Yoga: Steve llg

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by Faye Rapoport

In 1983, while mountain climbing, Steve Ilg took a 50-foot fall and broke his back. Deciding against surgery, he applied physiology and Eastern philosophy to his recovery. He lifted weights, performed yoga and more. Not only did he overcome paralysis, but he ended up competing in five world championships in four different sports, as well as winning a state championship in cycling.  (Steve Ilg, Yoga, visit his site)

Twenty years later, Ilg is one of the country’s most highly sought-after professional trainers. He has coached hundreds of championship athletes and recently opened a High Performance Yoga Studio. Ilg is a frequent contributor to outdoor and health magazines and has appeared twice on the cover of Outside.

Ilg recently authored TOTAL BODY TRANSFORMATION (available on, Published by Hyperion Books; January 2, 2004; Hardcover), in which he combines five disciplines (strength, cardio, yoga, meditation, and nutrition) with four principles (breath and posture, mindfulness, appropriate action, and practice) to achieve inner and outer fitness. Currently, he splits his time between racing bikes in New Mexico and working with private clients in Los Angeles. He lives in Tarzana, California, where he took some time to answer some fitness questions for You teach “fitness through yoga.” Can you explain what this means?

Ilg: “Fitness” is a Western term for yoga and the two are unequivocally mixed. The very root of the word, “fit” historically implies an adaptability to one’s environment. Like yoga, which teaches that we must be flexible in all of our aspects (mind/body/spirit) in order to be in harmony with the world, a person who practices fitness simply “fits” into the challenges and joys of daily life with more finesse and durability than does a non-practitioner. In my method of Wholistic Fitness – of which High Performance (HP) Yoga is a sub-discipline – I teach that it is only through a variety of exercise disciplines that one can truly embody “fitness” across the physiological spectrum: strength, cardio, flexibility/agility, mental skill, and appropriate body mass (strength to weight ratio). How is yoga different from other forms of exercise?

Ilg: Well, the word “yoga” covers an absolutely vast expansion of mental and spiritual conditioning. I will assume you are referring to Hatha Yoga, which is sort of like the “Physical Education Department” of yoga.

It is less a question of what makes yoga different than what other forms of exercise miss! If you practice HP Yoga you get the whole fitness package, baby! In one 75 or 90 minute HP Yoga Class you will be challenged in strength, cardio, flexibility, agility, balance, mental focus, and final relaxation (meditation). Your spine will be twisted, extended, flexed, and inverted. This spinal aspect thereby influences the ‘organic’ body, improving digestion, circulation, endocrine function, respiration and immunology. Your mind becomes both focused and calm and your inner spirit emerges from the chaotic vapor of over-thinking. What more could you possibly ask for? My style of yoga teaches self-cultivation: you develop and upgrade your own personal energy. You don’t look outside yourself for help; you look within for everything. Do the feet, or exercises for the feet, have any particular significance in the practice of yoga?

Ilg: Feet are absolutely tantamount in yoga. I could easily write another book on The Importance of Feet In Yoga. Every yoga pose starts with the roots of the feet. One reason why we do yoga classes barefoot is to stimulate the “nadis” or the energetic flows of the subtle anatomy which govern glandular and organ function. If your feet are brittle and sensitive, that means your organ systems are equally as brittle and are being ‘suffocated.’ Soften your feet through yoga and your organs grow more spongy and capable of enhanced oxygen and nutrient flow. But this is just the start of the discussion of the importance of feet in yoga! Does it take particular strength in the feet and lower legs to do certain yoga poses?

Ilg: Find out for yourself! Do this simple exercise:

A) Stand upright on your left leg and interlace your fingers two inches below the kneecap of your right leg. Raise and hug your right thigh bone as close to your upper torso as possible. Try to get your right kneecap as close to your right armpit as possible. Flatten the bottom of your right foot as if you are about to step up onto a very, very high step.

B) Now, stand as tall as you absolutely can on your left leg. I want that leg to be as extended as possible. Pull the crown of your head upward, as if a Divine String was attempting to pull you up into the sky.

C) Stand here in this One Legged Balance Posture for one minute, breathing as slowly and continuously as possible through the nose. Note: the left leg is usually the non-dominant leg and is weaker. Yoga improves right/left imbalances in the body from unconscious postural patterns. This is why Yoga is so great for athletes, especially unilateral athletes like tennis players, golfers, basketballers, etc.

