Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 27 2018

Slow Moving Training: Yoga

By Mark Sisson
25 Comments

Inline_YogaI like intensity when I train. Lifting heavy, running sprints, playing Ultimate Frisbee. I keep it brief, and the foundation is always a lot of slow movement throughout the day—easy runs, long walks or hikes, rarely sitting—but I go hard when I “work out.”

What if you were to go slow, on purpose?

Entire schools of physical culture are founded upon slow, deliberate movements. They squash momentum and lambast rapidity. They’re difficult in a different way. They require patience and fortitude.

Take yoga.

Yoga is a loaded word. It’s at once religious practice, spiritual tradition, a way of honing mind, body, and spirit. It’s diet, medicine, meditation. The history of yoga is hard to parse; different sources give different historical timelines. What’s obvious is that there’s no “one yoga.” So, what I’ll talk about is how most of us reading typically conceive of it: Stretching with a spiritual veneer.

This is probably the most common form of slow physical training practiced worldwide. My wife’s done it for decades, and I’ve joined in on more than a few classes with her. It’s not my favorite thing—I don’t seek it out on a regular basis—but it is a great workout, and I always come away in a different headspace than when I started. The benefits of yoga are pretty well-established:

Yoga and Flexibility

As a series of poses and stretches that test and extend your joints’ range of motions, yoga should improve flexibility. That’s one of its express purposes. Sure enough, in almost every population, it seems to work.

It improves the flexibility and balance of college athletes and elderly adults. In older women and injured industrial workers, it improves hamstring flexibility and spinal mobility.

Yoga for Older Adults

Being slow-paced, deliberate, and controlled makes yoga very effective for older adults (or beginners to physical training) who are unsure of their abilities and want to improve their physical (and mental) faculties.

A 12-week Thai yoga program helped older adults improve their ability across a range of basic physical functions, including back scratching, standing up from chairs, sit and stretch, and the 8 foot up and go test.

An 8-week Hatha yoga program helped older adults improve single leg balance, chair standing, back scratching, flexibility, and 8 foot up and go just as well as an 8-week strength and stretching program using machines. A later study found that the same yoga program improved executive function, including working memory and mental flexibility, in the same group of adults. A third study found that the yoga program improved cognitive function by reducing stress levels. Boy, that’s a lucky group of seniors.

Yoga and the Brain

Like most every other physical training methodology ever studied, yoga improves cognitive function. We see this across a range of populations, but especially in older folks at the greatest risk of cognitive dysfunction.

Compared to walking, yoga decreases anxiety, increases well-being, and boosts GABA concentrations in the hypothalamus. This is incredibly cool. Everyone knows that exercise is often the ideal antidote to anxiety and depression. It works, its side effects are beneficial, and it requires no prescription. But this was one of the first studies to show a correlation between increased GABA from physical activity and reduced anxiety levels.

Yoga and Stress

Any type of exercise will reduce stress, as long as you avoid overtraining. Yoga is no different and seems to have particularly potent effects.

Pregnant women who followed a yoga program saw reduced perceived stress and improved heart rate variability (an objective indication of increased resilience to stress).

After doing a yoga-based guided relaxation, people with baseline elevations in sympathetic nervous system activity—who were already stressed out—saw those level off. Those who weren’t stressed didn’t. This is important because it shows yoga is more of an adaptogen, helping you normalize stress levels only if they need normalizing.

In a group of people awaiting organ transplantations (which has got to be a trying experience), doing laughter yoga (laughter+stretching) improved heart rate variability and mood in both the short and long-term.

Yoga and Strength

Believe it or not, yoga can increase strength. Part of strength, after all, is the ability to get into full range of motion. If you’re strong only through a small range of motion, is that really strength?

Yoga also increases muscular endurance. Again, this isn’t absolute strength, but it’s a component of muscular capacity that enables the expression of strength.

I wouldn’t rely on yoga for your strength. Instead, treat it as a complement to your strength training.

On that topic, Brad Kearns is working on one of our next Primal Publishing online courses, Yoga For Athletes. I’ll have more on that course in the coming months.

Yoga and Various Diseases

Given yoga’s reputation as a “healing art,” many studies have looked into yoga for the treatment of various diseases. Unfortunately, most of the studies have been inconclusive or come up with negative results (doesn’t work, doesn’t hurt), like with schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, asthma. At the least, it probably won’t hurt, but you shouldn’t rely on it in lieu of real treatment.

