Will goes to a Yoga class: Enlightenment does not ensue – Part 2

Yoga nailed-itAnd we’re back. In part 1 I outlined my recent Yoga workshop experience and what I liked about it. For those of you too lazy to go back and read it we’re no longer friends I dot-pointed the positives of the class which included an emphasis on proper breathing, mobility work, balance, and hot chicks.

Today I’m going to cover the not-so-great aspects of the class and, by extension, Yoga in general, that I feel more people should be aware of, and which will probably drive the Yogi fanatics to start clubbing baby seals. Meh, can’t win ’em all.

What I didn’t like:  

  • There really isn’t much of a training effect achieved.

And this is actually fine. As I stated in part 1, Yoga falls into the “restorative” category of exercise – it’s not a highly physically demanding training protocol.
So I guess what I actually don’t like is the permeating belief among Yogis, and much of the public, that Yoga is a form of strength training or, the one that really cracks me up, power training.
It’s been said many times before, and I’ll say it again:

Unless somebody is very weak, Yoga is NOT a form of strength training! 

Once someone can perform movements proficiently with their own bodyweight (adaptation principle) then no further strength will be built without an adequate stressor i.e. adding load (progressive overload principle). So unless they intend to stack on a bunch of weight, they’re going to have to start adding some resistance training (e.g. throwing some iron around) to build any further strength.

It also wasn’t a “cardio” workout. My cardiovascular system doesn’t take much to get challenged, because I hate cardio and usually find any excuse to avoid it.
Yet, Yoga certainly posed no threat of exposing my conditioning, or lack thereof.
Perhaps the confusion lies in the fact that everyone gets really sweaty. I was soaked in sweat. Disgustingly so. But I can also get a good sweat up by taking my albino skin out the front door for five minutes on a hot Melbourne Summer’s day.
Sweat does not a cardio workout make.

  •  The lack of understanding of lower back injury mechanisms.

If we are to honour the joint by joint approach, or even just the basic tenets of spinal anatomy and biomechanics, then we recognise that the lumbar spine is an inherently stable joint, and likes to remain so. While a little movement is obviously fine and necessary, and is permitted in some planes more so than others, it is when we push this movement towards end range of motion and especially if done so repeatedly and/or under extra load that we run into problems.
In short, people who are restricted in hip extension and/or thoracic extension due to tight hip flexors/pecs, weak glutes/scap retractors (<= extremely abbreviated list) and generally poor movement patterns (i.e. almost everyone) will find a method to compensate for this limitation. Usually, that method will be lumbar extension or, more accurately, excessive lumbar extension. Again, do this repeatedly and/or excessively and voilà! We have us some good ol’ fashioned low back pain. Sound familiar?

Well, aside from the supposed focus on inversion techniques this day, apparently the other major emphasis was on backbends.
These type of backbends:

Because who needs a lumbar spine?
Because who needs facet joints?

And yes, I did attempt them too. And with reasonable success I might add.
But the fact is while these might appear somewhat impressive to your Yoga buddies, there’s really not a lot of value in this exercise aside from getting better at backbends for Yoga. And there’s plenty that can go wrong.
That coupled with the fact the coaching cues we received actually made the movement even more precarious from a biomechanical standpoint, and I’m back to my overarching point that we focused on a lot of things that weren’t particularly productive from a training standpoint, or smart choices from a risk versus reward standpoint.

(Note for the coaches and anatomy geeks that may be wondering what cues I found to be incorrect:
From the back bend position, I’d want to be in maximal hip extension thereby, hopefully, saving myself from going into lumbar hyperextension. To help ensure this was the case, I consciously contracted my glutes, hard, à la the top of a hip thrust. This naturally caused my thighs and knees to roll out (glutes create external rotation of the femur). However, the instructor felt that this was incorrect, so he cued and manually moved me to bring my knees back into a vertical alignment with my hips, bringing me into some femoral internal rotation and thereby lessening my glute contraction, slipping into some more anterior pelvic tilt, and thus, lumbar hyperextension.).

