Fundamental Fitness: Yoga

I have written previously about finding a sport or athletic activity you can be passionate about in order to provide drive and motivation in the quest for health and happiness.  In doing so we must also embrace training as a part of that process.  Physical fitness improves performance, enhances the enjoyment of our chosen activity, and mitigates the inherent risk for injury that comes with any type of athletics.  But where do we begin?

If your conditioning has been badly decompensated either through injury, misuse, or disuse, I believe the best place to start is with low-intensity, low-impact activities.  Contrary to what many of the hyperbolically advertised exercise programs out there might tell you, I say start low and go slow.  If you’re feeling like your body is failing you; this is a sign of disconnection from your physical state.  I suggest trying to wake it up little by little.  Yoga provides an ideal starting point.  

Now yoga is a word that I have seen provoke significant anxiety and apprehension from people unfamiliar with the practice; so perhaps instead of using the word yoga we can just say breathing and stretching to make it seem less intimidating, because that’s really all it is.  Breathing and stretching is easy right?  Breathing calms our emotions and clears the mind, allowing us to connect more deeply with the essence of our physical being.  Stretching is a wonderful gateway exercise since it combines minimal risk for injury with maximum benefit via enhanced circulation and flexibility.  

As we age and our health deteriorates the damage tends to accumulate in the cartilage, ligaments, and tendons of our joints, not the muscles.  It really doesn’t matter how buffed or jacked or ripped you are, once the joints break down everything comes to a grinding and painful stop.  Yoga, or breathing and stretching, is perhaps the only exercise that is both diagnostic and therapeutic for articular problems.  Every other form of exercise puts stress on the joints.  That synergy ensures a high rate of return for time invested.  

Yoga’s systematic approach to stretching focuses on balance.  Every pose or stretch has a counter-pose.  Frequently in the beginning one will notice that there may be many imbalances, where we can stretch to one side much farther than the other side, or one posture is relatively easy whereas the counter-pose is painfully difficult.  This is what I mean by the practice being both diagnostic and therapeutic; yoga will reveal where the problems lie and fix the problems at the same time.  If our joints are not functioning properly we will not be able to train or play effectively.  Thus, articular health must be the foundation of physical fitness.  

Enhanced flexibility also protects us from injury.  Since the primary goal of training is to prevent injury, breathing and stretching should be prioritized above all other forms of exercise.  As I have mentioned previously, my medical history includes a twice-fractured left ankle, a complete rupture and surgical repair of my left Achilles’ tendon, chronic lower back pain and right hip pain, two fractured ribs, partially torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders, a complete A-C separation of the right shoulder, partial A-C separation of the left shoulder, and about 7 to 8 concussions.  As a result I struggle with chronic arthritis, everywhere.  In an alternate universe I probably weigh 500 pounds and am couch-bound, addicted to opioids, and completely disabled.   Discovering yoga has truly been my salvation and it is the cornerstone of my training regimen.  When my insomnia and arthritis act up nothing sets my mind and body right more effectively than a good breathing and stretching session.  I can say that without yoga there would be no jogging, no running, no weight-lifting, no tennis, certainly no snowboarding, and therefore no fun.  

Thankfully getting started has never been easier.  There seem to be breathing and stretching studios popping up everywhere that offer discounted beginner classes.  Many community recreation centers have free or very affordable introductory classes.  I can be quite easily embarrassed and one of the other great things about breathing and stretching is that you can also do it in the privacy and dignity of your own home.  

I consider The Yoga Bible: The Definitive Guide to Yoga Postures by Christine Brown, an indispensable resource and it retails for $19.99.   It is well organized and guides you through each step, offers techniques for progressing to a given pose, and always provides the counter-pose for each position. is a very helpful website that offers hundreds of streaming videos absolutely free.  There are many types of yoga so it can be a little confusing.  If you are a complete neophyte and dealing with some joint problems or deconditioning I strongly suggest starting with a Restorative or Yin Yoga program that focuses on rehabilitation.  

