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Weight-Resistance Yoga: Practicing Embodied Spirituality

THE PATH OF WEIGHT-RESISTANCE YOGA

When I tell my fellow weight-surrender yogins (devotees of asana practice) that I also practice weight-resistance yoga, they usually say to me, “What’s that?” When I explain that it’s a yogic discipline for performing strengthening exercises instead of flexibility exercises, they may say, “I’m strong enough. I don’t need to strength train.” Or: “My yoga practice provides sufficient strength training. I don’t need anything else.” Or: “I recognize the need for separate strength training. But I’m so put off by weight lifting, I’d never do it.” Or: “I already do some weight lifting. I don’t need to do anything different.” And if I’m able to gingerly convince them otherwise, they may still triumphantly say, smiling, “Yoga isn’t merely exercise for achieving fitness, you know. It’s a discipline for achieving liberation of self. How can your weight-resistance yoga match that?!” I’ll try to fully address all these matters the best I can.

Why Weight-Surrender Yogins Need Strength Training

Our lives are filled with somewhat difficult physical actions. Just consider those commonly done at home: scrubbing a bathroom floor, picking up a child, rearranging furniture, opening a pickle jar, climbing stairs, taking down a clay hanging planter, stuffing a suitcase, opening a window, getting up from a couch, placing a box of clothes at the top of a closet.

All these actions involve movement against resistance. Muscles serve movement by producing or controlling the motion of a bony lever around a joint axis. For example, we pick up a basket of laundry from a table by bending our forearm (the bony lever) at the elbow joint (the joint axis), and we carefully place the basket down on a table by controlling, or slowing down, the straightening of the forearm.

Muscles also provide joint stability. A stable joint enables us to generate movement in the first place (a stable base is necessary for producing movement of a bony lever around a joint axis); to oppose external forces (occasionally, a strong wind, a crushing crowd, or the like, but most commonly, gravity); and to achieve optimal posture. For example, we avoid slouching by aligning the muscles of our neck, as well as our upper back, shoulders, and other muscles.

The strength training of weight-resistance yoga makes it easier for us to move (to push, pull, lift, and lower things; to stand up and sit down; and to walk and run) and to withstand being moved by outside forces. If the maximum weight that we can lift is fifteen pounds, then carrying a fifteen-pound basket of laundry takes maximum effort. If we increase our arm strength so that we can lift thirty pounds, carrying the same basket of laundry requires only half of our available muscle force, enabling us to perform the task with half the effort. If we’ve been sitting at a desk all day, our neck strength commonly decreases by about 30 percent by early evening due to the fatigue of holding our fifteen-pound head erect. If we increase the strength of our neck, as well as our upper back, shoulders, and other parts of our body, sitting up straight at the dining room table becomes less difficult.

Why the Strength Training of Weight-Surrender Yoga Is Insufficient

Many weight-surrender yogins believe there’s no need to perform separate strengthening exercises because performing yoga postures, while focusing on increasing flexibility, also provides sufficient strengthening. But the strength conditioning provided by yoga flexibility exercises is inadequate.

During strength training, which employs measured resistance, the body responds to the demands of the force needed to overcome a greater-than-usual amount of resistance by making adaptations. In weight-resistance yoga, the amount of resistance is uniformly set at about 80 percent of one’s maximum capacity—an intensity that stresses the muscles safely, efficiently, and effectively. In contrast, the strengthening aspect of asana practice is incidental and haphazard. It’s a kind of casual calisthenics. For most of us, calisthenics—the manipulation of body weight to gain more strength—is an inadequate method of strengthening because our body isn’t necessarily the optimal resistance for making strength gains: it may be too heavy (risks injury), too light (is inefficient), or unwieldy (is ineffective).

Asana practice is a particularly inadequate form of calisthenics. It doesn’t use apparatus (such as a slant board, pull-up bar, or dip bar) to provide optimal direction and range of motion for using the body as weight resistance. It doesn’t incorporate repetitions against the body as weight resistance. And it doesn’t adequately stress dynamic, or moving, contractions (shortening of muscles by moving bony segments). Holding a freestanding yoga pose once by isometric, or static, contractions (shortening of muscles without moving bony segments)—which can be quite arduous—can provide some strengthening. But it’s hardly effective for the strengthening necessary to carry out even the prosaic strength activities of daily life, especially as we get older.

How the Strengthening of Weight-Resistance Yoga Complements the Stretching of Weight-Surrender Yoga

Weight-resistance yoga develops a remarkable degree of flexibility, which is the capacity of a joint to move fluidly through its full range of motion. This is due to the practice’s comprehensive use of the principle of reciprocal innervation: when the muscles primarily involved in causing a movement (called agonists) shorten, or contract, the muscles primarily involved in preventing the movement (called antagonists) elongate, or relax. By performing pairs of exercises for opposing (agonist and antagonist) muscle groups through a wide range of motion in a great variety of directions, weight-resistance yogins methodically increase not only strength but also flexibility. In fact, I sometimes treat my strength routine as a flexibility routine composed of exercises that begin with a brief static stretch of the agonist muscle group (in preparation for the first positive movement) and are followed by controlled dynamic stretches of the antagonist muscle group (during the positive movement phases of the repetitions). But this flexibility, no matter how thorough and balanced, doesn’t by any means match that of weight-surrender yoga.