This also applies to lumbar rotation. This post is already long enough without reviewing the mechanics of lumbar rotation. Just know that we’ve got a very limited capacity for safe rotation at the lumbar spine, and excessive lumbar rotation = bad, and possibly pain.

So, I don’t like this:

No, your back isn't tight because it needs more stretching
No, your back isn’t “tight” because it needs more stretching

Or this:

And "cracking" your back probably isn't a good thing
And “cracking” your back probably isn’t a good thing

There’s a subtle but crucial modification we can make to these stretches to promote more rotation where we need it – the thoracic spine – and prevent rotation where we don’t want it – the lumbar spine:

Subtle but crucial difference
Subtle but crucial difference

Notice in the above image that by chocking up the top leg on a roller and keeping the thigh at a 90 degree or angle or above, we can open up into thoracic rotation while minimising any excessive lumbar rotation. Combine this with a cue to actively brace through the midline, and this subtle modification becomes a far safer and more productive mobility exercise than that shown in the first image which is all too commonly prescribed, especially in Yoga.

  • The hot chick left early, unbeknownst to me.

We were going through our “cool down” of stretching and breathing (because doing so for the previous three hours obviously wasn’t quite enough yet) and I was lying there oblivious to most instructions, organising my thoughts and some important questions regarding Hot Chick:

– What if she’s a vegetarian?
She’s a Yogi, so she probably is. Is this really a deal-breaker? Maybe I could just sprinkle some ground up animal flesh into her kale juice…

– Does she even lift?
What if she thinks that Yoga is strength training?! Lord have mercy…

Then we sit up ready to crank out a final bout of om-ing (it sounds like eerie church music) and I glance over toward Hot Chick’s mat, dismayed to discover she’d snuck out through the cool down.
Why didn’t she take me with her? We could’ve escaped Yoga together! We could’ve gone for a squat session together. And eaten steak…

Well, that counts as another knock on Yoga in my book.

  • Several of the guys took their tops off.

And these weren’t even the types of guys who should be taking their tops off in public. Guys, I keep my shirt on when I’m at the gym. I’d really appreciate if you did too.

  • Very little time spent on the “fun” stuff.

This was apparently a fairly advanced workshop, and while I’m the furthest thing from a competent Yogi, for a workshop in any physical pursuit to be considered “advanced” I expect my work capacity to be significantly challenged. It wasn’t.
The focus of the workshop was supposed to be inversions: Handstands, headstands and variations thereof were on the agenda for the day. And, while I can kind of hold a headstand, and I have no problem busting out some handstand push ups and single arm holds against a wall, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself proficient in any inversion work. I can’t hold a free handstand to save myself.
Well, our handstand attempts totaled six. Maybe eight, tops. In three hours. I felt ripped off.
If I want to get good at handstands and other bodyweight exercises I’ll attend a gymnastics class, not Yoga.

  • Like many things in fitness, Yoga is pretty much a cult.

No doubt about it, the attendees had all drank the Yoga Kool-Aid and were hanging on their preferred guru’s every word. Good on him for establishing such a loyal following. That’s just good business, and it’s really what every business – especially in the fitness industry – strives to do.
I was far from sold however, and I’m quite sure I’d have precisely zero success in trying to point out the fallibility of Yoga as a complete training system, or even a priority training protocol, to anybody there.

Yoga - Namaste

  • The lax approach to coaching.

Something I always appreciate and respect is high-level coaching. I’m sure it stems from a childhood involving a diverse range of sports, dealing with football and cricket coaches, boxing trainers and martial arts instructors.
And, this attention to coaching has no doubt been cemented through my years as a trainer, and learning from other trainers and strength coaches in the industry.
So when this Yoga instructor was charged with a group of 30 or so participants for three hours, I see that as an opportunity to take control of the room. In my opinion, he didn’t. Granted, Yoga is obviously a different environment to that of most sports and training. Yoga Yins where football and boxing Yang. Still, the soft-spoken, lackadaisical, and often unstructured approach to coaching the group really didn’t appeal to me.

