I live in the yoga hub of San Francisco, where it seems nearly everyone in the city is toting a mat and heading to their next vinyasa. Still, I am always amazed at how often I hear that yoga is just stretching, that it’s not a full-body workout or worse, that yoga is boring. The truth is that yoga is anything you want it to be.
There is A LOT of stretching in yoga, but...
From an anatomy standpoint, what's really going on when you stretch one muscle is that you're actually flexing another. This relationship is known as "extensors and flexors." When the extensor muscle relaxes, the flexor muscle strengthens.
These muscle groups are known as skeletal, forming around the bones to bend and straighten joints while creating motion and activity in the other surrounding muscles. The relationship between the triceps and biceps is one of the most common examples. When you flex your biceps, your triceps relax and vice versa. Or when you engage your quadriceps, your hamstrings stretch. So therefore, just stretching really only equates to 50 percent of the physical activity involved.
When you break down the anatomy of any asana sequence, you will notice that each pose flows into the other in a highly physiological way. Muscle groups are being toned and shaped, while internal organs are being purified and massaged.
For instance, take Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II) — The arms are lengthening, activating the triceps while simultaneously stretching the biceps. The pose is also activating the muscles between the shoulder blades, stretching out the chest. In the lower body, the quads in both legs are activated, allowing the adductors (inner thigh muscles) to release. Moving into Triangle Pose (Trikonasana) from here, would straighten the front leg while hinging the torso forward at the hips. This action deepens the stretch of the adductors in the front leg and engages the quads in the back leg, keeping you steady and allowing opening at the top hip.
By adding conscious movement, your body and mind will stretch and strengthen. It's up to you how much you want to either relax into a pose or activate and strengthen your muscles. Just be mindful that you are approaching each pose with grace and ease.
The role of a yoga teacher is to pay close attention to the synchronization of a students' body and breath, adjusting the routine either verbally or physically to meet each students' individual needs. If a student is not engaging a certain part of the body, the teacher can help the student activate the area so that the maximum benefit of the pose is achieved. For example, hugging the elbows in close to the body in a Chaturanga push-up in order to activate the triceps.
Yoga is ACTUALLY a full body workout.
More often than not your body is smarter than your mind. Yoga strengthens both simultaneously! Whether it's turning inward and releasing tension, undoing the damage of sitting at the computer, or even just breaking a sweat — your reasons for practicing yoga are entirely your own.
I remember once during an advanced training course, I was determined to be strong and do my absolute best. After three days of super intense practice and trying really hard, I found that my body couldn’t keep up with the ambition of my mind. So by day five, I had no choice but to stop trying to force it and surrender to my body's own natural yoga evolution. I turned inward and became the silent observer of my own practice, watching the patterns of my breath.
As a result, my practice became more meaningful and eventually my body was able to do the very poses I had once tried so hard to force with my overly ambitious mind. Like extensors and flexors, my mind was able to sit back, relax and be a passenger on a beautiful journey, while my body was doing the strengthening and stretching.
Whatever the style of yoga it is that you practice, you are dedicating time to connect the mind, body, and breath. Without even knowing it, you are activating every cell of your body — working out the muscles and breathing energy and vitality into nerves and connective tissue. You do all this and have to maintain focus on your breathing, watching the subtle behaviors in each and every movement by deepening your breath. In other words, you are practicing the art of Pranayama, known in yoga as the "Guidance of Breath" — sending fresh life into areas that need it most.
Yoga builds mind/body awareness by turning our attention to the breath without the distraction of the thoughts or criticisms that stem from the ego.
Yoga is only boring if you believe it to be.
By giving power to the belief that yoga is boring, you give power to the belief that YOU are boring. Your body is an incredibly interesting, complex machine, regardless of what your critical mind (or ego) says. It takes any ordinary person to begin the practice of yoga, but an extraordinary person to commit to change and his or her own personal evolution.
Much like life, yoga is not a destination but rather a journey that unfolds before your very eyes. Be the silent observer of your body and allow yourself to watch and appreciate the amazing things it is capable of doing and you may surprise yourself of what you as a whole being can achieve.