by Eric Stewart
“Now that I do yoga, should I still go to the gym?”
Students sometimes inquire about this when they are new, but I actually hear it more when dedication to the practice deepens. As commitment to yoga (or any other discipline) grows, it’s natural to consider how the time and energy involved will affect other parts of life.
In addition to inquiries about the gym, I’ve had conversations about yoga and running, Pilates, capoeira, and numerous other forms of physical activity. I’ve also had discussions on the pros and cons of combining different approaches to yoga, especially flowing, vinyasa-based methods with those that focus more on alignment.
Do multiple practices or hybrid practices make sense?
The answer is that it depends. It especially depends on why you are doing yoga. The compatibility of the different activities matters as well. And if you choose to do more than one thing, being successful depends on how you go about doing it.
If this is an active question for you and you’re not certain what’s best, a great place to start is to understand the arguments on each side of the issue.
Even if you are firmly in the yoga-only camp, or are dedicated to the pursuit of more than one discipline, the opposing view likely has insights that you can use to make your chosen path more effective.
So without further ado, let’s have a good ol’ argument!
Digging Many Wells
When the pitfalls of doing more than one practice are discussed, there is a parable attributed to Rumi that’s often told. It’s about a farmer digging a well. He chooses a spot and digs down a number of feet, but doesn’t reach water. So he decides to move to a new place.
He digs to roughly the same depth in the new spot with the same result, and then proceeds to dig several more wells that all fail to strike water. The story illustrates an all too human tendency: to pull up stakes just when things get uncomfortable, and go running after the next flashy thing that seems to hold promise.
The further result is that the energy a person uses chasing multiple options gets dispersed without contributing to anything effective. The resources any person has for practice are limited and easily diluted. When dilution happens, it results in a lack of progress and depth.
Digging One Well with Different Tools
As much as it’s wise to be aware of the potential for dilution, it’s also worth considering how judicious exploration of more than one approach has benefits.
Sometimes, a second practice can offer perspective and insights that allow for greater skill development in the first practice. The amplification of skills can flow both ways. When this happens, two practices can be seen less as separate things and more as two approaches to a common purpose.
For example, my own study of singing over the past several years has benefited greatly from the awareness fostered in yoga. At the same time, I’ve had experiences with breathing and internal body awareness in singing that have enhanced my my understanding of these things within yoga.
The activities in each practice are simply different tools that are digging the same well– the well being one of greater self-understanding and integration.
This exchange of knowledge and information between disciplines is in fact essential for innovative learning and teaching. While a path such as yoga contains elements that remain constant over time as a tradition, the very development of that tradition is also continually transformed and modified through contact with outside influences.
For instance, yoga and Buddhism have a long history of mutual influence, with ideas from each tradition cross-pollinating into the other.
So opening a practice to the ideas and methods of another discipline can be a healthy thing. Whether it is or not depends on how the two can work together. Sometimes the methods of two practices are very difficult to reconcile.
For example, there are some approaches to weightlifting that emphasize building muscles in a shortened state, and this can run counter to the process of elongating and strengthening muscle that is emphasized in yoga.
This doesn’t mean that all weightlifting is bad. There are methods of weight training that emphasize circular movements and elongation along with strength. This sort of approach is more complementary to yoga.
If you choose to do multiple practices, keeping one of them as the primary activity can help you to negotiate the relationship between the two. Prioritizing a main activity also helps with time management. If it’s not clear what’s primary, it can start to feel that both activities are competing with each other for time.
The balance between gaining the benefits from a different perspective and diluting your limited time and attention is a fine one. If you do spread yourself too thin, i.e. dig too many wells, life will tell you about it, so it helps to pay attention to your experience. Shape your practice not just from your ideas about what practice should be, but also from the information you are getting from the larger picture of your life.
This also depends on personal preference and temperament. Some people just work better focusing on one thing. Others thrive on the process of integrating different approaches.
Consistency and Variety
One way to view the one practice vs. multiple argument is that each side represents an essential element that’s necessary for healthy practice. In order to thrive, any practice needs consistency and variety. Doing yoga as a sole practice is an effective way to find consistency; doing multiple practices can be a useful way to create variety.
Just to be clear, doing one practice is not a guarantee that you will be consistent, and multiple practices do not ensure that variety will invigorate your practice and your life, but these ways of organizing practice do make one or the other more likely. As much as your practice may favor one or the other of these qualities, it’s important to consider how you can get a healthy dose of what’s less present.
So if you just do yoga, pay special attention to how you can introduce variety to the practice. If you have multiple practices, make sure that consistency is healthy enough to sustain what you’re doing.
In my own practice, I am one of those people who loves to puzzle over and integrate different approaches. Yoga is without question my main path, and I give great attention to ensuring that this part of my practice maintains integrity. At the same time, my yoga has unquestionably been shaped by the other things I’ve explored.
One recent example of this exploration is a method called MovNat (natural movement), which is a physical education system based on training the full range of natural human movement abilities. MovNat was developed by a French man named Erwan LeCorre, who spent much of his youth outdoors, was involved with various forms of athletics and other training methods as he grew older, and eventually returned to exploring movement in nature.
I love the combination of discipline and open-ended playfulness that is found within this method. It feels similar to when those qualities are in balance in a yoga practice.
I love that MovNat is geared toward being outside. I also love that MovNat involves hanging from trees and pulling oneself up onto things. Moving outside over uneven terrain and pulling activities with the arms are activities that aren’t emphasized in yoga. I say this not as a critique of yoga, but as a way to understand its patterns more fully.
I don’t explore MovNat from any sense of lack or deficiency I experience in yoga, but it gives me a new perspective when I come back to the mat to sit or do asana.