Running is a popular sport and a widely recognised means of getting fit. But what do we mean by fit? What does it mean to you? Generally we are more concerned with externals – how exercise makes us look – than considering what our exercise regime does for the body – and by that I mean the whole body.
Like most high impact exercise, running puts great strain on the body, invariably causing mid- and long-term damage for those for whom it is a major part of their exercise regime.
Most of my students whose exercise commitments are above average – runners, cyclists, climbers, squash players etc. – come to yoga because they have back or joint pain, recurring injuries, or can simply feel their bodies tightening up to the extent that the exercise they indulge in to get them ‘fit’ is actually working against them.
Each foot hits the ground approximately 1000 times per mile with the force of three to four times your body weight. This shortens and tightens muscle. It compresses and wears out joints. The repetitive use of a limited set of muscles in a limited range of movement makes the body ‘brittle’, in that it doesn’t tolerate movement outside of those limits well, leading to a high risk of strains, sprains and injury.
If, like a significant proportion of people, a runner has poor posture, running accentuates this poor body use, and has serious long-term implications for the health of the spine. An unhealthy spine affects the whole body.
Also, like most traditional exercise, runners tend to use upper torso or clavicular breathing, which is not only against what nature intended, is totally unnecessary and can starve the body of oxygen. The average pair of lungs has a massive internal surface area of approximately 100 sqm, and the largest percentage of this area is in the lower lobes. The mechanics of clavicular breathing prevents the lungs opening anywhere near their full capacity (possibly up to a maximum of only 30%), thus considerably compromising breathing efficiency.
So How Can Yoga Help?
Professional athletes the world over, of all disciplines from the New Zealand All Blacks and the New York Giants to Andy Murray and NBA star LeBron James are all finding out!
As part of your regular regime, Yoga will:
Improve Biomechanical Performance
A stretched muscle contracts more efficiently and more powerfully than an un-stretched muscle. Tight muscles and joints require more energy to move them. Improved flexibility increases strength, promotes biomechanical efficiency, which conserves energy and can considerably enhance stamina.
Reduce Injury & Redress Imbalance
Improved flexibility keeps joints and tendons supple, allowing for some protection against injury when activity pushes the body beyond its comfort zone. Whilst a sport such as golf causes obvious one-sided imbalance, others such as running will cause less obvious imbalance through the use of particular muscle groups at the expense of others. The spine supports, and is a shock absorber for, the whole body, as well as a vital conduit for the nervous system. Regular yoga practice helps return and keep the spine in optimum alignment, which has positive implications for long-term whole body health.
Reduce Recovery Time
The scientific theories regarding how lactic acid (lactate) affects athletes is still much debated, but it is believed yoga practice helps to remove lactic acid from the muscles into the blood stream.
Improves Breathing Efficiency
Yoga practice promotes full yogic breathing which expands the lungs to full capacity, and increases the efficiency of gas exchange. Once a practitioner has re-learnt how to breathe properly, the body’s ability to utilise oxygen aerobically can dramatically increase, thus reducing the need for anaerobic energy release and thus the affects of lactate (see above).
Improves Proprioception (Body Awareness) & Focus
The mind is intrinsically connected to the body – tension in the mind forms tension in the body, and vice versa. Yoga releases and relaxes the mind and the body, and promotes the ability to focus, reduces stress and tension.
Helps Stimulate and Balance Physiological Functions
A properly structured and comprehensive yoga class works, massages and stimulates the whole body.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is actually an ‘umbrella’ term which refers to a way of life, developed over many centuries, which incorporates a number of daily practices and observances, but in this article we are concerned primarily with the physical practice (asana) with which the term, in the west, has come to be synonymous with.
There are many different styles, ranging from flowing practices such as Ashtanga to static practices like ‘hot’ yoga. In fact there are a core number of styles from which many ‘new’ have been developed and adapted, often simply dressed up so that teachers can call them their own.
I teach a variety of styles including Ashtanga, hot yoga and Sun Power yoga, the latter being a flowing style which was developed by Ann Marie Newland, the internationally renowned teacher trainer. This style is a mixture of three principal yoga traditions – Sivananda, Ashtanga and Iyengar. It is demanding and yet, unlike stronger styles such as Ashtanga, is more accessible for beginners. It can be modified for those less able, and yet the same class can be challenging for those at intermediate level and above.
A typical class has an opening and closing relaxation, an opening physical warm-up, progressing through a stronger series of Sun Salutations (a series of cardio-vascular movements connected to the breath and working against the practitioner’s body-weight) and a combination of static standing and floor exercises.
Whether sedentary or an avid sports player, those who have never practiced yoga will find such a class extremely challenging and yet, with patience and regular attendance, invaluably rewarding.
Why Didn’t I Know About This Before?
My experience as a teacher in the Harrogate area is that up here Yoga is considered by many male sporty types to be for girls or older people. This is especially apparent in gyms and sports centres, amongst patrons as well as the professional staff. This is not only unfortunate, I also consider it to be a dereliction of duty – sports trainers in these establishments do not seem to know much, if anything at all, about yoga. And yet yoga is fast gaining widespread recognition as an essential ingredient of professional sports training routines.
Away from the larger cities, part of this perception is fuelled by many undemanding ‘hatha’ yoga classes which do not require much effort and therefore can tend to be seen as rather staid and unchallenging. As the prerequisite of any physical practice is the Sanskrit term ‘Tapas’, which means ‘heat’ or ‘effort’, I would argue many of these classes are not up to scratch. Therefore it is vital that you find the right class content and a teacher who will actively help you progress.