It looks promising for a few, though: depression (as an adjunct), breast cancer (not as a cure, but for anxiety, quality of life, and certain symptoms), type 2 diabetes (by improving metabolic health), Parkinson’s (pilot study showing improvements in strength and function)

That said, studies don’t indicate that yoga offers anything above and beyond other types of training for these diseases. Still, there might be more to this picture—at least from an anecdotal perspective.

Is Yoga Safe?

It goes without saying that anything worth anything carries a bit of risk. Driving to work (or the gym) risks a car accident. Falling in love risks heartbreak. Going into business for yourself risks failure. And training risks injuries.

Yoga is no different. Things happen. You go too far past your joint’s capacity, and pull something, end up sore for weeks. You lose too much water and electrolytes during the hot yoga session, and feel lightheaded on the drive home. You’re swept away by a charismatic yogi, wind up a member of his harem wearing black and white Nikes. We’ve all been there.

Luckily, studies show that yoga is as safe as “usual care” and other types of exercise. There’s quibbling there, to be sure. Yoga is probably safer than free climbing and boxing.

Still, I’d question becoming a “yoga person,” though. I know I probably have several dozen reading right now, and I love you. But don’t assume yoga covers all your physical bases. I’m not fully convinced that yoga is enough for total fitness and optimum strength. A day or two a week on top of some lifting, sprinting? Great. I bet most strength athletes could use a little yoga, even, if they aren’t doing mobility training already.

Yoga has a lot of intangible benefits, too, effects that studies don’t really capture very well.

  • It forces flow. This is one of the great features of exercise, one that goes unreported and ignored. The physical effects training has on your body composition, your muscles, your cardiovascular system, your capacity to interact with the world with force and skill are all extremely important. But when you’re fully engaged in a physical activity, when data is flowing through your neuromuscular pathways, when you can do nothing but immerse your entire being in the movement, you reside in the flow state. No brain hacks, gadgets, or supplements required. And although I’m not that experienced with yoga, whenever I’ve done it I’ve noticed myself slipping into that state without even trying. Actually, I notice it after the class, because during the class you’re fully engaged and not thinking about thinking.
  • It trains grit. Most studies show that you can’t teach grit—or stick-to-it-iveness—and that it’s mostly hereditary. I buy that, but I think yoga is different. Yoga is very uncomfortable, and you must hold the holds for sometimes minutes at a time. That requires tolerance of discomfort. Some of it is that yoga selects for individuals who can tolerate extreme discomfort. Even if that’s the case, yoga will certainly hone your existing grit.
  • It’s more than stretching. A typical yoga class will incorporate not just the physical act of contorting your body, holding poses. It also emphasizes the importance of breath, and of integrating your breath with your movement. This focus on breath turns the session into a de-facto meditation. Many classes even end with a full-on guided meditation. Yoga is a nice package deal for people who otherwise wouldn’t incorporate these things into their lives.

Join a class.

Historically, yoga was a taught discipline. You didn’t grab a wax tablet of poses and slink off to the jungle to learn yoga by yourself. You sought the tutelage of a master. Things are different now. There are effective and helpful videos explaining how to do specific poses and follow routines. These are extremely helpful, but I don’t think they’re a good replacement for a good teacher.

Why?

If you’re dedicated, you can get the same effect watching yoga Youtube videos with your cat, but it’s easy to check out when things get too hard. You might grab your phone to browse Instagram in between poses. You might cut things short because it’s uncomfortable and no one’s counting on you finishing. It’s different than strength training at a home gym because the routines are so uncomfortable and last so long. Mustering the will to do a set of heavy deadlifts is manageable for many. Mustering the will to hold a difficult pose for two minutes is not. A teacher (or class) takes willpower out of the equation. As long you get yourself to class, the rest falls into place. 

After today’s post, I hope you’ll consider trying a yoga class. I know I’ll probably join Carrie more often. The literature is compelling and hard to ignore. But in the end, you just have to see for yourself.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.

I know I have some yoga experts reading this. I know there are many different types of yoga. I’d love to hear from you. What’s your favorite type? Let loose your questions, advice, comments. I’d love to hear your perspective.

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TAGS:  Aging, mobility

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25 thoughts on “Slow Moving Training: Yoga”

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  1. Yoga is definitely up in the top 5 for me. I find it so relaxing and love the health benefits too.

  2. Hmm, the VERY intense conditioning and strength-building routines of Indian wrestlers aren’t really that distant from yoga activities. With a lean in that direction, a yoga approach could be closer to an all-around fitness practice.

