One of my yoga students, “Sara,” does endurance sports. Before her annual summer triathlon, she stops attending yoga classes as she ramps up her training. Time is limited and she believes that “loose” muscles are diminished in strength.
Another student, “Chris,” will celebrate her birthday next year by running a marathon. Swimming was her original sport, and she’s a lean mesomorph body type, with tight shoulders and hips. Now that she goes on long runs on Sundays, she’s forgoing her Monday evening yoga class because she needs a post-run “total rest day.”
These cases got me thinking about yoga, sports, and mixing the two. Personally, I see yoga and sports as complementary. Why stop doing yoga while training for a race or competition?
Are strong muscles are inherently hard, even tight? Sara finds that increased running and cycling both strengthen and tighten her hip flexors. She wonders if it makes sense to work on stretching during training season.
I’m no expert on athletic training, but watching the London Olympic Games, I noticed how remarkably flexible elite athletes are. In virtually every sport. It’s a given that gymnasts and divers are acrobats, but look at track (running hurdles is like doing splits in motion) and tennis (deep lunges, backbends, spinal twists!). It seems that having supple muscles prevents imbalances and injuries.
Seasonal change versus seasonal consistency
Changing one’s routine by season is only natural. In a past post, Hina Matsuri, cherry blossoms, and seasons, I applauded Sara’s seasonal lifestyle changes, perhaps because I tend to keep the same yoga practice year round. That said, isn’t some consistency essential to any practice? Why stop asana during training season? Why neglect aerobic activity during off season? Instead, one might change the ratios seasonally. Otherwise one is always starting from scratch in either endeavor.
While yoga is typically associated with stretching and flexibility, it’s also about strength, stability, and balance. That’s obvious simply by holding any standing pose for two minutes or doing a dozen sun salutations. Actually, even stretching isn’t only about stretching: it often requires stabilizing one muscle group while lengthening another.
So the idea that yoga is “stretching” and sports are “strengthening” is a myth. Further, in Iyengar yoga, each class is unique. Literally. Even with the same teacher, each class is different. This kinesthetic novelty surely helps develop body awareness and control, which can only help athletic performance.
Is yoga class ideal for “rest days”? Chris considers it too much additional muscular stress. Indeed, for her body type, my classes do take effort, focus, and some sweat! Likewise, Sara commented, “… I’m more sore in my hip flexors and upper back from your yoga class than from the triathlon I did two weeks ago. If I were still training to race, my soreness from yoga would cut into my training.”
Hmm, maybe my experience of asana differs from theirs. Unless I attend a very challenging class, I don’t need much recovery time. To me, doing asana daily is doable and welcome. I’d certainly need rest days from endurance training—and yoga would be my antidote of choice.
But if even basic poses are overly exerting, perhaps what’s needed during heavy training is restorative yoga, which would not tax the body. (In class, I could tell them to ease off while training, but neither is the type to go easy.) Regular home practice, too, would keep yoga class from being too strenuous.
What’s the point of Sarvangasana?
Sara appreciates asana’s effects, but wonders about more “extreme” poses. Regarding Urdhva Dhanurasana, she wonders if ” hyperextension of the spinal cord serves any useful functions unless one is into acrobatics, diving, or gymnastics.” She’s also concerned about Sarvangasana (especially after she read William Broad’s The Science of Yoga.)
Here’s my take regarding poses beyond the basics: When one is ready, physically and mentally, to do them, they will not seem extreme. They will come as a smooth, organic progression from prior poses. In Urdhva Dhanurasana, if the shoulders, upper back, and hip flexors are open enough, there is no crunching in the lumbar spine. Same in Sarvangasana. With a stack of blankets for support and with enough preparation, there is no risky pressure on the neck. (Broad does highlight the positive physiological effects of the pose, quoting Mel Robin, author of A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers, on my wish list.)
Let’s turn the question around: What’s the point of endurance sports? Why run 26 miles? Doesn’t heavy running hammer your knees, ankles, and foot joints? What are the long-term effects? Why not run five miles for a decent aerobic workout?
But I do see the point of going further, in asana or in running: By pushing to our limits, we heighten our experience. Ultimately we must choose our innate ideal direction in which to push—and to work toward “extremity” gradually, safely, and enjoyably.