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A careful balance: The yin of yoga

My husband hurt his knee. The timing could not have been worse. Leading into the USA Triathlon Age-Group Championships in Milwaukee, he wasn’t sure his knee would hold up to race.

He was hoping to beat his time from last year, and hopefully break the top 5 in his age group. He’s fast, that goes without saying. He has qualified for the World Championships twice and was hoping this year, after putting int a solid year of training and feeling strong and fast, he’d not just qualify for Worlds again but be highly competitive in that field.

The knee pain started a few weeks earlier during a hard run, and he took care to ice and rest following hard workouts. He did some stretching, he used the foam roller, and he paid attention. He knows his body well. He’s practiced yoga a lot in his life, and has been a dedicated endurance athlete for half of his life.

He was nervous the morning of the race. He kept saying he hoped his knee wouldn’t hurt. He wasn’t sure how he would do.

And after the first mile of the run split, his knee started hurting. It hurt bad enough that he couldn’t run fast. He couldn’t race like he had planned. He finished with a respectable time, still qualifying for Worlds again, but angry that he had succumbed to an injury.

I suggested he take better care of his body—perhaps with more yoga. And, he agreed.

His situation had me reflecting on the role of yoga in an athlete’s life. We train hard, we push our bodies to their limits with the hope of getting to the finish line faster, or scoring extra points or hitting the ball farther. Our bodies take quite a beating. When do we allow our bodies to heal and rest from all of that pounding? When do we relax?

Athletes are used to going hard, and the slow pace of yoga can seem like a turn off at first. I’ve been in plenty of yoga classes myself where I am wanting a hard workout, but the pace of the class is slow and gentle and I want to be flowing through sun salutations, holding warrior poses and testing my resolve during a balancing posture. I get the need to let it out, to see what new limits our bodies can physically reach.

But there is a point that is reached when the body really just needs a little yin, a little soft balance to keep it healthy. A gentle, slow sequence can be just the thing. Paying attention to breath, tuning into how the body is feeling, where there is tightness or a problem creeping up. These are important things to notice. They are as important as noticing that you ran 30 seconds faster in that 5k than last week.

If you have a few moments at home this week, try this short sequence, being mindful of the breath and easing into the poses.

  • Begin in child’s pose and breathe.
  • Come up onto the hands, positioning knees under hips, hands under shoulders. Inhale and reach the chest forward and drawing the tailbone to the sky into cow pose. Exhale and tuck the tailbone under, bringing the chin to the chest for cat pose. Flow through cat and cow, warming up the spine with each inhale and exhale. Notice any tightness in the back, shoulders or hips.
  • Return to child’s pose and rest. Breathe and allow the hips to reach back toward the heels.
  • Tuck the toes under and pick the hips up, moving into downward facing dog.
  • Bicycle the knees back and forth, feel the backs of the legs begin to open up. They might feel very tight. That’s OK, just move slowly and breathe.
  • Return to the knees, coming onto all fours again. Raising the left arm toward the sky stretch up and feel an expansion in the side body. Drive the left arm under the body, sliding it underneath the right arm, palm facing up. Lower the left shoulder all the way to the ground, reaching the hips up and back. The top of the side of the head will come to rest on the ground, gently, for Thread the Needle. Breathe here and feel into the shoulders and neck. When you’re ready, come back to all fours and repeat on the other side.
  • Return to downward facing dog.
  • Lift the left leg up toward the sky. Flex the foot, bend the left knee and twist the hips toward the sky, allowing the left foot to fall toward the right hip. Breathe and hold. Straighten the left leg and return to downward facing dog. Repeat on the right side.
  • Lift the left leg once more, press the chest toward the ground. Draw the left knee into the chest, moving forward over the hands and bring the foot up to meet the hands on the mat. Drop the back knee and gently walk the hands up to the left knee. Lifting the chest, sweep the arms overhead for Crescent Lunge. Breathe and hold. Repeat on the right side.
  • Return to child’s pose.
  • Tuck the toes under and sit up. If this is too much pressure on your feet lift the hips off the heels. We’re aiming for a good toe stretch here. Take a deep inhale and stretch the arms overhead. Exhale the arms back toward your sides. Repeat the long breaths three times. Untuck the toes and slide the legs forward.
  • Bring the soles of the feet together, letting the knees fall out to the side for Butterfly. With a flat back, move the upper body forward, reaching the chest toward the toes until you feel a good stretch.
  • Roll onto your back, keeping knees bent. Feet are hip distance apart and close to the buttocks. With arms along side the body, press the palms into the ground. Press the feet into the ground. Inhale and lift the hips. Lift the chest. Keep the gaze at the knees. Exhale and release the hips to the ground. Repeat two more times.
  • Draw the knees to the chest and rock gently side to side.
  • Take the knees off to the left side, pressing the right shoulder into the ground and extending the right arm. For an IT band stretch extend the right leg.  Hold and breathe. Switch sides.
  • End in corpse pose and relax for five minutes.

