You can absolutely teach an old dog new tricks. In fact, I am starting to realize that you HAVE to – if you don’t want to end up a washed-up old dog sidelined with injuries. This will be my 10th season racing triathlons, and in 2014 I visited Georgia Sports Chiro 18 times. Sure, I love having a reason to gossip with Dr Eng, but I started to feel like I was being held together by k-tape. I finally listened to some people a lot smarter than me and signed up for a 30-day package with Infinity Yoga.
If you had told me 6 months ago that I would write a blog post about yoga, I would have assumed it was some kind of satire or a warning post like, “How I Broke Myself Trying Yoga.” I was judging yoga based on a sad class at LAFitness and an unfortunate session at a more traditional studio where an ill-advised inversion sent me to the chiropractor. With these experiences as my basis of understanding, I spent years with pretty major misconceptions about yoga, and in turn I had a long list of reasons why it was just not for me. The number one reason: I am a triathlete; I have so much swimming, biking, running to do – I ain’t got time for that! Fast forward six months and I would consider yoga a core part of my training regimen.
I purposely did not Google “benefits of Yoga” or anything like that to prepare for this blog. This is not a scientific assessment, just thoughts and observations from my own experiences. Which I think is fitting for yoga, because it isn’t formulaic or even quantifiable like some of our other training. It is a ‘practice’ and everyone finds their own way. Here are just a few benefits that I have found, and who knows that the next 6 months will bring.
Full Body Focus
I don’t want to list ‘flexibility’ as a benefit because not only is it a predictable and boring answer, but I don’t think it tells the whole story. People often don’t give yoga a try because they are so inflexible that they are intimidated or just think that their inflexibility is a hopeless cause. I know that feeling, and I think that we are the people who benefit the most from showing up on the mat. We have all heard of the ‘squeezing the balloon’ theory, which refers to moving a problem around when you think you are fixing it. I feel like that is what happened to my body when I stressed every part of it for years and only stretched and attended to my problem areas. (Knees, quads, and hamstrings in my case.) So I entered a cycle of injuries that jumped around my lower body for most of 2012-2014.
Yoga has finally eased my aching hamstrings by not only stretching them, but by stretching and lengthening my entire posterior chain (lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.) If you have ever taken a flow class, you know how many times you get into Downward Dog. This pose in particular is great for stretching this entire area. Of course where there is a ying, there must be a yang, so we also spend time in class stretching the flip side – our hip flexors, psoas, quads and all the stuff in between. The poses that stretch these muscles are so helpful not only to athletes, but anyone who sits at a desk all day. If our hip flexors get too tight, we compromise the swing phase of our run when our leg draws back behind us. This can not only lead to added stress on those poor hamstrings that we are trying to fix, but it wastes all of the energy you could be gaining through a good, full swing. Think of the swing phase of your run (which takes place from toe off through hip extension and back to initial contact) as pulling back on a sling shot – the more range of motion, the more potential energy you gain before moving your knee forward.
Something that has surprised me during my yoga practice is the amount that we stretch our upper bodies. There are several ‘chest openers’ and poses where we twist just from the waste up, and of course, the ones where you try to make your hands look like you are praying behind your back. These poses are a great way to relieve the stress of long rides in aero or even bad posture. Beyond that – I never thought about a need for flexible arms and shoulders, but I have a friend who is working specifically on her shoulder flexibility to help her high elbow catch while swimming. Can you barely do the fingertip drill? Maybe you need some yoga in your life.
People often see someone holding an impressive yoga pose and think that the person is just very flexible. That person may be flexible, but I guarantee you, they are also strong as hell and have the core power of a world class athlete. Yogis make it look easy, but if done properly, yoga is an amazing core workout. Case in point – My husband David can barely touch his toes, but he crushes most of the class in any arm stands and inversions. Strength can occasionally trump poise, even in yoga.The simplest of yoga poses will involve core strength, from holding a plank to balancing on one leg. Any pose that involves balance will need core strength, as without it there is no way that our pelvis, lower back, and hips can work in harmony.
To put it direct terms for triathletes – a strong core is what allows us to transfer the power that we generate in our legs to either propulsion off of the ground (running,) or force on the pedals (cycling.) I think it is easier to visualize in cycling – think of a rider that you may have seen who swayed a bit on their saddle when riding. As they pushed their pedal down, they were allowing some of that energy to travel up their body and cause this movement. With a strong core, that same stroke can transfer all of its energy down to pedal as the core holds the hips and the upper body neutral.
The amount of energy saved here may be minimal; but if you think of that energy over the 14,000 pedal strokes that you take during a half iron distance bike ride it makes it worth the effort. Core work in yoga has a wonderful, sneaky cumulative effect. During your first classes you may not engage your core for the entire length of a pose because you just don’t have the strength and you can usually transfer the work to your arms or legs and get through with no problem. The next class you may be able to use your core a little more, and then a little more. As you strengthen your core you start to be able to perform some of the more advanced pose options, and that is when class starts getting really fun.
Focus on the Breath
I am the first to admit that I could use more mental toughness in my racing. I am a very black-and-white person, and when the going gets tough during a race…most of the time I give up and tell myself that it just wasn’t my day. I have never been much for mind-over-matter. But – if I am letting yoga influence by body in a physical way, I am trying to stay open to the mental aspects as well. After many early morning flow classes I am learning that for me, stillness is harder to maintain than movement. When I settle into a tough pose I always want to wiggle or fidget. Shocker – I don’t like pain. So although I don’t exactly ‘get zen’ in yoga class or have the rest of the room fall away, I am learning to settle in to those tough poses and ‘focus on the breath’ as the instructor would say.
Isn’t it funny that sometimes doing nothing is the harder than doing something? I realized recently that I could use this during racing. When things get tough, I want to do anything to move away from that feeling, which usually means slowing down. If I can just talk myself into focusing on my breath and staying in that moment, I can hopefully push through until the pain goes away. My moments of doom always occur during the run, and the next time that I want to do something (slow down, stop, cry, etc.), I will focus on the breath, remember the work that I have put in, and do nothing at all…except keep moving forward.