Monday, February 23, 2009
Yoga and Strength - Yoga For Triathletes
So when you think of yoga, you normally think of people with stick figure bodies who are able to take themselves into shapes that would injure a pretzel. Or you think it would be great to be more flexible and you think of yoga as a way to accomplish this. You may not see much difference in yoga and some of the stretches you've seen or read about. I know I didn't until I'd done yoga for a few weeks. I'll say it for the record. Yoga can be much more challenging than any other physical activity I've ever done.
One of the most notable differences between yoga and simple static stretches is the sequencing. Most good yoga classes follow a well thought out progression which moves the body deeper and deeper into similar but more challenging positions. In fact many of the common poses you may be familiar with such as Downward Dog, Crow Pose, or even a simple Forward Fold are actually "preparations" for deeper yoga poses. The same is also true of many static stretches people come to know and use regularly. These stretches are variations or simplified Yoga poses. Often what is going on in these variations is the pose is modified by taking several dimensional components out of it so that it becomes more accessible for someone new to using their bodies in an unfamiliar way. Static stretches (and most weight machines) often remove the coordinated muscle recruitment that relates to stability. The removal of these components, while making the stretch simple, has the undesirable side affect of doing less to actually strengthen the body. This is a very important distinction.
It is this distinction that has started me to look more closely into defining strength as it applies to what we wish to do with and get from our bodies. This is especially true for people who are requiring their bodies perform specific and highly specialized tasks. With this in mind, manifested strength for a powerlifter is going to appear very different from manifested strength for a dancer or the manifested strength for a runner. But what is similar is all of these athletes share the need for training movements that allow them greater access to integrated and coordinated muscle recruitment which will provide a more economical yet powerful response to performance related stimuli.
Recently I've spent some time watching a local core conditioning class. One of the things I noticed was how similar many of the exercises were to Yoga poses you would find in a movement based or Vinyasa class. However there was one subtle difference. When focusing only on the core as the class did there was very little, if any integration taking place involving the rest of the body as it related to the core. A simple example of this was the use of Plank Pose in the core class. While the class used several versions of Plank, they were all static which largely isolates the core from other muscles in the body by simply creating the tension necessary to remain in a flat plane. You will see Plank used a lot in Yoga classes as well. But with one difference. The pose is rarely held for long periods in static form. The Plank Pose is a transition into other dynamic movements. One such movement is to simply bring a knee up to the chest and hold it there. This movement engages the core in an active manner useful to runners and cyclists. In Yoga the movement teaches the recruitment necessary to move from Downward Dog to a Lunge (or Runner's Pose) by bringing the body forward into Plank, while hovering the knee, and "placing" the foot in between the hands. Experienced Yogis are able to perform this movement silently but if you find yourself in a Yoga class listen when this move is performed and you may be amazed at how much noise is created by people dropping their feet to the floor by simply moving into a lunge.
This all brings me to a quote one of my favorite yoga teachers here in Austin, Sanieh (she is pictured at the top of this post), said in her class once, "We aren't just strong, we are Yoga strong." Her classes reflect this deep understanding of the importance of integrating strength with balance, coordination, and awareness. What she meant with her observation was that while yogis may not possess bulging muscles, they do possess a body awareness and muscular intelligence that allows them to perform incredible acts like handstands, countless arm balances, or the ability to simply walk up a flight of stairs without being heard. It isn't that Yoga is the best or only way to achieve strength. But what Yoga does do is provide a framework for someone to discover hidden strength that can be found within the body by learning to look at an integrative, dynamic training program versus a static one.