Last week we talked about the relationship between exercise and yoga. I promised to offer you some advice and tips on how to improve your practice and/or training. Here they are:
First up – the body NEEDS variety. I am an ashtangi, so I know better than most about the glories of repetition. However, from a purely scientific perspective – the BODY NEEDS VARIETY! The body is incredible at adjusting to stresses and forces. If we sit too often in the same position, or adopt a posture too many times, the body gradually, but very significantly, moulds itself accordingly. Lots of repetition and the body is no longer challenged. Too much repetition and the body can become weakened and injured. I know many ashtangis who suffer from repetitive-strain injuries, often of the knees, back or shoulders after practicing the same moves over and over for many years.
Second up – the body needs a cardio-vascular work-out to keep the heart rate strong and the blood pressure steady as well as to help move toxins around and out the body. Again, many would argue with me that strong yoga – such as ashtanga or vinyasa flow – can provide a really good cardio work-out. Mmmm, yes, to a degree. But it’s got nothing on a run, and in my experience, practice it for many years and the cardio element disappears. I don’t know many advanced practitioners that get out-of-breath, or whose heart-rates rise significantly or who even really sweat much. The body ADJUSTS!
Third up – it’s really possible to practice strong yoga without utilising your core or building up much strength – BUT, if you don’t you will only get away with it for so long. I practiced yoga for several years before things started to go wrong, and it was then that I discovered that in fact my arms were weak despite all the yoga, and I wasn’t using my core or bandhas correctly at all! Even if you do, Iyengar practitioners and Pilates students know how the tiniest muscles can be strengthened and engaged giving an all-round strength which most exercise completely avoids – until you get injured from bad technique.
Fourth up – most forms of exercise can ruin your practice, leaving you stiff and tight the next day and unable to get into postures without struggle. Sorry – but that’s the truth! What a dichotomy! So what’s the solution?
Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution, but there are a few tricks and tools you can do which will help. Here’s my helpful list (put together after years of aching muscles, stiff body, determination and experimentation!)
• Do do cardio-vascular, such as running, cycling, swimming, or aerobics-style classes, but DON’T do too much. For me the balance is about three to five 30-minute sessions a week. I run twice a week and swim 2 or 3 times a week, but if I ever increase my running or swimming beyond around 35 minutes, my practice suffers.
• Make time to stretch REALLY WELL. I have discovered that if I run or swim and then just head home, I will pay for it on my mat the next day. The perfect combination is to follow a cardio session with a yoga class of some kind. This undoes the tightness engendered by the cardio work-out and leaves the body loose for the following day’s practice. If you don’t have time to swim, run, cycle and practice yoga (because frankly you have a life!), then make time for a proper stretching session. I like to end a cardio session with a sauna session – where I do my ‘key muscle group’ stretches (see below). (Ok, I look ridiculous lunging and forward bending in the sauna, and I am sure that people head for the door when they see me coming, but it saves my yoga so it’s worth it!)
• Always stretch the ‘Key muscle groups’ after a cardio work-out. These are: hamstrings (forward bending), quadriceps (foot to bum stretch), glutes (pigeon) and psoas or hip-flexor (lunges). I also need to open my shoulders and spine after swimming to ensure that they don’t stiffen up too much overnight.
• Work your arms. Some yogis are naturally strong – men especially often have the required arm and shoulder strength to manage planks, chattarangas (press-up position), up-dogs, arm balances etc. But many of us more-puny women do not have this natural strength in our upper bodies. So rather than becoming one of those ‘cop-out yogi-girls’ who always lower themselves to the floor with a splat, and can’t bear any weight in their arms, or worse – becoming one of those girls who injures themselves – build up your strength. I have found that weight-training (in moderation) can really help strengthen your yoga practice. This can be as simple as a few girly push-ups in the morning or it can be a proper weight-training session down the gym 2 or maybe 3 times a week, under the supervision of a Personal Trainer. Either way, build up some strength.
• The same is true of the core – work those abs! Pilates is a definite complement to most yoga practices. I didn’t even realise I hadn’t discovered my Uddiyana Bandha until I attended my first Pilates class – and then I found it! If Pilates isn’t for you, then do some sit-ups, some crunches and some old-fashioned leg-raises down the gym or in an abs class. It will only benefit your yoga.
Really it’s all about finding what works best for you – finding your own balance. I do know some people that can run regularly and practice yoga, but it depends which is your priority? These people tend to be runners who practice yoga to enhance their running and stop them getting too tight. But if you are a yogi, who practices daily and aspires to being bendy and stretchy and flexible within that practice, then regular running isn’t going to work for you. Neither is cycling for miles on end or building up huge, rippling muscles. But if those are your goals, then by all means – use yoga to enhance your experience by lengthening your muscles and ensuring you stay supple and injury- free. In fact, one of my most popular classes is called ‘Yogasports’ and is designed for athletes who want to use yoga to get the most out of their sport. It works on strength and core, flexibility of the spine, increasing the range of movement in the major muscles groups, and increasing breath awareness and focus to ensure that oxygen is always available and that concentration can be maintained for a more successful workout. Because not everyone wants to practice yoga to put a leg behind their head or get closer to God. Some people just want to move, breathe and stretch.
And that, of course, is absolutely fine. Get on your mat, whatever your reasons – and enjoy the practice!