04. Exercising the Joints

Exercise is now common place in our culture. So common in fact that it might shock people to remember that people who ran marathons in the first part of the 20th Century were considered of questionable sanity. In the 1950s and 1960s it was common for athletes to be cautioned against lifting weights as such practice would diminish their physical skills by making them “muscle bound” and “slow”. How ironic that as of Spring 2005 there is a major scandal in professional baseball about players using steroids. Many of the recently achieved records in hitting homeruns are being examined to see if they should be disallowed because steroid use has made modern players “too strong” and given them an “unfair advantage”. So in just a few decades the popular mythology of weight lifting has turned 180 degrees. What used to be considered detrimental is now considered essential and athletes from the high school to the professional level are coached and encouraged to train with weights. A few decades ago well equipped weight rooms were hard to find and now hardly a high school in the country doesn’t have one.

Weight training is not the only exercise misconception to do an about-face in recent years; physical therapy has also reversed itself on many basic assumptions. A few decades ago the common advice given to any patient after surgery or pregnancy or injury was to “rest”. It seems as if there was a class given in medical schools that taught physicians to prescribe “bed rest” when they couldn’t think of anything else. After all, even if resting didn’t help that much what could it hurt? Well, it turns out that resting can “hurt” a lot.

In a complete flip-flop from a few decades ago the “standard of practice” after most orthopedic surgeries is now “immediate mobilization” rather than rest. This “mobilization” starts as soon as the patient is ready to stand. In every hospital in the country nurses of drill sergeant deportment can be heard barking commands at their surgery patients to “rise and walk” just hours out of surgery. And the “mobilization” doesn’t end after the patient wobbles out of the hospital. Standard post-surgical protocol is a prescribed program of physical therapy or “PT”. This program can last weeks or months and as most PT patients will tell you “It ain’t no fun.”

It is a matter of course that clients hate their physical therapist; and for good reason. This otherwise courteous and empathetic professional will brook no excuses when pushing people to do painful and exhausting exercises to regain the use of repaired joints. After each session the PT’s enthusiastic “See you next week!” usually evokes a grimace from the patient who feels that somehow she is being abused. However, all resentment ends once she has recovered her joint mobility and generously thanks her therapist for “All you have done for me.”

Why has orthopedic medicine reversed its position on rest versus mobilization? Because study after study has shown that immobilization has deleterious effects on the joints. Patients heal more quickly and more completely when they start rigorous PT immediately following surgery. ‘Movement is life’ is an old saying. Movement is necessary for health and healing is a less poetic but scientifically accepted variation of this old platitude.

Modern medicine has recently reversed itself on several points and now acknowledges that exercising the joints is necessary for health and proper function. This has been the premise of yoga asana for thousands of years. But perhaps my reader is becoming slightly uncomfortable with where this article is heading. Why all this talk about painful rehabilitation? Is it being implied that proper yoga practice necessitates grueling physical discipline? Let me reassure the aspiring yogi that the answer is a resounding “NO!” We have been examining these things because extreme examples illustrate basic principles most clearly.

Modern medicine is most effective when studying and treating grossly obvious physical maladies. Most of the money spent in medical research is rightly spent studying life threatening illness and debilitating injury. This is how it should be. It is not the proper ambition for yogis to imitate the methods of drastic physical therapies but rather to emulate the principle behind these therapies. The principle behind these therapies is merely an extension of the Theory of Exercise or Theory of Sacrifice discussed in our last article. If joints are not stressed they degenerate. If joints are overstressed they deteriorate. Healthy range of motion is a balance between these two extremes.

Before going into a further elaboration of proper exercise of the joints it is important for us to emphasize that yoga can be much more than physical rehabilitation. In the broader theory of yoga we live and experience the world through three bodies. These three bodies are the Physical, the Astral, and the Causal.

The physical body is cultivated by exercises such as yoga or physical therapy. The astral body is the body of emotion and desire; it is cultivated via psychology and the moral and ethical codes of the various religions. The causal body is the body of thought and understanding; it is cultivated by disciplined thinking and the objective analysis of our experiences. A complete yoga practice is the cultivation of all three bodies.

This is a time of transition for hatha yoga. It is stepping out of the ashrams and into mainstream American life largely because it has been stripped of its religious “Hindu” contexts. There are those who bemoan this loss of deeper spiritual ideals. Others are glad to be rid of the religious overtones and proudly wear T-shirts proclaiming “Yoga: burn calories not incense.” In a future article we will explore this idealistic divide in the expanding yoga universe but for now let me say that yoga has always been an inclusive science. There is room for everyone under its roof. Some may choose to eat its entire feast and others may choose only to refresh themselves with a drink. If our own preference is for something deeper than athletics and physical rehabilitation this does not diminish the value of athletics and physical rehabilitation.

This being stated in our next article we will return to an examination of the joints of our physical body.