Years ago, one of my yoga teachers made the comment that when one separates yoga from exercise, it becomes deeper and more meaningful—I think his exact words were that yoga then “gets real.”
I was intrigued by the idea that asana is too powerful and complex to be considered exercise. Still, I also must have secretly liked the idea of not needing other forms of movement for fitness, because I carried on for a few more years as though my asana practice alone could keep me in good enough shape. It wasn’t that I was doing asana as exercise per se—more that I was doing asana instead of exercise.
I sensed that it was wise to keep it separate from my yoga practice, so I found a personal trainer. Suddenly both my yoga and my exercise got pretty darn real.
Then a hip injury, a diagnosis of arthritis, and an impending surgery entered the picture. I knew then that in order to make the kind of recovery I wanted, I would need to do some focused exercise. I sensed that it was wise to keep it separate from my yoga practice, so I found a personal trainer. Suddenly both my yoga and my exercise got pretty darn real.
I had briefly thought about going solo at the gym, swimming, or finding a group exercise class that I wouldn’t hate too badly. (These would have given me the shelter of anonymity, which I hoped would make the experience more pleasant.)
But the truth was, I just didn’t know what kind of exercise was safe for my hip. And, as a yoga teacher with a busy schedule of asana classes, I don’t have the luxury of hoping for the best when it comes to my body. My unimpressive history with exercise also suggested that some accountability would be helpful. Lastly, it occurred to me that a personal trainer is to exercise what an experienced yoga teacher is to asana practice. I know the value of working with someone skilled in yoga, and I trusted that it would be similar with exercise.
I was right. Eventually, I made a great recovery from surgery, but I also gained a huge, unexpected benefit. Working out with a trainer made me a better yoga teacher.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Matthew said after our first workout together. “Your hip is super weak. It’s probably a good thing you’re doing this.” His words were gentle enough, but the sting of humility had been alive in my body for the last hour working with Matthew. Seventy or so workouts later, humility is still a pretty constant companion. As I gain strength, the workouts just get more intense. At least a couple of times each week, I experience a visceral reminder of what I’m asking students to do when they step onto their mats. Be vulnerable. Do something you may not be good at. Surrender.
When I see a student in class struggling with a standing balance pose, frustrated by lack of flexibility, or just weirded out by the quiet and dimly lit studio space, I want to be able to offer the right encouragement or just quietly hold the space for their experience. I even want to be present, at least in my own heart, for those students who stop coming to class because it’s easier not to come and not to be challenged.
It’s one thing for me to remember how awkward I felt as a new yoga student almost twenty years ago. It’s quite another to remember how awkward I felt earlier this week, frustrated by my lack of stamina in pushing a load of heavy weights across the astroturf. I feel awkward even being in an environment that has astroturf.
Sometimes it seems like my trainer is just coming up with random, torturous activities to fill the hour. But as a good yoga teacher would, he is, in fact, employing a scientific system that can be mostly transparent to his client. When I approach my workouts with curiosity and ask questions, I learn even more about the way in which exercise and the body work. And that kind of perspective turns out to be super useful when designing yoga classes. For example, I use more dynamic stretching and get students moving more quickly than I did before. I already knew that promoting blood flow to muscles was important—but experiencing, in a new context, how some light cardio enlivens my body and prepares me for a workout has helped me understand its value more.
After experiencing my own imbalance of flexibility relative to strength in my hip flexors and hamstrings (and then observing the same in many of my students), I now focus more on strengthening those muscles in my yoga classes. Sometimes I even borrow something directly from my workout and use it to help students awaken muscles for a familiar pose. For example, an exercise or two to awaken the hip flexors can lead to an aha moment for students when they practice navasana (boat pose) or svarga dvijasana (bird of paradise.)
Teaching yoga is hard work. It requires a lot of stamina and mental focus. Most yoga teachers I know are balancing that work with other full-time jobs and other obligations. Since I’ve begun working with a trainer, I’ve found that I have much more energy and I can be more present for my students. While I could certainly get the physical benefits of exercise by just working on my own, a trainer has the knowledge and expertise to help me maximize those benefits according to the unique demands of my work and even my current stress level.
Since I’ve begun working with a trainer, I’ve found that I have much more energy and I can be more present for my students
And, of course, my teacher was right all those years ago about separating yoga and exercise. There’s a more subtle and powerful dimension to my asana practice, now that it doesn’t have to pick up the slack for a body that isn’t exercising. And that energetic work supports me in being more vibrant and present in my work and my life.
If you’re curious and want to explore the possibility of exercising with a trainer, I’d suggest doing some homework in order to ensure that he or she has a respected professional certification. (There are many certifications out there. Some like ACSM, ACE, NASM, and NSCA are accredited by a national agency, indicating high standards and accountability in the programs.) Talk to potential trainers about your goals and the kind of work you do. You don’t necessarily need someone who has a lot of yoga knowledge—especially if your intention (like mine) is to keep the endeavors of asana and exercise relatively separate. I do think, though, that it’s helpful and more enjoyable to work with someone who has some understanding and curiosity about yoga. Finally, ask about group training rates. They may be much more affordable than solo sessions—and if your trainer is skilled, you’ll get nearly all the same benefits.
Most everything we do with focus and intention has some potential to make us better yoga teachers. To some degree, the potential to enhance your teaching through other activities is a matter of mindset. Working out with a personal trainer may be worth exploring—both for the reasons I discovered, as well as for reasons that may be unique to you and the individual with whom you train.
When I told Matthew how helpful our work has been for me, he summed it up by saying: “If you look at it right, everyone needs everyone.”