  3. Slow training is huge, and I thnk you can probably derive its benefits from nearly any activity!

    Personally, I like to slow down in my BJJ practice if I’m not training for something intense like competition. Four out of five classes I do are taken at a slow pace, focusing on technique and flowing. I won’t force positions, I won’t try to force submissions super hard, and I’ll generally be conscientious about my breathing. I always leave those sessions feeling restored and rejuvenated!

  4. Yoga was first and foremost conceived as a way to calm the restless mind and prepare it for meditation, which was seen as the path to spiritual development (2nd sutra of Patanjali, the father of yoga). It was never intended or developed as fitness training, although in the West it has been interpreted almost solely in this way. Looking at yoga as a form of physical training misses out its raison d’etre as well as its beneficial impact on our overly stressed minds.

    Yoga combines strength, flexibility and balance. A well constructed yoga session given by an experienced teacher/master challenges, stretches and strengthens body AND mind and incorporates recovery as an integral part of the session. In my 25+ years of yoga practice I have seen time and again hardened sport fanatics (usually men) who dismissively join a yoga session to prove their girlfriend how easy her routine is, only to come out astonished by the range of movement and depth of skill, motion and coordination required to complete the lesson.

    Mark, I love you, your message, your amazing contribution to us all and since yoga is entirely non-competitive, I have no desire to prove you wrong. Just wanted to fictionally suggest that if, by way of experimentation, you dedicated all your physical activity time to masterfully taught yoga practice, you’d likely feel the same if not more benefits to your overall well-being. Granted, it might not be as much fun, but then again, I don’t consider outdoor running or beach volleyball fun, so… 😉

    1. I love your comment. I do feel like Mark has tried to give yoga its due but has still short-changed it a bit from the “male athlete” perspective. I’m no expert or yoga teacher, but from my 19 years of doing it “casually” off and on a few times a week, yoga can be the hardest, most intense form of exercise a person can do. I love the slow pace but that’s exactly what makes it hard and intense too…finding and then holding those poses involves strength, mindfulness, breath control, and so much more beyond stretching and flexibility.

      My husband started doing yoga daily about 3 years ago, to combat the tension, aches, and pains of being in his 50s and standing all day teaching. He is a very lean body type of guy, and after 3 years of daily 15-30 minute sessions (usually using YouTube videos), he now has muscle in his legs, arms, chest, and abs that I have never seen on him in 23 years of marriage. In fact, he’s never had this kind of strength in his life even as a young man. His dedication impresses me so much!

    2. As a yoga practitioner for 11 years and now a yoga teacher, I wholeheartedly agree with your comment. Yoga is not just “stretching” as many would believe, and certainly not only for women. In the vinyasa classes I teach, men make up a little less than half the classes. Asana practice (the physical poses that westerners call yoga, but which is only one of the “eight limbs” of yoga), is a potentially transformational practice and to me, more satisfying, challenging, whole and healing than any other physical exercise.

  5. So once I’ve lifted weights, sprinted, wrestled with the neighbour, taken a dance and a piano lesson, I guess yoga will be welcome to wind down a bit, right?

    Seriously though, the last posts contain a lot of oh, so healthy activities, we would all benefit from. But I’d love to read some practical advice about how to select or balance all these primal endeavours.

    Post was very nice, by the way, thanks for the great work!

  6. I love yoga, but I wouldn’t consider myself a “yoga person”. At 6 ft tall and 220lbs I don’t look like one either!
    I do 3 sessions during the week which are very intense and fast paced with a focus on flowing between poses and I really work up a sweat! Then on Saturdays I do a more ‘classic’ slow yoga with long poses and a focus on stretching. I love the increased flexibility and the strength endurance and ‘static strength’ that I’ve gained (holding a lunge position, a headstand or a plank for example) and I find it compliments the body weight sessions, squash games and Thai Boxing that I do.
    Plus there is a calmness I get from the mindfulness element and it’s made me receptive to meditation and other practices that I would have described as ‘new age hippy sh*t” before!!

  7. I disagree with “I wouldn’t rely on yoga for your strength. Instead, treat it as a complement to your strength training.” I have been practicing Baptiste power vinyasa yoga for about 11 years, teaching for about 2. I am almost 50 and in the best shape of my life (at 5’4″ and 120 lbs, I weigh about what I did when I graduated from college 28 years ago and after having 2 children). You will challenge yourself, sweat, surf your edge, find peace and possibility through this practice. It is transformational, and has changed my life, allowing me to find real joy and relieving me from depression and anxiety without medication.

