About a year ago, I started practicing yoga two to three times per week on a regular basis. Initially, I sought it out as a departure from my typical training routines but also to learn ways to make my body stronger so I could work towards some of my ultimate bodyweight performance goals, particularly, the human flag.
In addition to the people I love and the game changing perspectives that have I’ve come by through yoga, I’ve gotten better in my body. Yoga offers a lot of benefits from breath work to body awareness, flexibility, mobility, stability, strength and relaxation. While everyone’s interests and needs may vary, when it comes to sports and training, I encourage you to get to know thy fitness neighbor as there’s a lot of benefits from a consistent practice.
1. Breath work –More and more attention is circulating around diaphragmatic breathing in the strength training community. Girls Gone Strong Co-Founder, Molly Galbraith, uses several breathing practices for herself and clients at her gym. She says:
“We do rockback breathing to help teach clients how to circumferentially expand with air, which will help them to stabilize their core more effectively, and we use a hard exhale to teach them to drive the ribs down. After a workout, you may use something like Crocodile Breathing (lying on the belly with a shorter inhale and a longer exhale) to kick start the recovery process by switching the body over to the parasympathetic nervous system.”
In yoga, breath work is a huge part of the practice for various reasons including rhythm in your practice, staying present, meditative qualities and taking in enough oxygen. The diaphragmatic breath technique used in yoga is called Ujjayi (pronounced oo-ji-ee) breathing, which stands for victory breath. Generally, the inhale and exhale are both done through the nose and there is a breath with each movement (inhale to rise or lengthen, exhale on downward movements, completing a twist or contracting). Yoga’s attention to breath work can help one better learn, practice and integrate belly-breathing techniques, which can then be applied elsewhere.
2. Body Awareness – In an environment such as yoga, there are very little external stimuli around you. Also, when siting with a pose for several breaths, you have time to focus awareness to feel and refine a pose in the moment and or over time. You begin getting to know your body through attention to alignment and proprioception (a “sense of self” – the ability to sense the position and location and orientation and movement of the body and its parts) by focusing on your point(s) of contact with the floor to the position of your limbs, joints, hips, torso, arms, etc. Not only are you able to survey your body for subtle movements but learning to engage certain areas and relax others.
3a. Flexibility – While yoga is far more than “stretching” it does provide a solid block of time to incorporate stretching and gain flexibility over time.
“The brain creates ‘set lengths’ for muscles based on regular activity. Sitting in a chair or riding a bicycle on a regular basis signals the brain to set the length of the muscles about the hips for flexion. Consistent practice of yoga lengthens the muscles improving range of motion throughout the body. This creates new ‘set lengths’ in the brain.” – Ray Long, MD, FRCSC
There will be individual biomechanics (bone shape plus the capsule and ligaments surrounding the joint) that cannot be changed (bone shape is permanent and ligaments have a limited capacity to stretch without being damaged) but you can improve flexibility of the muscles over time with consistent practice.
There are so many postures we could highlight but here are just a few for hamstring flexibility, shoulder flexibility and glute / hip flexibility:
3b. Mobility — Prior to a training session, many use dynamic warm ups to prepare the body for activity and incorporate certain patterns on a regular basis that will improve our movement over time. In addition to patterns that mimic our lifts, we work on hip mobility, shoulder mobility and thoracic mobility. There is a lot of cross over in yoga postures and in the performance warm ups with these patterns. If spending a few minutes before your training can help improve your movement, imagine what concentrated consistency could do?
4. Stability – As we focus on the bigger muscles at first to create specific movements, we want to pay attention to, and strengthen, the smaller muscles to refine and stabilize the movement(s). To be mobile and flexible is beneficial to our strength training and everyday living (if you need it) because it allows us more range of motion for better body positioning. With that being said, we also need control in these movements, we need stability!
“If I were to have a female client who is really laxed in her movement qualities and shows little stability when performing basic movement patterns, I hope to create stability in those joints through strength training, and in the long-term create a more stable athlete. Everyone is different, and some may need more flexibility while others may not need any! Now, yoga does have a lot of good core activation exercises that can help strengthen more of the postural muscles, thus create stability in the areas that we most need it (ankles, knees, hips, shoulders).” – Mike Matz, CSCS
Mike’s point is great — we must remember everyone is different as will be his or her needs. It’s also especially important to emphasize strengthening our stabilizing muscles around our joints. Attention to engaging and holding the core and other stabilizers can help improve our overall strength and control in movements.
5. Strength – Finally, contrary to the tame movement and environment, there are many yoga poses, which challenge our strength. I’m a firm believer in being able to maneuver your own body weight very well. In some instances, you’ll find body weight to be challenge enough, especially when holding and maintaining the quality of a posture for a long time. (Warrior I, Warrior II, Crescent Lunge, King Chair and Queen Chair all require muscular endurance when held long enough). Other postures such as arm balances and inversion variations require a lot of upper body and core strength, not to mention stability (Crow, Scorpion and Handstands)
Additional benefits – Let’s not forget the benefit of finding some Zen. So much of our lives are spent multi-tasking, it’s a real luxury to clean out the “noise” when we can. Yoga also brings our attention to being present, finding gratitude, acceptance and relaxation. All of these things can enhance your life everywhere as everything starts with mindset.
Little life lessons are everywhere and one that was reinforced to me the other night while trying Eight Angle Pose (pictured above) was this: A year ago, I set out to try yoga for various reasons including improving my calisthenic abilities. I found myself stuck in figuring out the process because it was not a clear practice of progressions similar to what I was familiar with in training strength and performance. Meanwhile focusing on the big picture of my yoga practice, I wound up developing the strength and body awareness needed for the steps to achieve these feats of strength. That often happens in our lives too…things *just happen* when we’re diligently working. I witnessed progress, proof of patience and the importance of trying. Also that often times we already have the ability to DO, we may just have to be shown, to believe in ourselves and then try.
*A Special Thanks to Becca Trosch for offering her time and enthusiasm to be my yoga model. Becca is a part of the Sid Yoga Team. Sid Yoga offers a Power Vinyasa flow in the sequence of Sid McNairy’s Empowerment and Beyond*
**For your entertaininment and inspiration, check out Becca demonstrating her impressive strength and stability in a Crow to Handstand. This is still something I have yet to accomplish.. but like the Human Flag, I’ll get there!**