D) After one minute, start doing “Calf Raises” (a.k.a; Heel Raises) on your left leg. Now, you tell me right about now, does Yoga require “particular strength in the feet and legs?” But wait, keep doing the Calf Raises for 30 seconds (I’m taking it easy on you!) then go to the next step.

E) Return your entire left heel to the earth. Release your hands from your right knee but DON’T LET THE RIGHT FOOT LOSE ANY ELEVATION! Does Yoga take strength? But wait:

F) Now, do “Leg Extensions” just like in the gym with your right leg. That is, while still in your one legged balance pose, extend the right knee then bend it back. Keep your arms out to the side for balance. Keep repeating this Leg Extension movement for your right leg; Extend it fully out in front and control the descent. Don’t let the left knee bend! Stand up strong! Can you do another thirty seconds? Does Yoga require muscular endurance AND neural coordination? You tell me. It is not wise to ask too many intellectual questions about Yoga. Much better to just do the Practice.

G) Lower your right foot down to the earth and repeat the exercise for the other leg. Note: if you found the above exercise very difficult it is interesting to know that the Left Side is the female and cooler side of the body/mind paradigm. If you were weak during this exercise, you might be trying too hard in your life in a “macho mindset.” Yoga balances the male/female energies of the body. Does yoga offer the kind of cardiovascular training and fat burning workout that many people seek, or do you supplement it with activities such as running?

Ilg: I don’t know for sure what you mean by “many people,” but I will say this: most people that come to me from conventional (Western) fitness methodologies could really stand to do more yoga and less cardio in order to burn fat over the long term. Again, I can only speak for my style of Yoga teaching, because many forms of Hatha Yoga do not raise the heart rate at all, which I do not think is wise.

In my HP Yoga classes however, I offer HP Prop Workouts, Strong Flow, Slow Flow, and Easy Flow classes, all of which affect the Heart Rate differently but all benefit the cardio-respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Why? Because although the actual heart rate may not be raised particularly high, it is elevated and stays elevated for most of the class. But the real metabolic (thus fat burning) effect kicks in AFTER the HP Yoga session is over. Yoga, if taught well, improves what yogis know as ‘agni’ or the fire element. Agni increases the digestive and psychosomatic heat in the body. This inner fire is what burns fat off the body, not just cardio training. In fact, when I won my State Championship in road cycling, I was logging over 18 hours per week of low to super high intensity cardio and my body held ONTO bodyfat more aggressively. When I limit my cardio to around 6 hours per week and do HP Yoga and Yogic Breathing Exercises (pranayama) everyday, I easily hover around -5% bodyfat very healthfully. And, I may be 41 years old chronologically, but Yoga has kept my physiological age at about 20 years old! I can still outperform nearly any 20 year old conventionally trained athlete across the physiologic spectrum. Can people with foot injuries that prevent them from running do yoga?

Ilg: Yes, but they must be willing to be patient and persevere. Ironically, success in Yoga comes ‘quickly’ to those who are willing enough to ‘slow down.’ How often should someone do yoga as part of a fitness regimen?

Ilg: This depends on the individual of course. In fact, that is why at my HP Yoga Studio in LA, I only offer a few open to the public classes and focus mostly on personal training. Yoga is traditionally an Internal Art of Self Cultivation. It was not really intended to be taught in a class type of situation because everybody has unique abilities, temperament, willingness and karma. If a person wants to gain Enlightenment in this lifetime like the Buddha said anyone could, they need to Practice everyday and essentially modify their entire Worldview. If they just want to gain some physical health and feel better? Two classes per week on nonconsecutive days is fine. Do you recommend yoga for people of all ages and fitness levels?

Ilg: Depends on the person and the style of yoga. In my experience, it takes a particularly gifted Teacher to work with kids younger than about 15 and older people whose minds are as brittle as their bones. Kids share the same challenge in Yoga as do older people; they can’t sustain mental focus for very long. Yoga is all about training the mind. The body just comes along for the ride. Most of my Work is with the fitness public, people who already realize the importance of lifestyle exercise, but are confused as to how to structure it in to their lives and in what amounts. My general answer to your question however is yes! Hatha Yoga can be enjoyed by all ages and abilities. What is the best way to get started in yoga?

Ilg: Get my latest book, TOTAL BODY TRANSFORMATION (Hyperion Press)! Everything you need for at least the next 5-20 years is right there, baby! Otherwise, begin a journey of taking yoga classes around your town. Finding a Teacher that suits your unique Way might take a while. Like everything else about Yoga, develop patience and persistence. Devotion to Rising Higher is what Yoga is all about!



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