I’ve posted recently about the HIIT workouts I’m doing, and it surprised some people. (Fair enough – I hate anything that involves jiggling about and getting out of breath.) But mostly the surprise was because I have a regular yoga practice, and some people assumed that would be enough fitness activity for me. To which I can only say: I wish!
The first thing to clear up, is what yoga is. Yoga is a comprehensive methodology for living well and looking after all aspects of ourselves. Extending far beyond the postures, yoga gives us a treasure-trove of tools to make our own lives a better place to be. Yoga is not for high-level cardio fitness (although taking good care of our Earthly vessel certainly plays a role). It’s for Self-realisation.
The foundational yoga text is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, written around 2500BC. Patanjali was a great sage – an enlightened master – who laid down the path to ultimate freedom in this seminal text. He defines yoga right at the beginning of the Sutra as ‘yoga citta vrtti nirodhah’ – ‘yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind’.
In other words, yoga is both the state of absolute stillness of mind, and the practices which we undertake to find that stillness. As the text goes on to explain, all of our suffering results from the attempts of our minds to resist life as it is – our misunderstandings of who we really are, our misidentification with ego, our attachments, aversions and insecurities. Yoga offers us a path to freedom from our suffering. The twist is that it is not something that can be achieved or won, because we’ve all had it all along. The state of blissful freedom that is yoga is our natural dwelling – we just cover it up with myriad layers of human angst, so that we forget. Yoga is the way home. The journey of the self, through the self, to the Self.
The word yoga means union, and yoga practices and philosophy are about bringing together the different aspects that make up a human being, creating balance in each of them so that we can live happier, more fulfilled lives. Ultimately, yoga offers us a path to freedom from the stormy weather of our own minds, whilst realising our fullest potential in the world.
Not much in there about cardio, though.
The asana (postures) are just one part of yoga, and it’s entirely possible to have a dedicated practice without ever setting foot on a mat.
There are six different schools of yoga:
Raja yoga is the ‘royal yoga’ of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and encompasses several of the other schools. Although asana (postures) are mentioned briefly, the chief practices are meditation, svadhyaya (self-enquiry and study), tapas (self-discipline/zealousness in practice) and Brahmacharya (continence, purity and boundaries).
Jnana yoga is the yoga of wisdom or knowledge, whose primary practices are meditation, study and self-enquiry.
Tantra yoga is diabolically misunderstood in the west as a sexual thing, largely thanks to made-up new-age distortions of a tiny tiny part of tantric practice which is limited to extremely advanced practitioners. There are very few surviving teachers of true tantra, and the chief practices of its yoga are mantra (word, phrase, or set of sounds), yantra (divine geometry), meditation, visualisation, kriya (purification rituals), asana and pranayama (breathwork).
Karma yoga is about doing the right thing – non-violence, selfless service and mindfulness.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion, which is about devotional offerings and ritual, mantra, and meditation on one of many deities.
Hatha yoga is to do with the physical body and counts asana, pranayama, meditation, bandha (energy seals), mudra (gestures, usually with the hands), and kriya amongst its practices. The vast majority of what we in the west call yoga is Hatha yoga, and it encompasses the familiar styles such as Iyengar, Astanga, Vinyasa and so on.
As you can see, what many people understand in the west as yoga is a gross under-representation of an ancient practice of which the physical postures are only one part. Yoga is about liberation from our limited perceptions of life and merging into something vast and Universal.
So is it enough to keep us fit?
It’s certainly true that Hatha yoga asana practice can be physically extremely demanding, but if you find yourself out of breath with a greatly elevated heart rate like you would when you’re running or slogging it out down the gym, you’re doing something wrong. Even the most dynamic part of the most dynamic practice is unlikely to get your heart above 100-120 bpm, and the whole point is to maintain steady, even breathing – your breath is your guide, and if it becomes laboured, you should dial back what you’re doing. So whilst you’ll maintain a certain level of fitness through a dynamic Hatha yoga practice by the sheer fact of regular physical movement, and you’ll certain become stronger, more mobile, and more co-ordinated, high-level cardio fitness is not what yoga is for. Personally, I’d like to increase my fitness and not put the pressure on my beloved yoga practice to deliver that – which is why, as much as I dislike jiggling and huffing (because I’m so used to smooth movements and calm breath – oh ok, who am I kidding, I hated it at school too), I’m busting out three cardio sessions and two weights sessions a week.
Is yoga enough for high-level cardiovascular fitness? It’s the wrong question.
It’s not what yoga’s for.