Weight-resistance yogins need the flexibility provided by weight-surrender yoga, just as much as weight-surrender yogins need the strength provided by weight-resistance yoga. Weight-resistance yoga and weight-surrender yoga complement each other.

How Weight-Resistance Yoga Is a Yogic Discipline for Fitness

Even when they recognize the need for strength training, many weight-surrender yogins can’t bring themselves to perform strength-training exercises because they’re put off by weight lifting. And with good reason. As anyone who has looked around in a gymnasium can testify, the weight-lifting milieu is largely made up of grunting men, red-faced and straining, using herky-jerky movements to propel heavy weights while performing multiple sets to bulk up the glamour muscles. Some weight-resistance yogins do actually perform strength-training exercises. But, having learned how to perform them from observing those around them in the gym, they feel that nothing about the way they strength train is compatible with their yoga practice. And they’re right. But there’s an entirely different way to perform weight-resistance exercises.

Process: Making Slow and Controlled Movements with Full Concentration

Weight-resistance yogins perform each exercise moderately slowly, with care and control—in other words, with full concentration. We perform approximately twelve to fifteen separate exercises, one time each per session. Over a week, we perform varied routines that systematically strengthen the muscles that produce all the major joint movements.

Purpose: Improving Everyday Life

Although its primary physiological adaptation is an increase in muscle strength, weight-resistance yoga doesn’t dramatically increase muscle strength or, for that matter, size, local endurance (which applies to specific muscles), or power. It’s designed to aid the healthy adult (i.e., one without disease or orthopedic limitations) seeking fitness—not the competitive (or even casual) bodybuilder and Olympic-style weight lifter or other elite athletes. Its benefits, achieved in collaboration with weight-surrender yoga, are decidedly unglamorous: performing common strength and flexibility activities nearly effortlessly, attaining comfortable postural alignment while sitting and standing, moving with ease, and preventing injury and illness.

Strength and Flexibility Activities of Daily Living

Often what enables us to perform a physical task is aggregate muscle action: muscles working in groups to perform an activity. Taking down a large ceramic serving bowl from the corner of the top cupboard shelf may involve twisting, reaching, grasping, and lowering movements that demand the coordination of muscles of the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, back, and abdomen. Taking a bag of groceries from a car trunk involves bending, grasping, and lifting movements that engage not only the muscles of the arms but also of the calves, knees, upper legs, lower back, and abdomen. Both of these common activities entail a subtle interaction of strength and flexibility.

Although the type of joint movement is the same for all people, the force and range of movement differ considerably in different people. The vigor and extent of movement depend on the strength and flexibility of each person’s ligaments and muscles. We can increase these capacities through regular weight-resistance and weight-surrender yoga practice, making daily strength and flexibility activities easier.

Postural Alignment

Resisting the constant pull of gravity toward the center of Earth, our bony skeleton supports our fleshy body. Muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia keep the bony segments aligned at their contacting surfaces, the joints. (Without muscles and connective tissue, the skeleton would collapse into a pile of bones.) Standard (i.e., ideal) posture is the state of skeletal balance that allows muscles to remain at their optimal resting alignment—neither shortened nor lengthened—and affords optimal positions for internal organs.

Looking at people around us while walking down the street, we see that standard posture is rare. Most people are bent over to some degree. If even slight deviations from standard posture aren’t regularly corrected, they worsen over time, eventually causing a myriad of problems—not only of the musculoskeletal tissues (e.g., knotted up muscles, lower-back pain, fatigue, and proneness to injuries) but also of the organ systems (e.g., poor digestion, labored breathing, and increased susceptibility to respiratory ailments).

When bones are in alignment, muscles don’t have to strain to help the bones hold up the body’s weight, and organs of the trunk can function properly. The key to alignment is structural balance of the skeleton: equal pull of muscles located on opposite sides of a joint. Muscle imbalance is often due to overly lengthened (weak) muscles and overly shortened (tight) muscles. Weight-resistance yoga strengthens weak muscles, and weight-surrender yoga stretches tight muscles.

Mobility

Some of the challenging physical actions that pervade our lives make extra demands on our heart and lungs, whether briefly or over a long period of time. Some examples are running to catch a bus, climbing stairs, dancing, playing soccer, raking leaves, briskly walking, and bicycling. Therefore, a complete fitness program includes aerobic as well as strength and flexibility exercises. By stimulating the cardiorespiratory system more than everyday activities do, aerobic exercise provides the capacity to perform moderate-to-vigorous levels of common locomotive actions without undue fatigue.

Through providing strengthening exercises for the lower limbs, trunk, and upper limbs, weight-resistance yoga aids aerobic training, such as running and swimming, by increasing speed and endurance while reducing fatigue. These benefits, in turn, help maintain good form and avoid injury.

Performing the static stretches of weight-surrender yoga before an aerobic workout does not prevent overuse injuries and may even hinder performance; nevertheless, practicing weight-surrender yoga on a regular basis prevents injuries caused by persistently tight muscles (e.g., inelastic hamstring muscles).

