Students have occasionally wondered, in making the transition from a more restorative Hatha Yoga practice to a more dynamic Vinyasa Flow practice, why do we have to do so many Downward Dogs and Chaturangas and Upward Dogs…why is the practice so physically challenging and how is that form of Yoga valuable over a more relaxing and “stretch-focused” practice?
The answer is, all Yoga practices are great…but what a more dynamic practice, like Vinyasa Flow, offers is to bring the body into a state of physical strength, flexibility and vitality, the mind into a state of balance and stillness, and helps you to create a “container” for your movements and experiences in life.
In the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, we practice “Vinyasas” or “flows” which, on a physical level, help us to build greater strength, particularly we build necessary strength in the core and upper body which enhances posture, improves our active daily living, and helps us to build and maintain a strong metabolic rate.
As we age we lose muscle mass. This is a result of natural changes in our chemistry; we no longer have the hormones to maintain muscle without working at it. The consequence of having less muscle mass is that our metabolic rate slows. The metabolic rate is the amount of energy we need in a day to fuel and operate the systems of the body. Muscle mass is very metabolically active, requiring a lot of energy to maintain. Conversely, body fat is not metabolically active; it requires very little energy to be maintained. In fact, it just sits around being “fat”. So, ideally to maintain a health metabolic rate, which means our bodies are lean, vibrantly healthy and energized, we must maintain a healthy amount of muscle mass. So, the strengthening work of the Vinyasa Flow yoga system helps us not only to be stronger in our body, but also helps us to build and maintain a higher metabolic rate, keeping our bodies in a state of aliveness so that we can continue to enjoy an active daily life, sport, recreation, maintain healthy posture, and reduce the risk of injuries and ailments like osteoporosis and heart disease.
As well, with so many of us spending the majority of our working day at a computer, the balanced strengthening work of Vinyasa Flow yoga helps us to balance the muscles of the body and bring our posture into better alignment. Sitting at a desk causes us to have weakness and tension in the upper back “rounding” the back, tightness and shortening in the muscles of the neck until the head protrudes, and tightness in the chest and front of the shoulders. In a balanced Yoga program we stretch and strengthen the body in all ranges of motion to counteract the postural adaptations to desk work, and bring the body into healthier alignment. Good posture ensures good circulation, good nervous system function, reduced injuries and strains, and a clearer mind. And in particular Downward Facing Dog inverts the body, lengthens the spine, and counteracts the “desk-bound” posture.
Some students wonder if practicing Yoga is as effective as lifting weights. I can answer this question by suggesting you google “Rodney Yee”, a popular international teacher who, through the functional strengthening of Yoga has built and maintained a strong, flexible and balanced body. And the side effect, a strong, flexible and balanced mind.
So, next time you are wondering “why so many downward dogs?” remember that these postures are designed to assist your body in being as vibrantly healthy and alive as it can be, and creating a foundation for a clear, balanced and peaceful mind.
Strengthening Benefits of Vinyasa Flow In Brief:
- Vinyasa Flow helps build and maintain strong bones, muscles and connective tissue to maintain a high metabolism, healthy posture, and an active and alive body.
- In studies of women over the age of 65 a large percentage no longer had the strength to reach up to a cupboard and lower a can of soup to the countertop – this indicates a loss of strength that leaves us unable to live active daily lives and live independently into our old age. The physical work of Vinyasa Flow yoga ensures that we will have the strength, balance and function to maintain health lives into our senior years.
- Yoga is “functional exercise” ie: the body works in union with all systems and body parts, which is the way we use the body. This work will burn more calories, improve body/mind awareness, enhance movement pathways in the body to enhance agility, mobility and “grace in motion”.
- It is important for people to work at their own pace as they develop strength, modifying as they need to as their body gets stronger, more flexible, and as technique improves. Always choose technique and safety over intensity or repetition. “Work in the posture you want to have” and your work in Vinyasa Flow Yoga will be most rewarding.
First published in the Mind Body Messenger newsletter 2009