When folks speak of “cardio exercise” they usually refer to treadmills, stair-stepping, running, or attending an aerobics class. Many have been programmed to believe this is how we develop cardiovascular strength.
When we realize the truth of what cardiovascular exercise really is, we can develop a new understanding of how we can develop cardiovascular strength using low or no impact exercise. We can even develop cardiovascular strength without moving at all!
I was living in old town Scottsdale, Arizona, the quaint little center of Scottsdale with the original buildings from the cowboy era. Just a short distance from where I lived was Camelback Mountain, a small, but tall mountain in the middle of metropolitan Phoenix famous for hikers and runners. I enjoyed the steep uphill cardiovascular exercise it provided. An average hiker can make it to the peak in 45 minutes to an hour. The fastest time on record is 27 minutes by a local woman. The climb is strenuous and the decent can be dangerous bouncing from boulder to boulder.
My times were above-average, and I had record times on the decent. I could fly down that mountain in 14 minutes. I loved bouncing from boulder to boulder, but the impact slowly took its toll on my already challenged knees. After several months of this strenuous and challenging exercise my knees began to hurt…. a lot. So I stopped.
I resorted to only practicing yoga. I went back to Bikram yoga and stayed away from any running and other fast-moving exercise altogether. For months I refrained from any traditional cardiovascular exercise, only Bikram yoga. This series are simple static poses that help rebuild connective tissue and increase blood flow.
I practiced these postures with great determination and power. I used my breath to get through the strain of holding the static postures for up to 60 seconds. I felt very strong, but was concerned I was losing my cardiovascular fitness.
After six months, my knees felt great and I had a real urge to climb that mountain! I was a bit afraid that I lost the cardiovascular strength I created in my months of running.
The sweaty, heart pumping exercise of Bikram yoga is the most intense exercise I’ve ever done and continues to be the exercise I default to when I know my body needs rehabilitation, but I felt it was different from the running that traditional American exercise scientists say is what’s needed for cardiovascular fitness.
So early one morning I was fired up, feeling good and full of energy. I wanted to get outdoors and climb. The cross-trainer shoes were dusted off and I fitted myself for the climb. That morning I was expecting to do my best and just have fun.
I got there early enough to find a parking spot, consumed a little more water, tightened my laces and headed for the trail head. My energy was so high I began the flatter portion at the beginning of the trail with a jog. That jog, however, just naturally became faster…..and faster. When the incline increased and the boulders came into the picture, my speed increased with it! I was feeling natural at a faster pace more than ever before! In fact, as the hike went on I never slowed down. I ended up sprinting three quarters of the way up the mountain, a feat I never even came close to before. My heart was under control and I felt stronger than ever.
Here I was, an avid yoga practitioner, but I was still a newbie to the deep learning experience of yoga. By not running and only practicing the compression and static postures associated with Bikram Yoga, I come to understand the reality of “aerobic” exercise. The key to strong aerobic capacity is the ability to increase the capacity for oxygen in the blood. Strong breath with heart pumping energy is the key. What I found out is you don’t need the fast-paced high impact sports to do this. In fact, Bikram yoga brought my heart and breath rate up higher than any other form of exercise I’ve practiced, second to motocross of course. I brought myself to the edge in every posture. It was Vo2 max to the max.
Today, the one thing I do regularly is deep breathing exercise. Deep breathing, in its own right, raises the heart rate. I have found even today, if I keep up with my breathwork, I can lift heavy weight and maintain an easy heart rate even if I’ve been away from exercise for several months. I also see how people put extreme stress on their heart by not having the capacity to bring oxygen into the blood. The heart must pump harder to get what little oxygen there is in the blood to the muscles.
It’s common sense. If you want to increase oxygen/blood capacity, practice breathing more. To increase the heart rate, it can be as simple as standing on one leg. Try standing perfectly still on one leg for sixty seconds without wobbling and tell me how that goes.
“The bottom line is that the intensity at which you perform an activity determines if it’s aerobic or anaerobic.” –MedicineNet.com
The other powerful component to the Bikram series is its compression effect. Many yoga poses compress the body. They compress the skeletal muscles as well as the internal organs. This compression affect flushes the muscle by squeezing them. Mr. Bikram refers to this as “wringing out that dirty dish rag.” You wring it out and allow fresh oxygenated blood to rush in when you release the compression. In doing this you are purifying the system and charging the body’s regeneration factor.
So, between heart pumping, holding your body weight postures, powerful breathing, compression and stretches, you know there is way more to the asanas of yoga than meets the eye. You can build your cardiovascular power without ever running again…. and if you want the outdoors, just practice in your favorite nature spot. You don’t need a mat or any props. Learn to use your body the way the original yogis had shown us. The best thing of all is that the more you practice, the healthier your joints become because we all know what the common results of high impact exercise is (long term injury) and we all want to avoid that.
Discover an old science and new understanding of our body as a self-contained module for all your health and healing needs.