When I was in high school, I ran cross country and indoor track. Some days we would have long run workouts where we’d go out and run four, five, six, seven miles at a pace at which we could talk comfortably (our coach called these runs “gossip pace runs” because we could, well, gossip). Then we’d have other workouts during which we’d wear heart rate monitors and we’d have to run at pace that would get our heart rate up to a certain beat per minute. I loathed these practices because the target heart rate always seemed too high, too uncomfortable, like when I hit it I would puke. Of course I understood that this was designed to help us increase our speed and therefore win more races, but I still hated them.
Fast forward more than ten years and heart rate monitors abound! I see at least a few in every yoga class. One of my yoga students reports his maximum heart rate and total calorie burn after every class and the results astound me: the heart rate increases and decreases showing how the yoga class is a beautiful interval workout, and the calorie burn (sometimes upward of 1,000 calories for a 90-minute class) is nothing to sneeze at either!
Witnessing these results on paper (or on a watch) motivates the heck out of students; however, I would urge yogis of all levels to practice the majority of your classes without any gadgets. Technology allows us to keep such a close eye on numbers and data and stats, but I wonder if by paying attention to the data, we have less mindfulness and attention to give to our bodies.
Yoga means union. The union between your mind and your body. Not the union between your mind and your heart rate monitor.
Sometimes I’ll bring my watch into class when I’m practicing. Lately I’ve been paying attention to where my mind goes on the days that I have my watch strapped to my wrist. I check it. A lot. I notice if we are on pace to end early, on time, or late. I’m aware of a posture being held for what I feel is too long in which case I’ll come out early, even if I don’t need to. This little distraction of my watch breaks the union between my mind and my body and I’m a little less present. Is it a big deal? Not really. Am I any worse for the wear? Hardly. But in hindsight, I find that there’s no need for the time-checking. It’s doesn’t do anything to enhance my yoga; in fact, it takes away from the practice just slightly.
When we practice yoga, we aim to take care of ourselves. Yoga is an amazingly effective way to create healing in the body; however, if the goal of the yoga class becomes hitting a certain heart rate at the expense of feeling good, some of that healing effect is lost.
Different from my high school running practices, there’s no end goal to yoga. There’s no game, no need to finish first. The goal really is you, you feeling good. What if you’re taking a class and feeling good means pushing a little less? The heart rate might not increase as high as it sometimes does, but you’ll ultimately feel better.
Sure it’s fun to see the heart rate spike and the calories burn, but I’d urge yoga practitioners to use focus on how you feel and then really practice accordingly, rather than practicing based on a number. Pay attention to muscle tightness. Be aware of the joints moving. Feel your shoulders relax, your breath exhale, and your spine lengthen. A gadget can’t tell you those things but your body can. By paying attention to the messages your body is sending you, you’ll create a sustainable, lifetime practice.
So what do you think? If you practice yoga with a heart rate monitor, is it a distraction? What would it feel like to practice with no data available, only your breath, your mind, and your body?