Other random, general observations:

  • The females, without exception, were all hypermobile.

All were clearly experienced Yogis. It’s a correlational observation only, but suggesting causation wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

  • The guys were all skinny-fat.

I don’t know where they’re currently at in their fitness journey, so I’m not judging. But a lot of people have this image of male Yogis as having this super lean, wiry, strong physique. I don’t hold this image, and examples of it certainly weren’t present on this day.

  • You sweat like hell, and this wasn’t even Bikram.

Again with the sweating! Haven’t you Yogis heard of a freakin’ air conditioner?! I know the practice is 5000 years old, give or take. But it’s 2013 and we do have air conditioning readily available to us now! Embrace a little modernity, Yogis. Embrace.

To Yoga or not to Yoga  

If we’re judging by length alone, it would clearly appear that I’ve heavily weighted the “What I didn’t like” half of this Yoga post. So by now you’re probably thinking that I view Yoga as a complete waste of time, right?
Au contraire, mon frère.

I actually like a lot of things about Yoga, hence part 1 of this article even exists. In fact, probably 90% of what Yoga offers I think most people could benefit from.
If you were to watch me training my clients and athletes, and myself, you’d notice that a lot of our warm up in particular is very Yoga-esque.
Just check out this little sample of an integrated warm up sequence, and think about how much of it is derived from Yoga:

See? Yoga-ey. Next time you’re in a rush and want to accelerate your warm up before a training session, try going through the above complex 6-8 times in a row.

So do I recommend that people get involved in Yoga, or at least try it out? Absolutely.
BUT, do I recommend that people pour all their time and energy into Yoga exclusively, at the expense of proper strength and power training? Absolutely not.
Yoga is NOT going to give you any great benefits in terms of strength or developing “long, lean muscles”…ugh.
It IS however, a great way to supplement the rest of your training, and I think that provided you enjoy it, attending one Yoga class per week as part of an active rest day would fit the bill nicely. Albeit, even this comes with a caveat: As I instruct all my clients who participate in Yoga (mind you not many of them do Yoga anymore – after discovering the many benefits of proper strength training, most of my clients have since lost interest in Yoga) there are a few movements in particular to eliminate, as mentioned above.

Aside from that, in terms of the Yoga movements, I just feel that we can get pretty much the same benefits by taking the best parts of Yoga and condensing it into our dynamic warm up for 10-15 minutes.

Think about it. We’ve got:

– Soft tissue work adapted from manual and massage therapists.
– Mobility drills, many of which are adapted from Yoga.
– Power drills, adapted mostly from athletics, Olympic lifting or kettlebell
– Strength movements adapted from power lifting.
– Accessory work adapted from bodybuilding.
– Bodyweight exercises adapted from gymnastics.

Does it not make sense that a training protocol which takes the best aspects learned from many disciplines, would yield better, more rounded results than that which focuses solely on one?
It’s Bruce Lee 101: Take what works, reject what does not.
Mastery aside here, as I already alluded to the fact that doing nothing but Yoga will make you great at Yoga.
But are most people really attending Yoga because they want to become Yogi masters? Or are they attending Yoga, and any training modality, because they want to look, feel and perform better?
Taking that into consideration, I really feel that the vast majority of people would do far better if they limited themselves to a just a dash of Yoga, rather than drinking the entire bottle of Yoga Kool-Aid.

That’s just me though, and I could have it all wrong. But, I probably don’t.


Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below.
And of course, liking and sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.

2 thoughts on “Will goes to a Yoga class: Enlightenment does not ensue – Part 2”

  1. Awesome Will. And yes I have attended yoga on 2 occasions and I agree with you about mobility and flexibility. Yes I also sweated in one of the classes, but as you put it so well, it stops there in terms of getting one fit! It’s always good to see a professional such as yourself give perspective to things from both sides, so many don’t. Enjoyed the read.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read Martin.
      I think it’s important for trainers to have a decent crack at something to be able to have an informed opinion on the subject. But let’s face it, two sessions of Yoga and you’ve already got the gist. You stretch, you breathe, you om…meh.

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