Injury and Illness Prevention

We routinely apply force to put an object at rest into motion—to open a dresser drawer and take out socks, say, and then to shut the drawer. Daily activities like this are so unremarkable that we barely give them a thought until we’re hampered or incapacitated by injury or illness. A breakdown of physical capacity can be alarming, even—or, perhaps, especially—when it affects the small tasks that we take for granted. It’s an understandable cause for despair.

By increasing joint mobility, stability, range of motion, and balance, weight-resistance yoga helps prevent injuries (e.g., lower-back strain from lifting, strain to the middle and lower trapezius from habitually poor posture, overuse knee injury from jogging, and hip sprain from falling).

Weight-resistance training keeps us not only injury free but also healthy. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (as presented in its position stand for resistance training for healthy adults), “Resistance training, when incorporated into a comprehensive fitness program, improves cardiovascular function, reduces the risk factors associated with coronary heart disease and non-insulin-dependent diabetes, prevents osteoporosis, may reduce the risk of colon cancer, promotes weight loss and maintenance, improves dynamic stability and preserves functional capacity and fosters psychological wellbeing.” To reduce the risk of injury and the incidence of several chronic diseases, a comprehensive exercise program also incorporates flexibility exercises along with aerobic endurance activities.

How Weight-Resistance Yoga Is an Ascetic Yogic Discipline

Daily life is more pleasurable when we can easily push and pull and lift and lower things; freely bend, extend, and twist; adroitly resist outside forces such as jostling crowds and the wind; stand and sit without effort; walk and run without difficulty; and be free of injury and chronic disease. As we get older, we come to appreciate being able to perform banal tasks without strain, an accomplishment usually taken for granted. We take delight in ordinary activities. And in so doing, we come to be thankful for all that we can do. Reason enough to practice weight-resistance yoga.

Purpose: Withdrawing from Everyday Life

But there is another, perhaps even more compelling reason for practicing weight-resistance yoga—one that centers on the experience of the session itself. Weight-resistance yoga always retains its prosaic function as a strength-training program that uses a mix of dumbbells, barbells, machines, and the body to overcome resistance in order to improve everyday life. (This first stage of the practice begins immediately and takes about six months to attain mastery. Some students are satisfied with just this stage.)

But weight-resistance yoga, like weight-surrender yoga, is primarily a discipline for achieving liberation of self. More than a period of time set aside for fitness goals, the weight-resistance yoga session is also a welcome refuge from our stressful daily lives in which we must, for example, rush to get our kids to school or work overtime to get a report done.

The weight-resistance yoga session is a haven because it brings to strengthening exercises the same attentiveness and care that weight-surrender yoga brings to stretching postures. Discrete movements against resistance are performed within a context of stability and stillness and are coordinated with rhythmic breathing.

By placing emphasis on focused absorption in the body’s complex movements during strengthening exercises, the weight-resistance yoga session lends itself to emptying the mind of everyday preoccupations. From this mindfulness, without our even trying, tranquillity emanates. (This second stage of the practice begins at about the third month.) Some students are perfectly satisfied with reaching only this stage. For many, I suspect, this will be the first time they actually look forward to practicing strength training rather than having it over with!

Purpose: Transcending Everyday Life

But the weight-resistance yoga session is more than an untroubled time away from the stress of everyday life. It’s a time for meditating on the embodied experience of calmly performing strengthening exercises. (This third stage begins at about the ninth month. Attaining it requires first mastering the previous two stages.). As such, the session becomes a period devoted to the transformation of everyday life. Ordinarily, we must constantly attend to commonplace realities, such as time regulated by watches and calendars, schedules and deadlines. In this contemplative state, weight-resistance yogins comprehend realities ordinarily hidden during everyday life, such as time without beginning or end.

In one of the three foundational texts of hatha yoga, Gheranda-Samhita (Gheranda’s Collection), from the late seventeenth or possibly early eighteenth century, Gheranda advised his disciple Chanda Kapali not to practice yoga “in the midst of a crowd” (unless it were like minded). “The curious will trouble you,” he cautioned. “And distract you,” he might have added. Gheranda recommended that “one erect a small hut, and around it let one raise walls” for practicing yoga. Alas, for various reasons, most of us can’t construct a small building with strength-training equipment on our property (or even install something like it in our basement) for practicing weight-resistance yoga. We have to go to the local gymnasium. There we have access to equipment, but—the unwelcome tradeoff—we are sometimes assaulted by loud bodybuilders and a blaring radio or television.

Someday there will be elegant and placid yoga centers for practicing weight-resistance yoga (along with weight-surrender yoga)—settings that facilitate, rather than militate against, our focusing on the complex movements against resistance, emptying our mind of everyday realities, and filling our soul with comprehensions of deeper realities. But until that time, we must bear in mind (more than usual!) that during weight-resistance yoga practice, our body itself is a dwelling—a spiritual dwelling, at that. The sage Gorakhnath chastened us to meet exactly this challenge: “How can the yogis who do not know their body as a house presided over by divinities attain perfection in yoga?”

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