How much yoga is enough? This is a question that we rarely—if ever—ask ourselves.
Yoga is presumed a gentle form of movement that’s suitable for everyday practice and appropriate for pretty much anyone. But this is a huge generalization. In fact, too much of the kind of yoga commonly practiced in the modern world is not necessarily healthy.
The yoga practiced thousands of years ago, and for thousands of years, is entirely different from most forms of yoga practiced in the modern world. Long ago, seated postures and long holds were emphasized, as we can see from reading the classic yogic text Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which describes only 15 asanas (postures). The main purpose of asana was to learn how to sit still for meditation—a higher form of yoga. Yoga was also meant to be practiced in a quiet, calm place, out of the harsh elements like midday sun; and postures were classically held for much longer than just a breath.
In comparison, popular modern yoga styles—like vinyasa flow, power, Bikram, hot, hip hop, and ashtanga—flow and jump quickly through postures. They are practiced to the beats of hip hop, dance, and rock music. Students may be shielded from the harshness of the sun, but studios are often heated. And students work up serious sweats, as shown by their accompanying towels and water bottles.
This kind of yoga is fun. Music keeps you energized. The sweat dripping down your body makes you feel like you’ve fit in a good workout. Boredom is never an issue, because with so much movement and sensory stimulation, your mind isn’t forced to focus.
You walk out of the studio first feeling high, but shortly thereafter feeling completely exhausted. This is the problem. Yoga should give you energy, not take it away! Exercise is meant to support your body rather than deplete it.
Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science that focuses more on the physical rather than the spiritual (as yoga does), recommends daily exercise. Exercise helps the body to grow; it builds muscle and stamina, and improves appetite.
However, Ayurveda also warns us that too much is not a good thing. Exercise, including yoga, should be stopped when you experience any of these:
Basically, if you’ve reached the point where you need to take a swig of water and you’re wiping sweat away with a towel, it’s definitely time to stop.
If you do too much exercise, you can aggravate the vata dosha. This is one of the body’s three energy forces. It’s responsible for at least 80 diseases—far more than the other doshas—which is why it’s so important to keep vata in balance. Vata is aggravated not only by excessive exercise, but also by loud noise. (Hardcore yoga plus loud dance music is guaranteed to bother vata.)
And when intense yoga is practiced in the midday heat or a hot studio, it can aggravate the pitta dosha, which is linked to many skin diseases.
If you love heart-pumping, sweat-inducing yoga, you probably want to tone it down so that you don’t compromise your health in the long run. There is a time and a place for this kind of yoga, like during winter when it can banish winter blues, or for those with kapha imbalances who feel sluggish and need to lose weight. But for those who are generally healthy, consider making these adjustments to your yoga practice:
Try practicing in silence. It’s easier to focus on your breath without the distraction of music, and it leaves your mind feeling more peaceful.
Hold each pose for several extra breaths.
Rather than flowing for a whole hour so that you work up a sweat, try doing the same sequence but interspersed with short rests in Child’s pose or Corpse pose.
As yoga teachers often advise, take a Child’s pose if you can no longer breathe slowly and deeply. This is Ayurvedic wisdom put into practice.
Ease up on the intensity of your practice during summer and fall, when the body is generally weaker.
Stop exercising when you’ve reached 50 percent of your total capacity.
End your practice with a nice long rest in Corpse pose so that any accumulated vata can be released.
Give yourself a pat on the back if you regularly practice yoga. It takes motivation and self-discipline to exercise, so you should be proud of yourself. By following these guidelines, you can be sure that your yoga practice is healthy rather than harmful.
Reference: Frawley, Dr. David and Dr. Subhash Ranade. Ayurveda: Nature’s Medicine. Wisconsin: Lotus Press, 2001.