Philosophy, Breath, and Relaxation
In many ways, yoga and fitness are very similar. Like every physical practice, they require dedication and a can-do attitude, both teaching us that perseverance is often followed by reward. In this way, fitness disciplines and yoga give us a physical outlet to work on our bodies and minds. They are prime examples of what we can achieve if we put in a little effort – lifting a little heavier, or maybe getting up in a headstand for the first time.
Yoga and fitness also boast large and expanding communities, both blossoming over the last decade. Yoga is now not only for hippies and travelers, and fitness is not only for men in tight Lycra shorts lifting the heaviest weights they can find.
In fact, where both disciplines used to hold strong stereotypes, they have become far more inclusive. Now there are communities of vegan athletes and girls who lift; yoga is practiced during lunch hour by office workers, and football players are even incorporating asana into their fitness regimes.
Ultimately, both fitness and yoga have been encouraging us to work towards the best versions of ourselves. At their core, behind all the protein shakes and lululemon leggings, they ruthlessly promote self-love and self-acceptance by teaching you how to explore and improve your physical form. However, despite their similarities and crossovers, there are still fundamentals differences that set apart yoga and fitness disciplines.
The three most important are Philosophy, Breath, and Relaxation.
When comparing yoga to fitness, it is important to remember that the physical aspect of yoga (asana), makes up one 1/8 of the overall practice. Traditional yoga is made up of 8 limbs – often known as the eightfold path – including; The Yamas (internal observances), The Niyamas (external observances), Asana (physical discipline), Pranayama (breath control), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (Meditation) and Samadhi (connection and bliss).
These limbs aim to direct the practitioner towards a conscious way of being in the world, where they understand their connection to the world around them, and endeavour to live a purposeful and wholesome life.
When you start to live in accordance with the yogic philosophy, a deeper understanding of yourself and the people around you will develop.
You will find compassion flows through you easily and you will become more motivated to assist others. In this way, the practice of yoga goes far beyond the time spent on our mats. If studied in depth, yoga encourages us to consciously reflect on who we are and how we behave. It works to cultivate a deep sense of self-awareness, eventually leading us to the embodiment of joy and contentment.
Although Breath control – Pranayama – has its own limb on the eightfold path, it also has a strong presence in asana practice. in fact, in most physical yoga disciplines, asana and pranayama are so intrinsically intertwined that you cannot separate them. In dynamic practices, you are instructed to synchronise breath and movement, usually through Ujjayi breathing – otherwise known as victorious breath. This kind of breathing – loud oceanic sounds made by constricting the back of the throat – creates an inner fire that cleanses the body from the inside out.
The aim is to keep the mind on the inhales and exhales of the breath in order to practice staying present to the subtle shifts and changes in the body as you flow through the class. Grounding yourself in the present moment through breath and movement gives the mind valuable time away from the stresses of everyday life. In this space, the seeds of new ideas and possibilities can take root, eventually blossoming into desired outcomes and the fulfillment of goals.
Our autonomic nervous system – the part of our overall system that regulates key involuntary functions including, the heart rate, our digestive system, and our gland function – is divided into two parts; the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is activated through exercise. It accelerates the heart rate, raises blood pressure and constricts the blood vessels. This increases the flow of blood and oxygen around the body, giving us a boost of energy.
The SNS is also activated during times of stress and is an important part of our ‘fight or flight’ response. On the contrary, the PNS – also known as the rest and digest system – slows the heart rate and increases activity in the intestines. This allows for recovery after a stressful event.
In our ‘always on’ society, proper relaxation is hard to come by. It is important to use the PNS and SNS in conjunction with each other to fight off stress and keep the entire system energised and healthy. Many yoga classes will begin with a dynamic flow, increasing our blood flow and heart rate, then ending with restorative postures before coming into savasana – the final resting pose. Savasana is hugely important to a yoga practice.
To many, this is the most difficult part of the class; the challenge is to not get caught up in to-do lists or planning the week ahead. Lying still in complete surrender can be challenging, but it is essential for reaping the physical, mental and emotional benefits from the rest of the class. Savasana calms the breathing and soothes the nerves, helping to squash anxieties and relieve stress.
So if you are a regular gym-goer, or find enjoyment in HIIT or spin classes, try ending with calming stretches and around 10 minutes of complete relaxation to activate the PNS. Your body and mind will receive great benefits in all areas of your life.