In my early teens, my dad would take me to the local gym to lift weights regularly. He taught me classic resistance training for strength. We used traditional weightlifting equipment to perform resistance exercises starting with the large muscles in each group, followed by isolation exercises for the smaller muscles within the same group.
I enjoyed spending quality time with my dad and learning. It made me happy to bond with someone I hold in high regard. I was also curious about proper form, breath work, and the character that developed from being disciplined. It was exciting to visually notice results of my own hard work and connect effort with results. Naturally, I developed the strength and stamina to tolerate heavier workloads and I enjoyed the noticeable progress. It was an overall positive experience.
Comparing yoga as a physical practice to traditional resistance training in a bodybuilding paradigm, I took a while to appreciate the benefits of a regular asana practice. The practice has little to do with increasing muscle size or symmetry. Whereas bodybuilding includes observing physical changes using mirrors, cut-off shirts and more accurate measuring tools, yoga relied on what wasn’t visually obvious. Instead, yoga requires a practitioner to sense even the very subtlest of the body’s limitations during movement. In essence, because an asana practice doesn’t score a practitioner the way in which I had become accustomed (size, calories, weight, reps, duration, etc.), I didn’t understand how to appreciate what yoga was adding to my quality of life. While weightlifting values strength and the appearance of muscle symmetry, yoga places emphasis on improving one’s ability to experience both muscles and strength while removing tension in the body. With insight gained through a different type of observation, yoga can teach us the limitations of the body with hyper-perceptivity.
However, my original frame of reference couldn’t make sense of the language yoga instructors used. I couldn’t understand the instruction to “notice your breath.” After all, which muscles are activated when noticing one’s breath?
Luckily, I was eventually able to suspend the paradigm I started with and open my mind to the asana philosophy. As a result, I found plenty of benefits from practicing yoga that couldn’t necessarily be defined or described in the resistance training textbooks I studied so closely as a kid. I grew to understand that increased muscle size and strength aren’t the only ways by which to develop and improve one’s physical form.
For instance, benefits such as heightened sensitivity to touch, noticing the nuances in flavors and scents can add dimension and joy to how we experience life. These abilities are not developed by strengthening muscles. Instead, these improvements are gained by training our mind to stop our habitual thoughts.
As my definition of “improvement” evolved, I found value in the ways yoga led me to experience sensations in life that can’t be defined, let alone measured. I began to experience the beauty in life which my mind had learned to automatically tune. Re-familiarizing myself with this type of subtlety made for a pleasant life. I learned tools that I use to detach from the stress in the demanding work environment I once considered as “normal” and this led to better moods. These skills also help us to become more deliberate regarding where to allocate brainpower and energy.
While weight training increases physical strength by adding muscle volume and strength, yoga improves physical well-being by removing obstacles that prevent the body from doing what it intuitively knows it needs for optimal health. By reducing our mind’s automated thinking habits through conscientiousness, we strengthen our ability to manage our nervous system and our reactions to life.
Instead of achieving gains by efforts to “maximize” the body, I learned that minimizing one dominant area of our nervous system creates an ability to access experiences that may otherwise go unnoticed. The paradox of deliberately creating physical strength to improve the body by way of external tools is complemented by my new ability let go… to “un-do” with the body so that improvement and growth result from within.
Much like I enjoyed learning and bonding with my dad, I find that practicing yoga allows me to enjoy bonding with and learning from my Self. Yoga leads to having the freedom in choosing what we wish to experience in life. And, the process of getting to this understanding continues to bring joy. It excites me to learn more about myself by taking time to connect with my body.
I believe yoga has just as much relevance in improving my quality of life as resistance training. And, as I add to my definition of what it means to live optimally, I’ve found that it sometimes makes sense to build strength using yoga, and other times it makes more sense to ‘not focus’ on building at all.
Stepping away from what we believe to be true and reflecting on our developing vision of a life lived well, we sometimes learn about becoming strong in ways that can’t be achieved through ambitious exercise.
Categorised in: Fitness
This post was written by Meg Gomez