  8. Great to read about yoga here Mark! I’m an avid MDA reader and always draw inspiration and motivation from your peices. Big thanks!
    I would encourage us all to become ‘yoga people’! Because it’s not about what happens on the mat it’s how that’s taken into the rest of your life – that’s yoga. Breathing, being more mindful, connection, striving for our individual best in the here and now – very cool stuff. The lessons learnt in yoga classes transcend into all areas of life, if you’re open to it. And only benefits ensue.
    As you’ve mentioned countless times, variability is key so while I practise formally 5+ / week, I also strength train, cycle, sprint, box, swim, hike, walk and play regularly. And the yoga has made everything even better, especially dealing with stress and keeping even emotionally. Maybe thats just the headspace yoga fosters.
    Anyone that hasn’t dabbled, dive in, keep an open mind and be prepared for transformation!
    Thanks again Mark! 🙂

  9. I was always the least flexible kid in my neighborhood and in the dojo. I’ve incrementally improved (a relative term) in my old age because I’ve had so many injuries my workout is basically squats, pushups, pullups and a whole bunch of PT from top to bottom LOL. Yoga kind of scares me, but I think I’d like to give Tai chi a try, probably less stress and chance of tearing something. Pilates sounds interesting to me, although I’ve heard it can be intense and expensive.

  10. A good and balanced piece. My only further comment, as a committed yogi for 3 years now, is that a couple of sessions a week is probably too few to get the full benefits. On the fitness side I tend to agree that it doesn’t work all the muscle groups so I package a few extra exercises particularly for triceps and deltoids which can be undeveloped in yogis. There are a lot of yoga choices these days and I would suggest seeling out a very good teacher as there are a lot if inexperienced teachers that you can get injured with. If you have back issues be particulalry careful. Leave your competitive ego at the door. I will go out on a limb and say that men actually need yoga more than women and that it can provide a missing component of mental health management that is the plague of our gender.

    1. Agree with this 100%

      “that men actually need yoga more than women”

      In a typical yoga class you will see ten or 12 women and maybe one man. And if you go to the next same class … there might be a man there, but a different one 🙂

      1. That’s also my experience. I don’t mind the absense of other guys but I am sure it puts some off. On the flipside I am a bit wary of the for-men “broga” concept as the non-competitive essence of yoga is an aspect us guys need. Maybe not always but as a part of our health regime. It’s a major part of my low and slow quota. Throw in some weights and sprints on a couple of other days and that’s the balance for me. I also do the sauna cold shower rotation after yoga which works a treat ?

  11. I’ve been practicing very basic yoga holds to combat pain and tightness from training , excessive sitting and age. The more I do (I’m a total novice) the better I feel. I popped on a YouTube video and began following the instructor …..it was very challenging .

    1. my suggestion: find the site do you yoga dot com, it is very good resource with free sequences by excellent teachers.

  12. Dear Mark,

    vitamin C and collagen question:

    Not the right place for this but I am not sure where these questions should go:

    Vitamin C reduces benefits of exercise, but it increase the body’s ability to use collagen. Exercise an hour or so after taking collagen helps your ligaments and cartilage get blood flow they need for repair. Is there some minimum amt of vitamin C I can take to help collagen synthesis without reducing exercise benefits? Am I wrong about all of this in the first place?

    Thanks!

  13. I’ve been waiting for you to post about yoga! I’ve been practicing Bikram yoga for almost 10 years. When I am able to practice 3-5 times/week I’ve been in the best shape of my life without additional strength or cardio training. In addition, Bikram focuses on several postures that claim to stimulate the thyroid supposedly helping with hormonal imbalances. The fat does seem to melt away when I regularly practice Bikram. It also cured my chronic knee pain. The sweaty aspect of hot room yoga also helps with detoxification and brings me clear skin, similar to a sauna. Much of the mental grit I developed in breathing through and sticking with the challenges of hot yoga discomfort really helped mentally prepare me for my natural childbirths. I think there is a lot to unpack about yoga and primal living and I hope you dig into this more in the future.

  14. I love yoga! Started Ashtanga style about a year ago and saw serious gains in strength, flexibility, and stress management. I also like that it can be done pretty much anywhere as I hate going to the gym.

  15. So, I was forwarding this article to my oldest, who has issues with anxiety and depression, and mentioned the increased GABA, and told her it was under the bold print “Yoga and the Brain.” And then I had the theme song for “Pinky and the Brain” stuck in my head……..

  16. Dear Mark, my burning question is what would be your opinion on how Ashtanga Yoga which is a dynamic yoga practice i.e. one with consistent movement and powerful non-stop rhythmic breathing, that is practiced six times a week before dawn in a fasted state fits into a primal lifestyle or if it even does…?