Yoga for Healing Imbalances

The other day, a new person came to my class. He had never done yoga before, and he was a runner and weight lifter. He liked to stay fitfinding-balance.

I asked him what brought him to yoga class, and he told me he’d been experiencing strange tingling in his arms that seemed to not have any explanation.

I certainly am no doctor, but I do know the healing capabilities of yoga. After telling this man I was glad he came to yoga and it was my belief that running and yoga go hand in hand, I started to tell him about how yoga helps to correct imbalances in the body. You don’t have to be a runner or a weightlifter to gain imbalances in the body.

Sitting too much, gardening all weekend, playing a single sport for many years, and any other repetitive activity—or nonactivity—can lead to imbalances, which can lead to discomfort and even injury.

Yoga works to bring alignment back to the body. That’s why we do poses on each side. That’s why we focus on finding good posture in our poses and bringing awareness to the body. When you become aware of what your body is feeling, you will notice little imbalances, or big ones, during your practice.

Perhaps your abs feel weak during plank pose, or your upper back or neck start to hurt during Warrior poses. Or maybe your calves begin to go out during eagle pose. That’s OK. It’s just something to notice.

And by the time you’ve reached the end of your practice and are lying in corpse pose in final relaxation, your body is experiencing realignment. Those last precious moments of class, lying flat on your back and in a state of total relaxation are golden. It is when the body can absorb the effects of the yoga postures. Yogis talk of a state of bliss or total calmness and peace at the end of class, and this is one of the reasons why.

When you give your body a chance to heal itself, a chance to correct those imbalances, then it will feel better. You’ll stand straighter, be less prone to injury and have fewer aches and pains. You might even begin to sleep better.

Of course, this can help for emotional imbalances, too. But that’s a whole different blog post.

On Flexibility and Other Matters

At least once a week, a person, upon finding out I teach yoga, says something like “Oh, I can’t do yoga. I am not flexible.”Flex1

I chuckle, then promptly assure that doubtful person that yoga is not about being flexible or inflexible. Like anything—reading, writing, walking, riding a bike—flexibility takes practice, patience and time. But, staying away from yoga because of a perceived inflexibility issue shows this person is not just stiff in the body, but also stiff in the mind.

Take the runner. When someone decides to begin a running program, maybe with the goal of getting in shape or just losing weight, they are not going to go from zero miles to 20 miles in one day, or even one week. They may never even get to a 20 mile run, but that’s OK. That’s not the point. They are putting on their shoes, heading out the door and working toward something positive for their body.

Same with yoga. Grabbing your yoga mat and heading to class, or even just taking a few minutes after a workout to stretch out and calm the mind and relax the body, provides great benefit, and yes, will make you more flexible. Over time.Flex2

I read once that each person is born with a certain amount of flexibility, which gradually decreases as they age. Some people are naturally more flexible than others. Some are drawn to yoga because they can easily bend and contort into pretzel-like poses. And good for them, but most people will never touch the soles of their feet to the crown of their head in cobra pose.

But also, people who are super flexible might not have the strength they need to sustain those twists and backbends. Yoga provides that strengthening, too.

For athletes, tight muscles not only cause pain and discomfort, but can also lead to injury. So it’s important to stretch and to keep limber. The other night, a weight lifter said he couldn’t do yoga because he couldn’t reach his toes. He bent over to demonstrate. I said, bend your knees. Bend them more. More. More.  Then he touched his toes.

So be strong. But don’t forget to be flexible. In body and spirit.


Why does yoga feel so good?

You know that feeling at the end of yoga class, when you’re blissed out and and calm and content? Everything is in balance. Yoga BlissEverything is at peace.

Why does this happen? What is this magic in yoga that makes us feel so good?

There are several answers to this question. Some are scientific. Some are spiritual. I like to think about it as taking time to connect with your core self, to be free from distractions and to truly be in the present moment.

Yogis strive to achieve complete awareness of body, mind and spirit. That awareness comes in various forms, and is different for every single person, but coming into contact with the core self—the authentic self—is a practice in being truly conscious and alive.

When it comes to athletes, yoga is a perfect way to decompress and release the body from the constraints of training and other athletic pursuits. It’s a time to be quiet and completely focus on the body and the breath—those things that keep us running, and biking and swimming and swinging at balls, chasing Frisbees or doing whatever it is we do.

Taking time to nurture the body that works so hard for us is important. How many children grow up without support and love? How many vegetable and flower gardens will provide a bounty without tending and care? The body is the same way.

Use yoga to care for your body. Let it unravel. Let it decompress. At the same time, allow it to become strong and supple. Your mind will find that same strength and flexibility with a regular yoga practice.

Next time you’re at the end of yoga practice, harness that feeling of calmness and relaxation and take it off the mat and into your day. Try maintain that feeling as long as you can. And begin to pay attention to when that feeling begins to slip away and what causes it to do so. This might lead to a greater awareness of aspects of your life that you need to change or avoid.

Then come back to your practice and reunite with yourself. Find your bliss. Find your core self.