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. Doyogawithme.com 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!