We’ve all heard instructors, trainers and coaches tell us not to take a break from our workouts. At some point when we might have taken a break, the day we get back to our physical fitness, we experience muscle soreness, lack of flexibility and tiredness. But do you know why this happens? What is the importance of an uninterrupted, regular, sustained practice?
Regularity and sustained, measured practice is key to maintaining a balanced, mind-body connection and well-being. Irrespective of your age, when our practice goes off schedule, there is a change experienced immediately in the system. Let’s look at this from the perspective of yoga and Ayurveda.
The correlation between doshas and regular activity
Every individual is made up of three compositions, called doshas in Ayurveda. They are Vata, Pitta and Kapha. They exist in and make up the physical, physiological and psychological functions of the body, with one of them being more dominant in each person.
Out of these three doshas, Vata is related to the air element and is the subtlest of all three (Pitta is related to fire and Kapha to earth and water). Now Vata is responsible for all kinds of body movements - physical (muscles and joints), breathing, digestion, circulation, movement of nerve impulses, sensory functioning and thoughts.
Since it is the subtlest, Vata and all Vata related functions require regular stimulation to ensure all systems are functioning in an optimal manner. Only then can we be of sound health and well-being. For example, your back and hip muscles can be tight and stiff when not exercised or given enough movement (this is the case with most of us who sit for long hours at a desk).
This is exactly what happens with the Vata functions related to the nervous system coordination, senses and mind function. Every part of the body and mind needs regular stimulation and exercise. This is why breathing exercises, meditation and Yoga Nidra are just as important as asanas. Asanas will work on different body parts, but for the energy body and mind, practices like Meditation and Pranayama are important. When practiced regularly over a period of time, a significant change can be noticed. It’s not like you can do a one-hour meditation session once a week and your mind receives the same impact as it would if you do 20-minutes of meditation everyday. The impact of that one-hour mediation will be little to zero.
Modern science’s principle of regularity
Extensive studies have been conducted to research the importance of regularity in exercise. From having an impact on immunity, to reducing the risk of heart attacks, to slowing down the process of aging, the benefits are plentiful. A Harvard study conducted on the benefits of regular exercise found that exercise helps memory and thinking through direct and indirect means. Reducing insulin resistance and inflammation, while also stimulating the release of growth factors such as chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and growth of new blood vessels in the brain are a few ways it has a direct impact.
Improving hormonal balance which improves mood, sleep and reduces stress and anxiety are some of the indirect benefits. Exercise when done 3-6 times a week goes a long way in benefitting improvement. Like meditation, physical exercise cannot be done only on weekends and ignored during the week. Nor can you over-exert yourself for two days and take it easy for the next 3-4 days. Not only will it not improve health or performance, but also lead to possible injuries and health conditions. This is also related to the Principle of Reversibility - all adaptations are reversible, meaning the body returns to its original form in the absence of regular interventions. By doing so, you lose the effects of any training or progress, often called ‘Use it or lose it’.
The impact of regular exercise on the musculoskeletal system
From a musculoskeletal health perspective, regularity is one of the most important aspects of exercise. With regular practice, muscle health increases. Strength and flexibility in the skeletal muscles is also better. This improves joint movements too. As you grow older, certain joints get weaker, like the knee joint, for example. Chances of conditions like Arthritis increases. But with regular yoga, the chances of developing serious joint problems reduces. When stability and balance becomes better, the ability to perform controlled, injury-free movements improves. Furthermore, exercise improves the size and strength of muscle fibers, ligaments and tendons. The number and density of capillaries supplying blood to the skeletal muscles also increases.
When exercise is irregular or consists of breaks, progress reverses. The muscles start to degenerate if they are not given the required movement regularly. For example, a joint’s range of motion can be reduced if not utilized or exercised. Think of what happens to the knees when over exerted by standing for long hours with no counter movements or the required exercise to keep it healthy. Two systematic reviews conducted as part of a study found that enhanced musculoskeletal fitness is positively associated with functional independence, mobility, glucose homeostasis, bone health, psychological well-being and overall quality of life, and is negatively associated with the risk of falls, illness and premature death.
Regular exercise and the nervous system
The first and foremost benefit for the nervous system is the reduced levels of stress and improved blood flow. When blood flow increases, the brain also gets more oxygen and nutrients. Many yoga asanas improve blood circulation in parts of the body that are otherwise neglected. The brain gets nourished, keeping cells (neurons) healthy and promoting the growth of new neurons. With regular exercise the neural circuits, which are built on repetitive behavior, are active. Neural pathways, motor skills and mental activity follow the principle of ‘Use it or lose it’. The nervous system is part of every other system and hence repetition is key to gaining and maintaining overall good health.
Regular exercise helps maintain a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, giving enough priority to the rest and digest response. This reduces cortisol level, lowering stress, mood swings and improving sleep quality. There is heightened neuromuscular coordination by refining inter-muscular coordination. This improves endurance and cardiovascular health.
Irregular exercise throws the nervous system off-balance. The fight or flight response is more active, blood flow is sluggish or blocked, and the central nervous system functions are imbalanced. The triggering of stress itself leads to a whole world of health problems, let alone the diseases and ailments of the nervous system.
The impact of regular exercise on organ health
Similar to the nervous system, the benefits of regular exercises on various organs begins with improved blood flow. Sometimes organs are sluggish or do not receive the right amount of blood, nutrients and minerals. This leads to imbalances. Regular exercises, like yoga asanas, massages different organs, improving the blood flow. Take the brain, for example. With improved blood flow, tension, stress and anxiety is released. It promotes the release of serotonin and endorphins and improves cognitive function. For the lungs, regular pranayama or breathing exercises strengthens the respiratory system muscles, improving lung capacity. With yoga asanas like inversions blood flow from the leg is improved back up to the circulatory system. Many asanas strengthen the heart muscles, which pumps blood more effectively. For women, regular exercise strengthens the pelvic floor muscles and balances hormones, relieving period pain, discomfort and irregularities. For diabetics, asanas that stimulate the pancreas work better on insulin, helping keep sugar levels in check.
All of this leads to the promotion of good health that is free of ailments, but only works seamlessly when exercise is regular, sustained and progressive. When done in a start-stop way, the progress is reversible and often ineffective.
What happens when you practice yoga regularly
All yogic practices (asanas, pranayama, meditation, mudras and bandhas) have an impact on the mind and body on a pranic level. Prana is life force or the subtle energy that exists within us and has a dominating effect on all physiological functions of the body. Through these yogic practices, we are constantly regulating and balancing the prana. And when the prana is free-flowing, without blockages and toxins, that is when we have complete control over our health and well-being.
In Ayurveda, there are five subdivisions of the Vata dosha called Pancha-prana. These are the Musculoskeletal system, Digestive and Excretory system, Respiratory system, Nervous system, and Sensory and Mental functions. Each of these yogic practices have an impact on these five subdivisions, regulating and balancing the prana in these systems, their organs and muscles.
High impact physical movements tend to disturb Vata, like say a vigorous workout in the gym . This can cause an imbalance, as well as many diseases which are even hard to identify initially. According to Ayurveda, the Vata dosha begins to get out of control when we enter the third or fourth phase of our lives. This is why gentler yoga practice becomes so much more important as we grow older.
Yoga asanas and pranayama primarily work on the Vata dosha, and we have now understood how the Vata dosha governs the functioning of our systems and helps maintain balance. Yoga practices when done regularly and in a sustained way will help you keep up the overall health and well-being of the body and mind.