So let’s get physical and talk about combining asana with Western exercise. One question that people tend to ask me is I lift weights or do cardio in addition to my home practice. I’ll get into that as well how to avoid some common mistakes that I’ve seen people make in gym settings. I’ll also share a basic rule of thumb that everyone should know about exercise science.
I’ll start by pointing out that I’m only talking about the physical practice of asana that is most commonly taught in America, not the 5,000+ year old tradition of Yoga. Asana classes are the most recent evolution of the aerobics fad of the 1980’s and most YMCA’s, gyms and health club facilities now offer a variety of them. However, these businesses rarely educate their clientele on how to safely incorporate asana classes into their work out regimens.
The main thing that people should understand is the difference between contractive and expansive strength training.
Free weight training is designed to build strength by repeatedly contracting the muscle towards the central axis of the body. Asana poses such as Warrior 2 build strength by holding the posture and lengthening the muscles away from the central axis of the body. Contractive strengthening tends to shorten the muscle whereas expansive strengthening promotes a simultaneous balance of strength and flexibility.
So people who are accustomed to contractive strength training (such as bodybuilders) will have a tough time holding poses such as Warrior 2. I’ve experimented with combining free weights and asana but I don’t find them to be very complimentary. There are asana classes that incorporate free weights, but I have no experience with them as they never interested me.
Asana and Cardio: Any kind of joint impacting exercise should be done BEFORE practicing asana. Asana opens the joints and so it’s counterintuitive to the body to run on a treadmill after taking an asana class. While there are cardio machines like exercise bikes and ellipticals that don’t impact the joints, they do tighten the muscles. I do have a running practice and I’ll warm up for five minutes beforehand and then cool down with a twenty minute sequence of gentle poses.
This brings up another common mistake, which is when people will arrive at an asana class after it’s started or leave early (sometimes both). I’ve seen people arrive as much as a half an hour after the class has started, fully expecting to be able to join in. This is partly due to their lack of awareness, but also because many instructors don’t say anything to them. This is irresponsible of the instructor, but most businesses gauge the success of a class on attendance numbers. For your own safety you should plan to attend an asana class in it’s entirety. You wouldn’t jump on a treadmill and start it off at your peak speed, nor would you finish a weight lifting session without stretching.
(For more information about how to make your experience of asana classes more effective here is a free PDF on Yoga Guidelines )
Whether you’re a studio aficionado or a gym rat you may find yourself wanting to branch out from your normal routine. It can be confusing to your body to ask it to do something unfamiliar, and challenging to your ego to try something new. But that is all part of the experiment of having a body and seeing what it’s capable of.
What has been your experience with combining Western exercise with asana? Feel free to leave a comment in the box below.