Boosting the training effect in yoga
Increasing the rate of improvement in learning yoga is in part governed by the same principles as when learning any new sport or exercise. As an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer, I know that my clients need to increase frequency, duration, and intensity to progress. These three variables, when appropriately manipulated, result in overload. The Overload Principle (1) is fundamental in exercise science—the body adapts to stimuli above that normally experienced. The Specificity Principle, a fourth variable, states that specific exercise elicits specific adaptations.
For my beginning yoga students, I first ask them to commit to 30 minutes three days a week of practice (frequency). Once they have shown this commitment, then I make the postures more difficult by challenging them to hold them longer or for more repetitions (intensity). Eventually, we up their practice to 60 minutes a day (duration). They must practice yoga regularly, perhaps eliminating some of their other activities, to become better at it (specificity).
Beyond the above principles, intermediate and advanced yoga students can apply the Tristana Method.(2) This is the foundation of the daily practice in Ashtanga Yoga, and is comprised of asana (postures) resulting in physical benefits; dristhti (gaze) benefitting the mind; and Ujjayi (breath control) resulting in spiritual benefits. Yoga is beyond mere exercise—it trains us to stay present in the here and now.
Asana is always performed with an internal focus. It doesn’t matter what the person next to you is doing; yoga is totally non-competitive with others. We do, however, want to realize what is happening inside our own bodies and notice the subtle improvements in strength and flexibility along the way. By keeping the attention inside the body, we learn to trust our intuition about what we can and cannot do.
Dristhti at one point keeps the mind focused. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone whose eyes dart around, at anywhere but at you? This is a sign of a distracted person. Each yoga asana has it particular gazing point that is maintained throughout the duration of the posture. For example, during Warrior I, the dristhi is the thumbs.
In Ujjayi breathing, the throat valve, the epiglottis, is closed half way, eliciting the sound of the waves with respiration. You may imagine you’re at the beach! The yogis breathe in unison because each posture has a distinct, learned, breathing pattern. Maintaining a steady breathing pattern during the entire practice also helps keep the mind on the moment.
Practicing the Tristana Method consumes all of your attention, making it unlikely that you’ll think about last night’s argument or tomorrow’s interview. Warning: flow state may result! Now this is yoga—total mind body integration—the purpose of yoga.
The goal and process of yoga are the same. It is not to amass a repertory of postures to perform, but to master the bodymind. All students of yoga benefit from the guidance of a teacher in order to point them in the right direction, to avoid time-wasting trial and error, and to avoid injury. We do not have all the time in the world.
Finally, rest is an important component of training, especially as we age.
1 ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, Eight Edition, 2010, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, p. 165.
2 The Power of Ashtana Yoga, by Kino MacGregor, Shambala Boston & London, 2013, p. 19