Shiny Blue Shorts, Chronic Diseases, and Real Yoga
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | August 12, 2022
He was wearing shiny electric blue shorts, a red bandana, and little else. He rolled out his mat in the front of the room, gave me a disinterested once over, and then popped himself up into a headstand. I was sitting waiting for the rest of the retreat participants to arrive.
Then I taught my usual thing – a slow, mindful yoga class.
At the end of the class he turned to his partner and I heard him say, “We’re leaving, this isn’t real yoga.”
Back when I first started teaching yoga in the 90s and through the mid-2000s there wasn’t a lot of awareness about yoga philosophy, practice, or lifestyle beyond asanas. Some people wanted to be pushed more than I was willing to push them. I was no Jane Fonda, and they didn’t see the value of what I was offering (and I was frustrated because I couldn’t explain it convincingly enough).
Yoga had been stuffed into the fitness box and I had no idea how to fish it back out.
The yoga-as-fitness phenomenon was an inevitable development because since 1968 and the publication of Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s culture-shifting classic, Aerobics, Americans had been bombarded with messages that cardio-vascular exercise is a key ingredient of good health. Today, even though we’re all well aware of the importance of exercise, according to the CDC, less than one-quarter of Americans get enough of it (cardiovascular + strength).
But the importance of exercise has been well established and disseminated. So yoga, inevitably, became an exercise trend in the U.S., and that’s what integrated it into the mainstream. Still, only 1 out of 10 Americans does any yoga at all in a given year.
Why don’t Americans move enough?
Lots of people opine that it’s because we’re lazy. But actually, that’s just lazy thinking. The truth is much more complicated.
One factor is that six out of 10 Americans have chronic diseases, and four out of 10 have two or more of them – heart disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic kidney and lung disease, Alzheimer’s, cancers, autoimmune diseases, and lots more. Many of these may create mobility issues, pain, and fatigue – big factors that increase sedentary lifestyles.
Ninety percent of the $4.1 Trillion spent on healthcare each year in the U.S. (an updated statistic since this graphic was created) goes to the treatment of these chronic diseases. It’s well understood that lifestyle, poor stress management, social determinants, and toxicity in the environment are all factors, and many people don’t have the ability to live healthy lifestyles because work, family obligations, exhaustion, finances, mental health, and social problems often leave folks with a limited capacity for self-care and healthy living.
But awareness is growing.
The CDC has instituted something called “Health in All Policies” which is “a collaborative approach that integrates and articulates health considerations into policymaking across sectors to improve the health of all communities and people.”
Forward thinkers (on both sides of the aisle actually) recognize that health is created by a multitude of factors beyond healthcare and they are trying to bring health to the forefront in policy decisions to mitigate or even reverse the negative effects of poor health on individuals and the larger culture.
Western medicine has its limits, and various cultures have held wisdom for millennium that has been largely ignored in the modern world. However, if we want to improve the health of whole societies, reclaiming this knowledge is essential. The Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine recently crafted “The People’s Declaration for Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Healthcare” because of the growing belief that traditional, integrative healthcare is a human right.
Reclaiming these practices, including yoga, can help folks struggling with chronic illness have more choices, better care, and healthier lifestyles. These kinds of initiatives can help yoga (as well as Ayurveda) emerge from the fitness box and expand to be utilized as healthier lifestyle strategies, not just another cardio workout with a short rest at the end.
Another reason Americans don’t move enough is that 1 out of 4 U.S. adults live with cognitive or mobility disabilities. The most common disability type, mobility, affects 1 in 7 adults. This increases to 2 out of 5 in the 65+ age group. Clearly, a gym-style yoga workout is not the best or the only “real” yoga, because it’s not universally appropriate or accessible.
Greater availability of slow, mindful yoga could help yoga expand beyond the fitness box and become more mainstreamed and more accepted as an important practice for prevention and health promotion.
As a yoga professional, I think it’s essential to help people understand the difference between exercise yoga and slow, mindful yoga – sure, both have benefits and there is crossover but there are also important differences – strength vs. nervous system regulation, cardiovascular vs. interoceptive awareness skill-building, performance vs. mindful self-discovery, dominating vs. embodying.
Yes there is some intersection, but if we don’t differentiate, we end up with lots of folks like the blue-shorted guy who turned his nose up at it – who assume slow and mindful is watered down “real” yoga. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the many, many folks who will never give yoga a try because the media presents it as an extreme sport – competitive, hot and sweaty, thin, hypermobile, and unattainable.
Which brings me to chair yoga.
I don’t teach chair yoga as a diluted version of real yoga. I never talk about it that way either. Because thinking and talking about chair yoga as a “modification” immediately sets it up as a lesser endeavor. It can reinforce insecurities or feelings of shame and inferiority in people who may already be feeling pretty bad about themselves and their limitations.
Chair yoga which integrates asana, breathing, and meditation practice has unique benefits – it builds the skills of proprioception (where my body is in space), interoceptive awareness (tuning into and understanding how I feel so I can make good behavioral choices), mindfulness, concentration, contemplative skills, healthier breathing to build resilience in the nervous system, social connection, and of course the important skill of learning to relax and honor the body’s needs.
Chair yoga is much more than a wimpy, second-class way to exercise, and it needs to be reconceptualized as an important accessible, enjoyable, health promoting activity that can be scaled and widely disseminated. It can play an important role in shifting population health.
Chair yoga can help fill many important gaps – the gap of the 75% of the population that does not get enough movement, the gap of the 90% that doesn’t do any yoga at all, the gap of the 60% needing better support and self-care in managing their chronic diseases.
Also there are many places beyond yoga studios and gyms where it can take place – rec centers, senior centers, VA centers, adult education institutions, healthcare centers, offices, schools, online, and more. Chair yoga is not only for individuals, it’s a population health strategy because it’s person centered, low-cost, low-risk, health promoting, preventative, and encourages social engagement.
I was a little disappointed with my inability to convince the blue shorted guy of the value of what I was teaching, but I used that experience to clarify my vision. It helped stoke a fire to learn to explain what I was doing and help people understand that in my yoga classes – mat or chair – they would understand very clearly that they were building health skills they would not easily find elsewhere.
Once I overheard a participant say to a new attendee who was feeling apprehensive about joining my yoga class at a senior center, “Don’t worry, this is nothing like gym yoga, it’ll make you feel like you had the best massage of your life.”