There’s this strange thing about climaxes. The journey might be unknown but the destination is known. After all the climax is the reason why you got started in the first place. Through every curve on every winding road to wherever you want to go, you expect it. Through every shock and surprise and exclamation of delight or horror, the only guarantee is the climax, or at least you sure hope so. The nature of the journey, the lessons and experiences, tactile, intellectual and spiritual, prepare us for the finale but the enigmatic truth is that the better the journey the more difficult it is for the climax to not become anti-climactic.
And that is the dilemma staring back at me from the laptop screen this moment. Over the last four issues, I have shared with you, dear reader, all I have learnt about the world of fitness and we built up through a countdown of some of the best fitness systems in the world to what I believe are the top two systems on the planet for holistic health and incredible fitness.
The funny bit is that I had known all along that the two systems we will discuss today are the top two systems on my list. It was building the sequence that lead up to the top two that took a lot of time and thought.
We began with power lifting and body-building, two high risk-high returns workouts which primarily work the musculature and the skeletal structure. Then we explored lesser known, lost disciplines like club bells and isometrics – methods that were extremely popular about half a century ago but seem to have fallen out of favour due to the imbalances in these otherwise highly effective systems.
Then came the body-weight workouts - high rep and gymnastic low-rep systems that are surprisingly effective though a little too challenging for the average fitness enthusiast.
Nearing the top of the rack was a hard-core martial method followed by kettle bells. These two methods are incredibly balanced, relatively safe and bear fruit on all boughs on the fitness tree.
What more can be found on the altar of fitness that could offer even greater strength and health benefits than the above mentioned methods? And what could possibly be missing from these wonderful systems of health wholesomeness?
And the answer is internal health, and at the risk of sounding a touch un-cool, spiritual health. All these above mentioned systems, and some more so than others, fix most bricks on the fitness wall with aplomb.
Strength, endurance, cardiovascular capacity and even flexibility levels will be enhanced greatly through consistent devotion to the high rankers in the list. But what about the lungs and the kidneys, and the liver and the glands? Let’s not delve into greater anatomical detail, but really, what about all that clockwork that functions noiselessly usually, inside that rock hard and beautifully sculpted shell, to keep you running like a well engineered marvel of nature? Who is going to take care of that?
And to answer that question, put your hands together and welcome the runner up that ran the champion close – the humble homegrown and ancient system of, you guessed it - yoga!
First things first… What you know to be yoga and what is practiced in studios and gymnasiums around the world is actually asana, a mere limb of the complete system of physical and spiritual health known as yoga. Morality, meditation, restraints, and austerities are some of the other limbs of yoga but for the sake of our discussion let’s confine ourselves to the triumvirate that has the most tangible and scientifically verifiable impact on our health – asana or physical, calisthenics like postures; pranayama or breath work and lastly dhyana or meditation.
The primary difference, on a physiological plane, between yoga and other fitness tools is that instead of working on the body by building the muscles first, bones next and cardio-respiratory systems last, yoga work inside out. Each asana posture targets not just muscles and bone but different aspects of the internal systems like the endocrinal system or the nervous system along with other more obvious components of fitness.
But you knew that already, didn’t you? From Dr. Dean Ornish to Baba ram Dev, everybody who is anybody in the world of holistic health has been screaming from the rooftops about the benefits of yoga. This is why patients nursing chronic ailments oft en practice ‘yoga’. Even Western medical practitioners run parallel ‘yoga programmes’ in many hospitals to supplement allopathic treatments for their patients.
The real challenge for yoga is to prove it works the other way round… that it is a legitimate fitness tool and not merely a therapeutic one.
I was reminded of an article I had read in a 2002 issue of Yoga Journal which had pit three American yogis against Biodex machines and treadmills and the like. The yogis demonstrated flexibility levels comparable to gymnasts and acrobats and cardio respiratory fitness and lung capacity that on an average scored just below levels achieved by elite endurance athletes (but without pushing themselves too hard), had excellent body fat ratios and BMI (thanks to the overall healthy and conscientious dietary choices that are a part of the yogic lifestyle) and scored around the average mark in terms of strength. However, observers felt that the body takes a little time to adjust to the machines and scores might have gotten progressively better with more time spent on the machines. So there you have it… Scientific evidence that yoga works to keep you fit. As for muscle tone and strength, let a man no weaker than former world champion pro wrestler and current fitness guru Diamond Dallas Page tell you that not only does the practice of yoga heal and strengthen banged up joints but also tones and strengthens every muscle in the body in a way that conventional weight training couldn’t touch.
Yoga might not make you look like a body-builder but when done with passion and persistence and coupled with a lean nutritious diet plan, can give you the graceful lines of a diver and the aesthetic value of that can be understood if you take a look at the lean ripples on a young Greg Louganis or Bryan Kest.
Then of course there is pranayama, the practice of which gave Yogacharya BKS Iyengar, the grand sire of yoga a lung capacity that rivals the average lung capacity of a 25 year old Olympian at the age of 80. In the book Real men Do Yoga, a New York City fireman whose lungs had been damaged while he was busy saving lives during the World trade Centre attacks claims that even doctors couldn’t help him breathe and go for 20 minutes without coughing until he tried yogic breath work. The practice of pranayama improves lung capacity, and oxygenates the body like nothing else can. Pretty useful under stress or under water, I’d say…
Finally, the benefits of meditation have been trumpeted by far too many and far too often to be reiterated by me but just for the sake of completeness, meditation indeed relaxes the body and mind and rids both of stress and free radicals. And meditation also helps you focus and develop mental clarity and reign in and train that jumpy monkey in our heads.
Yoga attains a sky-high number two on the list because its benefits, while flooding the physical, soar far higher into realms and corners of our lives in a way that few other workouts can.
At this stage, we are left with little space to introduce the king of the heap who edged out the ancient and resilient yogic training system by a whisker, so I’ll bid you adieu for now with the promise that you will meet the champ next week. Meanwhile, get on the mat and give me a headstand. I’ll see you there in seven…