Yoga with a Twist

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

Yoga with a Twist

Flexibility and meditation, you bet. But astanga also delivers a Western-style workout.
By John Brant

I took my last yoga class in 1977, when both the world and the discipline being taught were profoundly different than today. Just now, the extent of those differences is being dramatized for me by Holiday Johnson, a yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon.

"In the seventies we were after peace and love--you might have learned the Hittleman method," she says. "In the eighties we embraced the strict discipline of B. K. S. Iyengar." Johnson, whose clients include athletes at Nike's corporate headquarters, illustrates the former method with soft, hippy-dippy motions, the latter as she crisply snaps to attention in the tadasana, or beginning posture. "And now, in the nineties, we have astanga." Johnson begins moving in a seamless, rapid manner, and she breathes in audible chuffs. "Astanga is based on breath and heat, which are important to a body's alignment and overall health," she says, her muscles now tense under her weight as she goes down on all fours. "But it's known as power yoga because the emphasis is on building strength and endurance as much as flexibility and balance. Astanga," Johnson remarks, "is a workout."

Yoga--the term, derived from Sanskrit, refers to the joining of seemingly disparate elements, such as body and mind--came to the West about a century ago and has cycled in and out of vogue ever since. Millions of Americans have brushed up against hatha, or physical, yoga, but relatively few have been committed athletes. The discipline has been perceived as too esoteric, complex, and divorced from the demands of building strength, stamina, and performance. Astanga, however, is yoga's equivalent of the six-mile run or the hourlong mountain-bike ride. Because its teachings include not only the hatha yoga positions but also the movements that connect them, it appeals to our continuous-effort sensibilities: Many astanga students think of the sessions as aerobic workouts unto themselves. Other athletes incorporate astanga into their warm-ups and cool-downs. However you approach it, you'll benefit from the high level of concentration the pursuit requires.

"Certainly astanga is an awesome practice for building strength," contends Beryl Bender Birch, wellness director and yoga teacher-in-residence for the New York Road Runners Club and author of Power Yoga. "But to bike, run, swim, or ski also means to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. Astanga enables you to build up a continuous flow of energy, breath, flexibility, and strength without spacing out."

Breathe, for Heat's Sake
The basic building block of astanga yoga is body heat. According to the teaching, heat burns off and flushes out the body's impurities and promotes healing, realignment, and strength. Far easier to grasp is the astanga tenet that heat--not just stretching--renders your muscles more pliable and flexible. By Western standards, that's what a five-minute warm-up jog is all about.

But in astanga it's the lungs that have to get up and start moving in the warm-up process. Much in the way that a bellows generates heat in a forge, body heat is created through breathing. Birch has her students practice "active exhalation": While standing or sitting up, close your mouth and lay your hands across your stomach. Now exhale through your nose, gently pushing on your belly to assure that most of the air has left your lungs. Finally, while trying not to think about it, relax and inhale fully through your nostrils. This exercise loosens and strengthens the diaphragm, allowing you ultimately to take in more oxygen and feed it to your muscles. It also lays the groundwork for what Birch says is a key to the astanga discipline: ujjayi breathing.

Ujjayi breathing is distinguished by the sound you must make as you learn it--a hissing caused by the throat narrowing as your breath travels over your vocal chords. Narrowing the throat causes the velocity of the air passing through it to increase and, more important, regulates the exchange of oxygen. Experience the rudiments of ujjayi--whisper an "ahh" or "urr" sound while exhaling and inhaling--and you'll get a taste of controlled airflow. As a way of becoming stronger and more focused, such a practice is significant: We're prone to take much shorter or more irregular breaths during our pressure-packed moments, causing us to stiffen or work with less air at just the wrong time. Ujjayi makes physiological sense because it ensures that your muscles--and your brain--always get a fixed amount of oxygen.

Such evenness of breath went a long way toward saving the career of distance runner Thom Birch. A former All-American track and field athlete and a nationally ranked road runner, Birch underwent surgery and extensive treatment for a torn Achilles tendon before being advised to give up the sport. As a last resort, he showed up at the Road Runners Club for one of Beryl Bender's power yoga classes.

Once past his skepticism of yoga's ethereal rap, Birch picked up the fundamentals of ujjayi and gradually learned to channel it into a restorative body-wide flame. His leg muscles, tightened from a decade of 100-miles-per-week training, loosened. Three months after starting the program, he was winning races again. "Now I use ujjayi all the time," says Birch, who ultimately married Bender and assists in her teaching. "I'll start using it during a stressful point of a workout or road race, like when I need to surge. Because I breathe more efficiently, I feel as strong running 50 miles a week as I used to running 100."

Just Move a Muscle
To prove that yoga builds strength, Holiday Johnson drops into the grasshopper position, a modified push-up in which practitioners must focus on their breathing for long, muscle-burning moments. "Right now my weight's evenly distributed between my arms and legs," Johnson says. "I get young athletes in here with these amazingly developed abs and pecs, and it devastates them when they find out that a lady more than twice their age is as strong as they are."

Astanga builds power chiefly through static contraction--flexing muscles without moving joints or limbs. Imagine that: With little movement and no bone-jarring impacts, astanga can apparently give you added strength. Many of the standing positions rely on static contraction of the quadriceps, particularly the vastus medialis and vastus lateralis, a task that not only develops power in your biggest muscles but helps keep your knees properly aligned. To get a taste of static contraction, stand up and tighten your thigh muscles by lifting your kneecaps. Try to maintain the contraction for ten full breaths. Besides the strain on your muscles, you should feel other muscles stretching and heat being generated, and you should notice the high level of concentration required.

It's this kind of low-risk, high-yield efficiency that has made Charles Hsieh, a 30-year-old professional mountaineering instructor and amateur triathlete, one of Johnson's regular students. Hsieh turned to yoga after more than a decade of mountain climbing and endurance training. "My body wasn't getting any more limber, and I had been in a car accident that injured my back," he recalls. "The most obvious benefit has been the flexibility; before I started yoga I couldn't touch my toes, and now I feel as though I could kiss the ground. Plus, after a long run or bike ride, my muscles now recover much faster."

Such solid benefits, however, do not accrue from dilettantish efforts. Most instructors agree that yoga should be practiced seriously or not at all. Beryl Bender Birch recommends a minimum of four to five sessions per week, and though Hsieh typically attends only one weekly class, he holds to a daily regimen. "It's become something I need to do," he says, "like drinking water after a workout."

Which is exactly how Johnson sees yoga--as an athlete's sustenance. "You can expect to feel results after just one or two classes," she says. "You'll feel more flexible and relaxed; you'll feel that same glow as if you went for a long run. But yoga's real value comes over time." The 51-year-old instructor smoothly unwinds from one position and into the next. "Yoga allows people to continue being athletes not just for two or three years, but for the rest of their lives."

John Brant, a contributing editor of Outside, wrote about rowing in September.

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