In future posts I will deconstruct some of the basic poses and postures into simpler, more easily executed stretches.  I will also walk you through the routine that I use to maintain flexibility and fitness.  I cannot be more emphatic in my recommendation to start breathing and stretching now but I feel obligated to warn you that the practice can be incredibly uplifting, highly enjoyable, and possibly addictive.  Namaste!


Motivation and Movement

I believe in the philosophy of movement.  Our bodies were shaped by evolution through thousands of years of migration and we have been engineered to walk, run, jump, climb, swim, lift, carry, and build.  The problem is we now live in the Age of Technology that provides the unprecedented ability to disconnect almost completely from the physical plane as we tune into increasingly immersive virtual realities.  Many of us have jobs that require sitting essentially motionless for extended periods; time wasted commuting, driving, or flying compounds the issue.  I sit in front of a computer typing and talking into a headset for over 40 hours per week which kind of feels like being stuck in a pillory.  This type of work environment makes it terribly challenging for me to find time to go to the gym or to get outside and get moving.  It requires concentrated effort to develop and maintain a sustainable exercise routine to balance out the inevitably erosive effects of a sedentary lifestyle.  Physical deterioration and deconditioning are unavoidable byproducts of immobility.  The physical law of momentum dictates that a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest.  I always say that the toughest part of any workout is getting off the couch and out the door.  After being at my desk all day it is like trying to move a sitting 180-pound boulder.  I have found that the key is to use leverage to get the boulder going; and to keep it rolling, using inertia to our advantage. 

One of the things I frequently recommend to people who are out of shape and just getting started is to choose a sport.  Get in touch with your physical self and find your inner athlete.  Try to find some joy in motion and use that as the fulcrum to get things moving.  But it can be so overwhelming and confusing that sometimes it is hard to know where to start.  Many people who struggle the most with being deconditioned have no sports background whatsoever and I think that often presents the biggest challenge of all.  In this case the first step is to spend some time thinking about our options and engaging in some mental and emotional exploration.  Maybe think of an activity or sport that you always thought looked cool.  Imagine all the different things you could see yourself doing and see how each scenario makes you feel.  Think about the athletes you see around you and on TV and find what intrigues you.  Softball, tennis, volleyball, basketball, soccer, running, cycling, hiking, climbing, swimming, surfing, paddling, kayaking, skating, skiing, kickboxing, dancing–the choices are endless!  Maybe choose two or three to start, begin experimenting with them and see where that takes you.  The suggested activities are just that.  They are intended as springboards to help you discover what activities resonate with you.  Find a class in your area or maybe a clinic/ workshop through your local community recreation center to help you get started.  The only requirement is to make it FUN.

Finding a physical activity that brings you joy is an absolute blessing because it will set you on a healthy path towards physical vitality.  The paradox here is that any form of exercise or sport exposes you to accidents and injury; and two of the biggest obstacles to good health are injury and arthritis. Therefore it is critical that we develop a training regimen with two primary goals in mind:  to enhance our performance and enjoyment of our chosen activity; and more importantly, to prevent or mitigate the risks for injury.  Hence the emphasis on guarding against extremism in training, because it increases susceptibility to injury and injuries are completely counterproductive to our pursuit of wellness.

There are many paths to the same goal.  The calisthenic programs I have developed are very different in ethic from many of the programs that are being heavily marketed today inasmuch as the methods here will always emphasize slow, controlled progression.  Little and often make much.  I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way as I played high school football and was always coached up to go 110% (which is mathematically and physiologically impossible by the way).  Adherence to this philosophy has yielded a multitude of injuries and left me with significant arthritis.  My medical history includes a twice-fractured left ankle, a ruptured left Achilles’ tendon, chronic lower back pain and right hip pain, two fractured ribs, partially torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders, a complete A-C separation of the right shoulder, partial A-C separation of the left shoulder, and about 7 to 8 concussions in addition to countless pulls, sprains, bumps and bruises.  I do not endorse any of the programs out there that advise taking an Extreme or Insane or Extremely Insane approach to training because I know where that road leads and at this point I am trying to avoid further injury.  I also do not endorse any programs out there offering dramatic results in 90 days, or 60 days, or ultra-rapid transformations in 30 days, because I think that hurried structure can lead to disappointment, it can be difficult to maintain, and further it can actually be dangerous to go “all out” without a strong baseline level of fitness.  Shortcuts are often fraught with pitfalls.  I advocate making small changes but applying them very consistently to build momentum towards a lifetime goal of sustainable health and happiness.

