When I teach yoga to athletes, gym members and others that are particularly interested in the physical aspects of the practice what I often hear the most is that they expect a good stretch to counter their workout. Yoga is often misrepresented as ‘just stretching’ or only for people who are flexible, as seated yoga style poses are often added to the end of workouts as a cool down.
However, practicing yoga regularly can bring many benefits to other activities whether those activities are running, cycling, climbing, lifting, jumping, skiing… As a skier, climber and hiker myself I know from experience the impact that yoga has on my ability to balance, reach and stay stable as well as staying calm under pressure (well sometimes…). Not to mention the ability to recover after a big day on the mountains.
Here are seven of the main reasons I think yoga is an awesome addition to your life of adventure:
- Connection with the Core
In yoga we use breath and body awareness to connect more deeply with the belly centre through diaphragmatic breathing, standing and seated meditation and a full range of spinal movement. We teach to move from the core and this increased awareness and centring, in combination with other strength based training, can assist greatly with performance and reduction of injury. This is not just about the planks, boat poses and arm balances – in the ancient movement practice of yoga we are training to move in and out of all postures from the core (which is how we should move in all aspects of our life!)
- Diaphragmatic, Nasal Breathing
Many people do not breathe naturally. Whether due to stress, over tightness in the front body or societal pressures to continually keep the belly drawn in, a lot of people (including athletes) can tend to breathe only into the chest without using the full capacity of the lungs. In addition, many people also breathe through their mouth and actually over breathe (more breaths per minutes than is natural).
Yoga teaches slow, diaphragmatic breathing through the nose – a long, slow breath that allows us to breath less while doing more in our yoga practice. This allows the body to absorb more oxygen into the blood and is proven to have a calming effect on the body and mind. After relearning to breath naturally we can move on to learn how to control the breath – known as pranayama. Knowing the impact that the breath has on the nervous system means we can use the control of the breath to control our energy and states of mind – which is also great for performance.
- Subtle Body Awareness
There are many periods of stillness in a yoga class, sitting feeling the breath, noticing sensations in the body in a posture, noticing energy levels and mental states. This can seem boring and for those used to constant activity can bring on overwhelming restlessness. But this is often where the magic happens. As we become more still and allow outside distraction to fade away we can start to notice the subtle aspects of our bodies and minds. Perhaps a new shade of pain for an old injury when we move a certain way, a feeling of instability that changes to become more stable if we engage different muscles, finding our balance and strength through small changes and shifts. The things we can learn about the way we move (or don’t move) on the mat can have huge impacts on our daily lives and the activities we love.
- Strengthening the Stabilising Muscles
Yoga taught safely focusses on teaching students to connect with the deep stabilising muscles of the pelvic floor, hip, gluteus and transverse abdominal muscles. Due to our culture of sitting on chairs much of the time, whether driving or working, many Western bodies have instability and weakness around the pelvis including weak gluteus muscles and over tight (and weak) hip flexors. Many sports such as running and cycling can exacerbate these issues (foam rollers over the ITB sound familiar??) Well trained yoga teachers will assess pelvic and shoulder stability through observation and make adjustments to your postures (if appropriate) to ensure you are building strength and not training weakness. In particular, through the use of ‘bandhas’ or energy locks (which are basically the co-activation of muscles around a joint complex) yoga teaches isolation of deep core and joint stabilising muscles to support the structural integrity of the body without compensating natural breathing.
- Strengthens the Feet
The feet have a powerful connection to the core muscles. The pathway between the deep foot stabilisers (intrinsic foot muscles) and the deep core stabilisers (pelvic floor, deep lateral hip rotators) is referred to as our local stabilisation pathway. In yoga we practice bare foot which in itself helps to strengthen the feet where in most of our Western lives we are wearing shoes (particularly for runners, gym goers and cyclists and not to mention ski boots!). However in yoga we also do specific practices to strengthen the feet through balances and other standing postures.
- Mindfulness Techniques
In those moments of stillness in our practice we have an opportunity to be with whatever comes up emotionally, mentally and physically. Yoga classes teach tools to remain present, stay with the breath and be open and accepting of whatever is present. For example, in a simple breath meditation we practice bringing awareness back to the inhale and exhale each time it strays. These practices can assist greatly with concentration, focus and endurance during tough climbs, runs and hikes.
Other mindfulness practices can help us to deal with difficult emotions such as fear, anger and desire that may impede our ability to perform safely and to the best of our ability. There’s a great video series about the benefits of meditation for extreme sports athletes that is well worth a watch!
- Some Yin to balance your Yang
Generally yoga is a more Yin (softer, stiller and calmer) practice compared to the Yang activities such as running, rock climbing or strength training. When we have this outward focussed, high intensity practice it can sometimes lead to burn out and fatigue. Here is a great video from the Movement Monk that explains this really well.
It can be useful to notice if the body is becoming exhausted and whether your activities need to be balanced with a slower, nourishing internal focussed movement such as yoga. However, we are aware that a vigorous vinyasa class or a high intensity hot yoga class, while tempting for those that love to be challenged, may not be nourishing enough to balance the other activities and it’s also important to sample other more gentle styles such as Yin and Restorative. In my blog Embracing Yin I talk more about our need to slow down and turn inwards to find balance.