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March 2012 Yoga and Exercise

Dear Yoga Friends,

Spring is almost here and with it perhaps thoughts of getting out and exercising. (I know we're in California and it's been a relatively mild winter with nice weather, but stay with me on this just for fun.) When people ask me how I got into yoga, I freely admit that I was attracted to it as a complement to exercise. I figured it would be nice to have an activity that would involve a little stretching and flexibility to augment sports and exercise. Little did I know that a few years later the tail would be wagging the dog. The full range of yoga can challenge you both physically and mentally in ways that no exercise regimen comes close to. Many examples come to mind. First of all, the simple pose Virabhadrasana II, or Warrior II.  That's the one with vertical trunk, outstretched arms, one leg straight, the other bent at a right angle to the side. Did you ever try to hold this pose for a minute on each side? Try it some time. This is one of the simplest asanas, yet embodies the essence of the kind of mental focus and integration of muscular contraction and release that is yoga asana.

One of the earliest practice sequences that got me hooked was this 13 pose standing pose sequence: Tadasana (mountain pose); Vrksasana (tree); Utthita Trikonasana (triangle); Utthita Pasvakonasana (lateral angle); Virabhadrasana I (warrior I); Virabhadrasana II (warrior II); Virabhadrasana III (warrior III); Ardha Chandrasana (half moon); Parivrtta Trikonasana (revolved triangle); Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (revolved lateral angle); Parivrtta Arha Chandrasana (revolved half moon), Parsvottanasana (intensive stretch to the side), Prasarita Padottanasana (intensive stretch with feet wide apart).

I would set a timer on 1 minute and 10 seconds, in repeat mode. The timer would be silent for a minute, beep for 10 seconds, then silent for another minute. Once the timer was started, I would begin with a 1 minute Tadasana, then when it beeped, move to Utthita Trikonasana on the right side, when it beeped again, to Trikonasana on the left side, and so on. It takes about 30 minutes to get through the sequence if you do it without a break. Then do a five minute Sirsasana (headstand), a five minute Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), and a five minute Savasana (corpse pose), and voila, there you have it, a 45 minute asana practice that has moved every joint in your body, included most of the basic actions involved in any asana, and challenged you more than probably anything you tried this week unless you are a mountain climber or some kind of professional athlete.

Now I'm not saying you should practice this way all the time, far from it. We always want to observe the important yoga principal of ahimsa or non-violence, and not force our body to do something injurious. But we can and should test ourselves physically and explore our limits. These edges where we want to give up instead of look for ways to do a pose with improved actions, potentially less effort, and even release, are much of what the asana practice is about. This is so much more than exercise. Unlike running on the treadmill, you can't be watching television, reading your email, or playing with your smart phone while you are doing this. This requires so much more focus and commitment. And that's why the tail begins to wag the dog. :-)

Let me be the first to wish you a happy spring!



Chad Balch