I have three primary aims:  I want to teach you how to avoid hurting yourself while training; I want to demystify the process and help you to understand the fundamental principles of training so you can construct your own fitness regimen; and most importantly I want you to have FUN doing it!  Over the years I have experimented with every form of motivation for my workouts.  I’ve tried self-degradation, anger, revenge, vanity, lust; in the end I found them to be like emotional junk food.  It might make you feel good for a moment but ultimately it’s bad for you.  The only thing that has kept me going, that seems to be a limitless source of energy and motivation for me, is simply to find joy in the movement.  That is when working out starts to feel less like a chore and becomes something closer to play.  Personally, I am grateful to say that I have found my joy and my passion in snowboarding.   

In 2008 my physical health had gradually deteriorated due to poor work-life balance and I had gained about 60 pounds over 5 years.  I was 260-plus pounds, out-of-shape, smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes per day, habitually using marijuana, and eating everything in sight.  Around that time I went through a difficult breakup of an 8-year relationship.  In the aftermath, at 35 years old, I felt lost and heartbroken.  I dealt with my depression by acting out and indulging in hedonism.  I was headed down a dangerous self-destructive path.  But in 2010 my good friend Jerry convinced me to go on a snowboarding trip with him and give it a try.  My first reaction was fear, “There is no way I can do that.”  I grew up a fat nerdy latchkey kid in urban Honolulu.  In my mind I had absolutely no business being on a ski hill.  He assured me he was certain that I could do it, and to give him credit he can be fairly persuasive.  There is something immensely powerful about someone believing in you when you don’t believe in yourself, and I will always be grateful to Jerry for providing that encouragement and kick-starting my journey.  With some convincing I decided that I had nothing to lose.  I was bitten by the bug after taking my first turns and have never looked back.

The sense of confidence and empowerment that comes from progressing and learning new things on my board is indescribable.  The thrill of traveling at speed leaves me breathless every time.  Few things bring me more happiness and I have arranged my life around it.  I searched for a job that would allow me to live near the mountains.  Related expenses are worked into my budget.  The time I spend on the hill is negotiated in advance and prioritized in my schedule.  When people ask me what I do in the summer I tell them I play tennis but the honest answer is that I train for the winter.  To balance out the 40 plus hours of sitting that I do per week for work, I have gradually built up my workout program so that in the offseason I now do three to four hours of yoga and walk or jog about 8-10 miles per week.  I also try to do resistance training twice a week, and on the weekends I work on my tennis game.  During the winter, lost gym time and court time is offset by snowboarding.  I am now a fit 180-185 pounds, completely sober, and at 49 years old have never been healthier in my life.  Learning how to snowboard has been a salvation and continues to be a seemingly endless source of bliss.  After a great day of riding I can’t stop smiling and giggling.  Whenever I am tempted to engage in an unhealthy activity I remind myself that it will not help me perform on the mountain and it immediately gets me back on track.  If I ever feel my motivation flagging I just imagine the next big snowstorm and that always seems to do the trick.  

When I weighed over 360 pounds in my early twenties I could not even imagine riding a chairlift, much less hiking to the top of a snowy mountain and gliding back down on a snowboard.  The feeling of accomplishing something you never thought possible is incredibly fulfilling and I wish that everyone could experience it.  I wouldn’t be where I am now if not for my friend Jerry’s gift of encouragement and I feel indebted and obligated to pay it forward.  If you are, as I was, deconditioned and depressed I would like to share this message with you:  You can do it.  It is never too late to start.  If I can do it, so can you.  Take the first step and begin your own journey towards health and happiness.