There is a lot of information and some form of debate as to the physical effect of asanas. The purpose of asanas is beyond the physical, but there is no denying the fact that asanas have a great physical impact on the body. The problem starts when we try to compare it with different forms of exercise or physical activity.
Let us look at the different types of physical activities before we understand about asanas.
Weight Bearing Exercise vs Non-weight bearing
Weight bearing exercises are those which involve the body to carry a load or bear some excess weight. The classic example of weight-bearing exercises is weight training. Some of us also land up doing a lot of weight bearing activity without realizing. Doing housework, lifting loads of any kind and bending or squatting in different ways are all weight bearing. For example, when we bend forward, the entire upper body weight shifts and the whole body needs to gear up to maintain the balance. Muscles contract and release as required. Similarly, side bends, backward bends and lifting the hands or legs above the body, are all weight bearing.
Non-weight bearing are those activities where we do not have to grapple with extra weight. Running, swimming, walking are examples of non-weight bearing activities. We require both types of exercises on a daily basis, else we become physically unfit.
Isotonic movements or exercises are those where the muscle movements involve the joints and bones and there is lengthening of the muscles. In these types of exercises, there is the isolation of certain muscles to increase their strength. Examples are weight training and running which help in muscular efficiency, maintenance, and weight management.
These movements involve muscle movement but no elongation of the muscles and there is a limited load on the joints and bones. These are different kinds of movements. To give an example, any form of exercise where we get into a position and hold it for a few seconds, is isometric. Imagine doing a push-up. But instead of going down and coming up again, go down and stay there for ten to fifteen seconds and then come up slowly. These isometric exercises help in endurance and flexibility.
Aerobic exercises are those which use glycogen and fat as fuel and also expel carbon dioxide from the body. Moderate levels of exertion over a period of time, benefits breathing and cardiovascular health. Brisk walking, slow jogging, gentle swimming, are all of this nature.
These are exercises which involve short intense bursts of energy and strength. It is a high-intensity exercise. There is a shortage of oxygen and build-up of lactic acid. You feel very fatigued after this. Examples of this are short duration or intense cardiovascular sessions or weight training. Running fast for fifteen minutes is anaerobic but a slow jog over forty-five minutes is aerobic.
Stretching is required for the muscles to remain flexible. There are stretches which are done after different types of exercises to avoid muscle and joint damage. There are some exercise routines which are just stretching of different kinds. This is one of the most important aspects of the body which we rarely do.
Nature of Asanas
Now that we have a brief idea about the different types of exercises, we shall see what asanas are.
Asanas are all of the above and much more.
There is so much that modern science has not understood about Yoga. A simple but effective Hatha Yoga session for around forty-five minutes will cover all of the above. We land up doing isotonic and isometric movements with stretching. Aerobic activity is taken care of due to the slow and gentle pace of asanas. There are many practices which are internally intense and tax the system. Therefore, anaerobic exercise is also done. But this alone does not explain the benefit of asanas.
There are many more benefits of asanas compared to any other form of physical exercise. Some of these are:
- Asanas cover all types of body movements and all types of exercises.
- The spinal cord needs to be gently stretched in six different ways in a beneficial way. Asanas are the only discipline which provide this without causing a strain on the spine or causing injury.
- It has been found that there is no wear and tear of bones or muscles even with age if you do asanas. Other exercises involve wear and tear. Running, sports or other exercises will not prevent arthritis, but asanas will.
- Exercising does not prevent bone loss with age. Asanas preserve the bone density.
- There is no damage of the muscular and skeletal system. Anyone involved in sports or weight training has faced muscle and ligament tears and injuries. With asanas, it is the reverse. You actually improve the muscular and skeletal system, the more you practice.
- In asanas, the breathing rate becomes slower and you still get all the exercise you need. The slower you breathe, the better it is. It is reverse in other forms of exercise.
- Fatigue is inbuilt in exercising. This leads to physical and physiological stress. This phenomenon is increasing and people with strenuous exercise regimens are getting illnesses and also suddenly dying. With asanas, you are actually physically and mentally more relaxed and there is no stress or fatigue.
- Asanas work at the cellular level and organ level. Therefore, they are therapeutic and can also change your metabolism and structure for the better. There are no such benefits for physical exercises.
- Your heart rate, cardiovascular and breathing capacity improves.
- Blood is purified and toxins are removed from the body.
We often feel that we need to strain, sweat and breathe hard to do exercise. This is, of course, not true. In fact, the yogis of the past and the regular practitioners of today are significantly more healthy and fit even after the seventy and eighty years of age.
Start practicing asanas from today.