You stand on the edge, poised, jaw set, sweat beading your brow, concentrating as if your life depends on what comes next. Your muscles tense, toes grip the ground and you hear a firm but gentle voice from somewhere close behind you. “Breathe.” You exhale, realizing you’ve been holding your breath. Your entire body relaxes as you bend your knees and jump back, floating through space.
No, it’s not BASE jumping. It’s yoga; the newest — and one of the oldest — cross-training tools for the outdoor athlete. Whether you’re a weekend warrior, professional athlete, rank amateur, or fitness enthusiast, a regular yoga practice can dramatically improve both your physical and mental health, increase performance, and assist in injury recovery and prevention.
Yoga is a psychospiritual practice which utilizes various methods to achieve a sense of liberation, called samadi — an abiding sense of peace and tranquility balanced with mental clarity and focus. Most Westerners are familiar with hatha yoga which employs physical activity to create an integration of mind, body and spirit.Through practicing asnas, or postures, the practitioner gains physical strength, balance and flexibility. Hatha yoga is basically an umbrella term that covers many different styles and forms of practice, all of which employ physical effort and activities as a means of personal developent. Most of the forms of yoga practiced in the US are some form of hatha yoga, and classes can range from mild to intense.
Who Doesn’t Do Yoga?
Yoga was first introduced in the U.S. in the mid-1900s promising new-age seekers spiritual enlightenment. What many people still don’t realize is yoga can be a rigorous discipline, challenging even the most accomplished endurance athlete, testing your courage, resolve, and capacity to perform, grow and adapt.
The image of a dreadlocked and loincloth-wearing yogi sitting with eyes closed and legs twisted up in the lotus position persists today, although it is gradually being replaced by one of buff, toned bodies in sleek body-hugging fabrics powering through a fast, sweaty workout.
Recent estimates place the number of U.S. citizens currently doing yoga at around 28 million, nearly 10 percent of our national population. A 2003 poll by Yoga Journal, the leading yoga lifestyle publication, found that nearly 100 million people have at least a “casual interest” in yoga. And while three quarters of all yoga practitioners are women ages 25-54, men are beginning to show up in greater numbers as they realize the health benefits. Athletes who begin yoga for stretching and relaxation find themselves at how much yoga offers — and demands.
Jolene Spear, a Portland-based fitness instructor and competitive runner began getting serious about yoga after finishing the Hood to Coast Relay in 2002, running roughly an eight-minute mile.
“I didn’t train as much during the winter but I did more yoga,” said Spear. “The following spring when I began running again, my pace was faster, my stride was longer, and my gait had smoothed out. My flexibility increased from the yoga but the biggest change was that I was more comfortable and relaxed in my body and truly grateful for what I was able to do.”
The Many Benefits of Yoga
By undertaking a regular, consistent practice of three or more times per week, the yoga student improves body awareness and learns a cross-training tool that increases athletic performance while minimizing the risk of injury. Some of these benefits are:
- Relaxed, deep breathing
Deep abdominal breathing relaxes the nervous system, reduces performance anxiety and helps improve coordination and concentration. There are many different techniques, called pranayama, which re-educate the respiratory system. A stronger respiratory system oxygenates muscles and helps exchange carbon dioxide, thereby improving one’s rate of recovery.
- Improved range of motion
Hard training, injuries, genetics, and lifestyle all contribute to range of motion restrictions. A good yoga program will target weak areas with strength work, open tight areas with flexibility training, and encourage deep relaxation, which aids both strength and flexibility training. The single most relevant factor in the success of a yoga program to effect change is regularity.
- Core strength
Through slow, controlled movement into and out of a variety of postures yoga builds a strong core, strengthening both the abdominal and spinal muscles.
- Strength without bulk
By using your own body weight as resistance yoga build balanced muscle strength without adding unecessary bulk.
- Better balance
A key component of a typical yoga practice are balancing postures. Often the most frustrating part of many a practice, these humbling movements and postures can help correct musculoskeletal problems, improve posture overall, and ease joint pain by increasing joint stability.
- Peace of mind
Beyond these obvious physical benefits yoga trains the mind for greater clarity, focus and improved mental attitude and mood. Yoga teaches us to fight hard when we can to achieve our goals, accept defeat with equanimity, and to meet the next challenge with renewed vigor and openness.
While the physical movement attracts most people to yoga it’s the low-cost psychological benefits which keep them coming back for more. Applied yoga philosophy is sport psychology. Yoga works in two directions at once: Change the mind and you change the body, change the body and you’ll change the mind. It’s as much as mind-body “work-in” as much as it’s a workout.
Something for Every Body
Whether you’re interested in a serious cross-training tool during your off-season, or as ann an activity to help beat the winter blues of the Pacific Northwest, there is a type of yoga for everyone (see sidebar). The best way to find what appeals is to try several different styles with different teachers to find one you enjoy. Teachers’ trainings vary widely in their emphasis, and one person’s delight is another person’s torture. The only way to be sure is to explore your options; in most places around the country the possibilities are just about endless.
Look for an experienced teacher with whom you feel confident and comfortable working. Once you find that perfect class, be consistent. Regular, frequent practice is far better than ocassional intense bursts of yoga, which could, in fact, get in the way of your training.
If you want to address specific needs, such as injury rehabilitation, or chronic pain and tension in certain areas of your body, you may want to work with a teacher privately, doing one-on-one training sessions. Though private training is more costly than group classes at the gym or local yoga studio, it is often more efficient, especially if you have limited time to practice. Private lessons focus on the issues you want to address, maximizing the return on your investment.
Whether you choose to do group classes, train privately with a teacher, or follow along with any one of hundreds of books or DVDs guiding your practice, just remember one thing: