In the past few months I have started getting really into yoga. I went to my first class over a year ago, making use of the free lunch time classes at my work gym (yep, I have a gym in my office, it’s wonderful). I even joined a really expensive gym in Madrid just because it was the only one near my office that had a yoga class…. Even though the class was very “breathe-y” and was first thing in the morning. I am sorry, but sitting with my eyes closed, breathing, for ten minutes at 7am is not meditation for me, it is just a recipe for falling back asleep. I went through a phase when training for the Madrid triathlon of doing at least ten minutes of yoga / yoga-style stretches every day and I think that (together with the hip strengthening exercises and the amount I was walking every day) was key in me not getting any injuries in that training cycle.
Then, since coming back to London in September, I have really begun making the most of our lunch time classes, trying to attend two every week, and even trying the odd longer class at the weekend, PLUS yoga videos at home! So. Much. Yoga. Sadly I still can’t do a handstand, or get my feet behind my head.
Here’s what I think about yoga for triathletes:
I think it strengthens my core in a more useful way than just doing sit-ups. It works your back, your legs and your arms, improves balance and stretches out muscles that become tight through our various sports. I love a good hip-opening pose like pigeon after I have been on the bike for a while.
I have so often heard people say “I’m not flexible enough for yoga“. I’m afraid that makes no sense – there’s no such thing as not being flexible enough for yoga. When you start, you can’t get into the most advanced version of all the poses, of course, but very few people in the yoga class will be doing all those advanced versions. You just do what you can and gradually move deeper and deeper into the pose. I couldn’t touch my toes when I first started but now I can get my hands flat on the ground.
I actually felt I wasn’t strong enough for yoga. I couldn’t do a full chaturanga (which is basically a slow press-up down to the ground) and my legs would wobble until I had to stop in any one of the many warrior poses. But I have gotten stronger. I have gotten more flexible. I can now think about my alignment in the postures rather than just “please don’t fall over“!
The great thing about regular yoga practice as a beginner is how visible all the improvements are. Like the first time I went up into wheel pose!!
Yoga is associated with flexibility, stability and strength – but also with endurance.
For many athletes, this can be the missing link in their training. No matter how much you may swim, bike and run, not having the ability to continue to push through a difficult moment or situation during a race, physically or mentally, can make the difference between successfully meeting a goal or not. Including yoga in your training schedule allows you to increase your endurance levels in a constructive way, without having to pile on unnecessary miles that could lead to injury.
And then just this week I was listening to a Run To The Top podcast by Runners Connect, all about yoga. Firstly (and on an entirely different note), I really like the Run to the Top podcasts but I find them slightly strange for one reason…. they are hosted by Tina Muir who is an elite runner, originally from Britain, but who now lives in the UK. The thing that I find strange is that she has an English accent but says all the extra-excited things Americans say that just aren’t the way Brits speak! For example – “I’m really excited to speak to you today!” when interviewing someone. A Brit would never, never, never say that actually to someone (I am kind of kidding here) and so it just sounds really strange to me!
However, as far as yoga goes, the podcast was an interview with Cara Gilman, who is a yoga teacher and a marathon runner. She echoed the point about yoga and endurance but also said that it is about the gradual release of the muscles, really slow stretching, reducing tightness in our muscles. It is (or it can be) a build-up of tightness that often leads to injury, so yoga is great for injury prevention in runners (and presumably also triathletes!).
However, it was a different mental point that really resonated with me (as someone forever sceptical about the mental side of training and activities).
I realised that, for me, yoga is the one part of my day where I can really switch off from work. I have been dreaming about work recently, so I can’t even escape it in my sleep, but when I am focussing intently on not falling over in whatever yoga position I am, there is no room for my mind to wander away from what I am actually doing. Running & cycling don’t work like that. Yes they are a great release and definitely distract me – but my mind still wanders. It is still possible to think of all those emails left to send afterwards, to worry about what is going on while I am on the treadmill and the amount of work left to do afterwards. I can’t do that in yoga. My mind, of course, does wander in shavasana – when you lie on the floor and try to empty your mind at the end of yoga – but by this point I have distracted myself so much from work that my mind just floats to nice things like holidays and dinners and nothing stressful! For this reason, classes that begin with shavasana just do not work for me.
Another mental element of yoga is the idea of setting an intention. At many of the classes I have been to, towards the beginning of the class we will take a moment and the teacher will ask us to set our intention for the practice. I think this is a fantastic way of making everybody’s class individual. Maybe you have done a really hard workout that morning, and you decide your intention for the class will be to stretch out your muscles and to relax. Or maybe you’ve been stressed at work and your intention for the class is to de-stress. My last class tied in with reading this blog post by Swim Bike Mom on motivation and discipline. It made me realise that I haven’t been very disciplined recently – I have been too quick to give up, to stay in bed, to buy some chocolate from the vending machine. And so I set my intention to be disciplined. No matter how hard holding the pose was, I was going to hold it and I was going to do it unless I actually fell over. And I did. I held everything, the whole way through the class, and even managed a one-legged chaturanga which I have been unable to do until now!
So I think we can quite safely say I now love yoga – and you should try it too 🙂 I’ll be back soon with some idea of what to try and how to try it!