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An Indian man sits in full lotus under the blistering heat of the subcontinent’s summer sun. A woman in dreadlocks does a headstand on a Himalayan mountainside lashed by wintry snows. Another yogi balances on their hands on the banks of the Ganges river, while still another dances wildly around a fire, singing impromptu hymns to the cosmos. These are the primal roots of yoga that are so often watered down in today’s studio culture, where students practice on a perfectly level floor in a temperature-controlled environment while sipping filtered water.
Yoga today, concerned with safety, stress reduction and equilibrium, has gotten away from its wild origins, in which adherents used physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation to explore the ultimate reality. To do this, they went into nature and worked themselves into a physical and mental lather in order to go beyond their preconceived notions of who they were and connect to an ancient wisdom that lay deep within themselves.
Sound familiar? It did to me. I came to Paleo after decades of practicing and then teaching yoga, and discovered that much of Paleo’s philosophy dovetailed beautifully with yogic science. Commit to natural movement in natural environments. Ancestral wisdom, from diet choices to sleep patterns, is vital to our well-being. Tending to the natural rhythms of the body yields a better-functioning organism. Just like yoga, Paleo isn’t only for mealtimes or exercise; it’s an integrated lifestyle that optimizes the human experience. With a greater understanding of yoga’s past, it’s easy to fold a yoga practice into a Paleo life and go deeper into the heart of both disciplines.
First things first: Our modern yoga is made up. We’re often told that asana, the physical practice of yoga, stretches far back into antiquity, but the real story is more complicated. The most recognized founder of modern physical yoga was T. Krishnamacharya, who taught throughout much of the 20th century and, like his contemporaries, combined classical asana with Indian wrestling techniques and British gymnastics.
Krishnamacharya took his art on the road, doing public demonstrations where he stopped his pulse, twisted himself into astounding positions and lifted impossibly heavy objects. From his teaching lineage came B.K.S. lyengar, noted around the world as a master of asana; K. Pattabhi Jois, who founded the popular Ashtanga system of yoga; and Indra Devi, a Latvian-born woman who was the first to introduce asana to America and taught it to Hollywood’s rich and famous women. All three of them (and those directly or indirectly influenced by them) taught their own versions of yoga, so while we can say that today’s various yogic styles share a common thread, much of what we do on the mat is pure improv. Mixing an asana practice with Paleo-inspired movement is just another riff on a very old song.
Below are some ideas to help you combine the two, engage your body in dynamic ways and bring clarity to your mind. Before we start, it’s important to note that these sequences are meant for people with a solid working knowledge of yoga. If you’re still new (or even if you’re not), keep going to classes. Get a feel for the practice in your own body, because one size does not fit all. Use the sequences below in the ways that are appropriate for your level. If you need a break, take one. If you want to add weights where suggested, do it. Be smart about it. Knowing yourself without artifice is one of the biggest gifts yoga offers us.
The Yoga Hike
Leave your mat at home. Leave your earbuds in your car. Seriously. Go into the woods, the mountains, a desert or your favorite place in Central Park. Try balance postures on uneven ground. Do warrior two with waves washing over your legs. Feel the rough surface of a boulder on your bare feet. Let your body get tested by asymmetrical approaches to the practice. No, the alignment might not be classroom-worthy “correct,” but you will start to discover a potent practice that challenges your muscles, coordination and stamina in a more primal way.
Head off to your favorite hiking locale, and spend a good 15 minutes walking vigorously along the trail. After your heart rate is elevated and your body feels warm, take your first yoga break. Pick a spot with great views. Kick off your shoes if possible, and hold the following poses for five breaths or more. Let your body tell you what to do.
Come into warrior two. Follow it with extended side angle pose and then triangle. Repeat the same sequence over the left leg. End with tree on each side.
Carry on with your hike. Climb, run, walk, wander, take in the world around you for 10 to 15 minutes. Yoga break two of warrior one, followed by warrior three and then pyramid pose. Repeat on the other side.
Continue the hike. For this next yoga break, find somewhere you can sit. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. First up is bridge, followed by full wheel if you have it. If not, simply repeat bridge three times, staying in the pose for five to 10 breaths each round. Take a simple seated twist, and then with legs straight out in front of you, do a forward fold.
Finish up your hike, either heading back to your starting point or going as far out as you want to today. Find somewhere to sit. Let your eyelids drop halfway and gaze at one point (or close your eyes completely). Just listen. Hear whatever sounds are present—the wind, birdsong, people talking as they walk by, your cellphone ringing because you forgot to turn it off. Don’t try to change anything. Don’t get wrapped up in the stories in your head—“Why can’t they be quiet, I hate my phone, I wonder if that’s my job calling, blah, blah, blah”—just hear the sound and let it go. Attach no meaning to it. See what it is to actually be present, right where you are, your body fully alive, your breath flowing freely and your mind coming to a sense of peace.
In yoga, kriyas are short bursts of repetitive movements designed to heat the body, raise the pulse and develop strength. Adding them to standard asana is a wonderful way to train the body and the mind to toggle between stasis and an overload of fast movement.
Start with 15 air squats, followed by 10 push-ups and 20 sit-ups. Do this sequence three times. Then do what I call the Paleo Salutation:
First, do a squat. Then, inhale and reach the arms overhead as if you were doing a shoulder press. Exhale, then fold over the legs. Inhale, then step the feet back into a plank. Exhale, and lower down to three inches above the ground. Inhale back to plank. Exhale to downward dog and take a breath. Exhale and step the right foot forward. Inhale and come up to warrior two. Exhale, hands to the ground, framing the right foot. Inhale, step the right foot back to plank. Exhale to 3 inches above the ground. Inhale up to plank. Exhale, downward dog. Take a breath. Repeat on the left side, and then, from downward dog, exhale and step the feet forward to a deadlift prep position. Inhale. Exhale and rise with a deadlift movement. Do this sequence three to five times.
Note that you can add weight to this by using a barbell or dumbbells for the squat, shoulder press and deadlift. Using a barbell, you can front-rack or back-rack. Do the squat with the weight. Press it overhead and then lower it to the ground. Continue with the salutation. For the last move, deadlift the weight.
Step-Up Balance Combo
Use a box, stairs or a rock for a series of step-ups. Do 10 on each leg. Immediately, without taking a break, come into tree pose. Stay in the shape for five breaths and repeat on the other side. Another 10 step-ups followed by eagle pose. The last 10 step-ups are capped with hand-to-foot pose.
If you want, add dumbbells or a barbell to your step-ups. You can either take breaks between each set or run through them all at a clip to test your stamina and ability to stop on a dime.
Do 10 push-ups. (Alternately, feel free to do a bench press if you want more weight for the chest exercise.) Follow the push-ups with side plank on one side. Hold for five breaths. Do another 10 push-ups. Hit up the other side for side plank. Ten more push-ups. End with a deep chair pose that you stay in for 10 breaths. Repeat the entire sequence up to five times.
Whether you do only one of the combos above or all of them, make sure to leave time to settle the body and quiet the mind. Simple forward folds are a wonderful way to shift the energy in the body, as is shoulder stand and, of course, corpse pose. Give yourself a good 10 minutes in corpse—you’ve earned it.
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