Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Fitness benefits from a month of yoga

Yoga every day for a month? Michael Burgess reaps the benefits in fitness, flexibility and control.

Michael Burgess strikes a pose at one of his many yoga classes. Photo / Doug Sherring
Michael Burgess strikes a pose at one of his many yoga classes. Photo / Doug Sherring

The background

My lack of flexibility was discovered in primary school. I struggled to sit cross-legged during assemblies, with my knees closer to my shoulders than the floor. Gymnastics was horrible - I barely mastered the forward roll.

Teasing friends used to say that I "ran from the knee" during college sports, such was my relatively short stride. An Adidas sports scientist told me he had never seen such tight hamstrings and the squat toilets on several trips through China became physically quite demanding - and not just because of the quantity of roast duck I had consumed.

I played plenty of sport into my mid-30s but noticed strain-type injuries occurring more regularly. My physiotherapist suggested yoga. To make it more enticing, I turned it into a challenge - to do yoga every day for a month.

I had some experience. Classes were offered at a previous workplace but they seemed too slow and gentle for my liking.

I also tried "yoga" sessions at a prominent Auckland gym but they didn't really live up to the name. Far from calming, the teacher prowled the room with a microphone headset, continually shouting at us to push ourselves and "work harder".

Perhaps most bizarrely, after a tough sequence she would say "now use this time to get your breath back" when everyone knows that one of the founding principles of yoga is to learn to control your breathing.

Week 1

It's not the most promising start on day one at the Auckland Yoga Academy. Ashtanga yoga blends postures that require a mix of strength and suppleness and I soon found just how far I have to go in terms of elasticity. Halfway through the class the teacher advised that beginners may need to sit on a blanket for the next position, sitting with one leg outstretched while the other was folded at the knee. My grey army blanket was folded into three, before the teacher came over and said quietly "I'll get you another one." It was also triple folded and soon I was high enough to resemble a human Leaning Tower of Pisa - and still felt mild discomfort in my knee and foot.

I had arrived late and the class was quite full, forcing me near the front of the large room, though the teacher soon kindly switched me with someone near the back.

During the week I often found myself slightly out of step struggling to keep up with the more complex poses until they were demonstrated by the instructor. It was bloody hard work as well, though I was quick to master the corpse pose, the relaxation phase at the end where you lay on your back, covered by a blanket with your arms outstretched. It was a strange feeling, like every single muscle had been stretched and pulled. At least twice I feel asleep during relaxation, only saved by the bell used to rouse us.

Breathing is an issue. Every movement is supposed to be synchronised with your breath - inhale as go down, exhale as you lift up - but all my concentration is used up on the postures and breathing becomes random. Not ideal.

Certain muscles hurt, but not excessively so, like after a weights workout or a football game and 24 hours seems just enough time to recover. Maybe this will be possible.

Week 2

"Yoga has changed my life," a man told me after a lunchtime class. He was previously a bit of a "loose cannon" but was thriving on the self discipline and had changed his diet, cut down his alcohol intake and was sleeping less.

Meanwhile for me, in the best traditions of a toddler, the blanket is becoming my best friend. I use two to assist in various sitting positions, even when the teacher doesn't suggest it. I feel a bit ridiculous sitting on a blanket even during the basic cross-legged position but what can I do?

The process of adjustment is fascinating. You stretch as far as you can and hold on, usually for five seconds, when the teacher comes and "adjusts" you; pushing or pulling you deeper into the pose. As soon as their hands are removed your body reverts to the old position but over time incremental gains are possible.

Yoga is physically challenging, but the hardest aspect is the mental side. Of all the forms of exercise I have done, yoga is the most mentally taxing. Every time the teacher tells us to empty our minds, "clear your thoughts" and "stop the chatter" my mind does the exact opposite. Of course that is one of the key elements; being in the present moment and focussing completely on the particular pose. That seems impossible and unfortunately the less focussed you are the harder the class is. I realise how adept my brain has become at this constant juggling; not so much multi-tasking as "multi asking" - "did I make that phone call?" "When was the meeting?' "I wonder what time it is?"

Week 3

I get into the swing.

Week 4

Somewhat of a breakthrough this week. All of a sudden, it seems, my hands are touching the floor in forward bend, and I can reach my ankle now instead of my calf in another standing stretch.

Other things have changed. I found myself foregoing red meat at lunchtime, thinking ahead to the class that evening. The nadir came when I was in a yoga class at 7pm on a Friday and not that sad to be there.

I now notice new beginners as they arrive, hustling to the back row and struggling to follow the initial sequence of exercises. Some look just like I did I'm sure; straining every sinew, pulling joints out of position, instead of going with the flow and letting your body stretch as far as it can.

Conclusion

What you get out of yoga is completely up to you. Some are looking for flexibility, others to tone their muscles; some want to get over an injury while most also crave the promised benefits of a "still" mind.

I'm still incredibly inflexible - it is not an instant panacea but more a long journey. But I have noted slight improvements and my ability to concentrate has increased. The sore back I got every day in front of the computer is less evident and I sleep better, especially after an evening class. Friends say I have lost some weight (not my goal at all unfortunately) but toning is more common.

Perhaps most importantly, I have not picked up an injury during my sports and feel I am on the path to fewer strains and sprains.

Yoga is not cheap; per month it costs about the same as a full gym membership but you get what you pay for. Each instructor at the Yoga Academy has undergone an extensive training programme and they are experts, able to assess in a millisecond what adjustments you may need.

It is not particularly social like some gyms can be. Everybody sits in silence before the class and most leave immediately afterwards. It also wasn't a replacement for cardio based exercise; over the course of the month I cut back on running, tennis and so on, and found I really missed it.

You will need to be focussed. Unlike gyms, which provide blaring music, televisions to watch and even magazines to read - anything to distract you from what you are actually meant to be doing - yoga demands 100 per cent concentration if you want to do it properly. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect is that it is all down to you.

Expensive personal trainers and boot camps offer external sources of willpower, with yoga your progress comes from the inside and there is no cutting corners.

What is yoga?

Originating in ancient India, yoga became popular in the West during the 1960s. Broadly speaking, it aims to synchronise breathing and movement to promote a strong flexible body and focussed mind (the literal translation of the Sanskrit word yoga is union).

Yoga can have a highly spiritual element but most people in New Zealand use it as a form of exercise. Famous celebrity devotees include Madonna, Sting and Sarah-Jessica Parker.

- Herald on Sunday

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