aerobic?"

"No. Though the heart rate for a beginner at yoga might occasionally go up close to aerobic levels, it's not aerobic. I'm guessing that yours won't go up as high as someone who is not aerobically fit. The idea of yoga is to slow the heart rate and the respiration, as well as the activity of the mind. It's not supposed to be aerobic. Through conscious effort and concentration, you slowly learn control of the functions of the autonomic nervous system, like heart rate, muscle contractions, brain-wave patterns, etc. You then use that control to build heat and power."

"Wow! Sounds heavy!"

I guess I did go a little overboard for a first phone call. But I figured he was from California and could handle it!

He continued, "Didn't you say it builds endurance, too?"

"Yes."

"Well, how does it build endurance if it isn't aerobic?"

Good question. These people from California are hot! Okay, I think to myself. I'm gonna lay it on him.

"With this practice you are training the lungs to increase their volume and uptake while training the heart to increase its efficiency. Studies on advanced practitioners of this yoga system show that the resultant effects on the heart and lungs are very similar to the effects of aerobic sports -- the resting heart rate slows, the capacity of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the muscles increases, and the anaerobic threshold moves farther away."

"R-r-really?"

Yes, really.

Developing Mindfulness

Needless to say, it is incredibly difficult to try and explain this program to people over the phone. My favorite question to grapple with is the one that goes something like this: "Power Yoga? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?" Most people know that yoga is soft and relaxing. What most of them don't know is that it is equally hard and energizing. Yoga, when properly taught, should be a discipline that gives you the mental and physical strength to cope with and fight back the onslaught of a current environmental condition. Thus, yoga is very much about power -- personal power.

Although yoga has become a bit more mainstream in recent years, to many people the word yoga still tends to elicit rolling eyes and conjure up thoughts of hocus-pocus and impressions of strange sounds and incantations. In large part, this is because yoga has been proffered to the American public under such a wide variety of banners and causes. Many people do not realize that yoga is simply about learning to pay attention. And since it is through this practice of paying attention, as all spiritual traditions tell us, that life is lived most fully, more and more people are becoming able to see the relevance of such a practice in their own lives, and its compatibility with their own religious beliefs.

Once we actually begin this yoga practice and start to pay attention a little more closely, we begin to notice how much of the time we aren't paying attention and how much of our life passes us by in unawareness. We see for ourselves how the mind goes off and is pulled away from the present moment by a sight or sound. We begin to become aware of how much time is actually spent not here in the present moment, but off somewhere in the past or future. As a friend of mine used to say, "The lights are on, but nobody's home." We fret about how we could have done or said something differently. Or how we should do something in the future. This busyness of the mind in the past and future is a major contributing element to worry, stress, anxiety, and consequently, to tightness, tension, injury, and disease. Later in this chapter I talk about the techniques we use in this practice to control this tendency of the mind to drift off.

Astanga yoga and the Power Yoga workout is a method for developing mindfulness, and thus a tool for dealing with the stress and conflict of existence. It clears out the confusion and congestion of the mind and body. As you gain proficiency in the practice, it makes you feel in control, empowered -- as if there is something you can do to direct your life, rather than feeling adrift at sea, subject to the whimsical storms of life. It gives you a feeling of power. We're not talking political power here, or socioeconomic power, but power to liberate oneself from the grasp of stress, disease, inner enemies, and inappropriate behavior, and to see deafly. It enables us to slowly develop the personal power to take control of our own physical and mental wellness. But trying to explain what this practice will be like for y ou in two months or two years is like trying to explain to people over the phone what they will do in class. You cannot possibly "know" what the practice will be like until you start. I'm not sure I can tell you exactly why that is except by analogy. You can't put the top of the sand castle on until you build the foundation.

In this practice the focus, or discipline, happens mentally a beat before it happens physically. As a result of the breathing or the strength work or the heat or the eventual stillness in a posture, some small confusion or craving will clear. But not overnight or all at once. Only a grain of sand, a breath at a time. For one instant, the clouds part, and bang, the Grand Canyon comes into full, spectacular view, and whoosh, something releases in your body, some tangled old neuromusculature untangles, and life flows through anew. You feel it. But you can't possibly understand it until you feel it.

The Path to Mastery

Learning how to master something, whether it's the computer or the guitar, mathematics, dance, art, or any other endeavor in life, requires spending long periods of time on plateaus. You go along for weeks or months thinking you'll never get any better, but you plod along doing regular practice and paying attention (that's the key, I think). Then one day, when you least expect it, something changes and the gears grind forward a few notches, and lo and behold, you are suddenly on the next plateau! But plateaus can be boring for the mind that wants constant stimulation and entertainment. If we haven't been on the path to mastery, we don't realize what it takes to get good at something -- whether it's yoga, running a marathon, or playing the piano. The path of yoga is the path of mastery. I often describe this practice as an analogy for mastering anything in life, because it teaches you the discipline of working at something every day, without expecting immediate gratification.

Let's say we watch the New York City Marathon on television and see all those different types of people running twenty-six-plus miles. We're feeling a little lethargic and chubby and think, "Well, gee, if they can do it, I can do it." We go out and buy some shoes the next day, get some sleek-looking running tights, and off we go. But soon we realize that in order to get any good at this, or have it be effective for weight loss or fitness or mental de-stressing, or whatever, we need to practice at least four or five times a week. In the heat, in the cold, in the sun, in the rain, in the snow. Ugh! Maybe this running isn't so great after all. Maybe this isn't the right sport. Maybe we should try something else. A few weeks of enthusiasm go by and then the enthusiasm begins to wane. This is the first plateau. It's not so much fun. It's lonely sometimes. It's cold. It's (uh-oh, here it comes) boring! Pretty soon the running shoes are gathering dust in the closet.

By being in constant touch with your breathing, which is what you will be doing in this practice (see chapter 2), you are training yourself to be in touch with the process of life and growth -- to be aware, day to day, of the subtle tensions, toxins, tightness, and limitations of the body and mind. And to be mindful of how all of these change and move and evaporate. This gets you used to being on the plateau, which is a constant companion on the path of learning just about anything.

Copyright © 1995 by Beryl Bender Birch


Excerpted from

Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout
by Beryl Bender Birch
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