Ordinarily, if I were to recommend a terrific exercise to my reading audience, I might expect them to drop my story and run screaming from the room. But, I actually think the one I am about to suggest is an exercise many will find intriguing. It is a yoga pose called savasana. The instructions are to lie on your back with your arms and legs stretched out away from your body. Your palms should be facing up. You should breathe deeply, try to clear your mind, and continue the pose for five to fifteen minutes. Great exercise, right? You may not be surprised to hear another name for this –- the corpse pose.
Savasana is often used at the end of a yoga class to promote relaxation. It is one of many reasons I love yoga. But right there, we see where yoga differs from other exercise programs. It is not just the physical body that gets a workout here. Indeed, the word yoga is Sanskrit, and it means “to unite.” Creating a mind, body, spirit connection is what it’s all about. So yes, relaxation can be a part of the “workout.”
This makes it a little tricky to find the perfect yoga class for any given individual. There are all sorts of yoga studios since practitioners can focus on the body, mind, or spirit, or any combination of the three. Here are some of the major styles:
For a more physical workout, with sweating involved, try Ashtanga Yoga or Power Yoga.
If you really want to sweat, hot yoga and Bikram yoga are your options as the class is held in a room that is heated up to one hundred and five degrees.
For a more spiritual workout, try Kundalini to connect to your spiritual energy via chanting, breathing exercises, postures, and meditation.
For a mind/body workout, try Vinyasa Yoga or Hatha Yoga for twisting and bending movements, breath work, and “centering.”
Clearly, one needs to find the correct balance of the mind/body/spirit elements for their personal taste and that meets their doctor’s approval.
As I describe the one that is best for me, let me introduce Joanna Mikel. She is a Regional Coordinator for a fitness company that operates in Ohio. Beyond training new instructors for the gym, she is often the substitute teacher for the various classes I have tried. (As an aside, did you know that some Medicare supplemental health insurance pays for gym membership? That’s how I got to the gym I use.)
In interviewing Jo, the most important point is this: not only are there differences in yoga studios, but also in yoga instructors. Each brings his/her own personality and interpretation of yoga to the session. Let’s see one example by doing yoga with Jo.
Here’s what to expect:
The lights in the room are off and music is playing softly. Students have brought mats. They are spaced in rows across the room.
Jo does each pose along with the students as she shows the correct form. People tend to hide in the back of the room, but being up front is great for seeing all her moves.
There are mirrors on two walls. Jo tells you that you only need to look at yourself because you are the only person with whom you are competing.
(As an aside, I’ll remind you this is NOT high school math, and it is perfectly ok to look at your neighbor’s “work.” Indeed, for new students, it’s helpful to learn the poses.)
Jo’s yoga style (and the gym’s) is a type of vinyasa flow and it’s free of religion. There is no discussion of the third eye. She does not chant “ohm” in her practice. If she uses a Sanskrit name for a pose, she also uses its common name. This all helps to minimize the “woo-woo” factor some complain about in yoga.
She starts with a warmup, and moves on from there. In every instance, she tells us where to place our hands, feet, and other body parts. If she mentions which muscle we are using, she does so intentionally to wake up the muscle and engage it better.
Her class is for any level of student. She starts with a basic pose. Then she tells students, “If you can, come with me,” as she shows how to progress to an intermediate pose. She says it again, “If you can, come with me” as she moves on to a still more advanced pose.
She tells us there is no failure in yoga as everyone is working at their own level.
Start to finish, this is a fifty-five minute class.
It ends in Savasana. Relaxation is Jo’s focus, not meditation. Some teachers do a guided meditation here -– suggesting ways to relax -– but Jo does not.
When we sit up from Savasana, we do a deep inhalation and exhalation as she instructs us to let out anything that is “less than great” or “not worth keeping.” We then lift our arms and hands overhead as we “reach high for joy yet to come.” And finally, with hands in a prayer pose, thumbs touching our hearts, we express our gratitude for the day and acknowledge each other with “namaste,” a word that means “I honor you.”
When I asked Jo for her elevator speech about “why yoga?” her answer was simple: “There is nothing you do in your life that yoga doesn’t help.” Since mind, body, and spirit are all addressed in yoga, we have to agree.
My own personal testimony is this: When I started yoga, I had a stiff back, stiff hips, stiff neck, stiff everything. I tried a new mattress, new shoes, massage, physical therapy, etc. Stiffness was still mine. With the addition of once-a-week yoga, I started to feel better quickly. My body’s flexibility has improved too.
What’s next for me? I have two goals. I hope to improve my balance as I work to “go with Jo” beyond the basic exercise of standing on one foot. And I hope to practice savasana regularly!
Though I say that humorously, it is interesting to note that the corpse pose is considered to be very difficult. While people can bend and twist through a class, they find lying on the floor challenging because the “art of relaxation” is harder than it looks.
This alone proves yoga to be different from other exercise programs. Don’t run screaming from the room as I mention this form of exercise; try running to a yoga studio instead. I recommend it heartily.
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