On the Mat

October 29, 2011

Raise your hand if you have ever walked into yoga with a goal. I can’t raise mine high enough. Through my years practicing and teaching I can think of several goals I have set in that studio:

  • Touch the floor without bending my knees
  • Forearm balance in the middle of the room
  • frog with my pelvis on the floor.

I can forearm balance in the middle of the room but it’d take an act of God for the other two to happen.

And I don’t want them to happen.

Let me tell you why.

Ryan Hall….. elite marathoner….. we don’t want him in frog with his pelvis on the floor. It would mean his hips were too flexible. Why don’t we want that? He’s an elite marathoner, we want some degree of tightness in his hips.

You don’t see Baron Baptiste out there running marathons. With his flexibility it’d only be a matter of time before he developed an injury.

As an athlete while there is a certain level of flexibility we want to develop, there is also a degree of inflexibility we want to maintain. Did you know that those who are a bit tighter are usually the safest while practicing yoga? Those who are hyperflexible and double jointed are the ones who need to be extra careful as they can sit in the joints and not so much the muscle.

So it’s good to have a degree of tightness in yoga? Yes. absolutely. Your goal as an athlete should not to become the most flexible one in the class. In fact…… here is the one place where the goal can be to forget the darn goal to be honest with you.

You can’t win yoga….. and as you know I have tried.

So as an athlete who training 12+ hours per week (and even less) what should we be working on that mat?

Work with your tightness. We want to lessen the degree of tightness in certain areas depending on sport. For example a triathlete would aim to develop some flexibility in their hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip flexors. Think of the position you are in on your bike…… think of the firing of your hip flexors. Now think of how you hop off the bike and run. At this point we need your hip flexors to be more open to allow for the biomechanics of running to be superior.

Work your strength. If you are like me, your strength is your strength, and what is yoga? All core strength. 100%. What’s really important in multisport, ah, core strength. If you can be conscious to engage your core and understand that the core is not just your abs but also your back, hip flexors, etc…… you can work to strengthen all of those areas by initiating all movement from there. It’s what we should do anyways, even in poses like low plank and up dog.

Balance it out. Balance poses are important for many reasons. They help strengthen the ligaments and tendons around your ankles to begin with. In addition, think of what it takes to maintain tree pose….. it involves a lot of strength.

Learn to let go. For many years in extended side angle I just wanted to bind. I have very flexible shoulders from a life as a swimmer and now a yoga teacher. I still can’t bind. Do I need to? No, for me in this pose less is more. So I have to let that binding fantasy go. Literally let it go. I am not here to win, I am here for a host of other reasons. Instead of binding I can perform a half bind and develop more strength and flexibility. The big arm bind isn’t going to do much for me anyway.

Stillness. When I am practicing and teaching I’m not floating on some sort of cloud in a higher spirituality. Some people are and that’s fine. When I compete I don’t think about a whole lot of things. I perform my best when I am in the present moment. It’s how I have always been. I can be out there for hours without a thought entering my mind. Some athletes call it the zone, I call it my zone. I call it being present in this moment right here and right now. Believe it or not I find it on the mat.

Learn to love the process. In Apollo Ohno’s book “Zero regrets” he says something to the effect of this……. (I am paraphrasing) “Seeking perfection is like climbing a stairmaster. It keeps going without ever slowing down, it’s tireless and it doesn’t really have an ending point” Sometimes you have to grab the rails, look around, and remember to enjoy the climb.”. The process of triathlon, of sport, of even yoga is something magnificent. For races like Ironman it is one day. One day. Yet we can be so focused we miss the 364 days that went into this day. The lessons we learned about ourselves and others. The laughs we have traveling to camps and stopping at gas stations for hard boiled eggs. The lessons of learning to persevere when all else seems to be failing.

The process. On the mat I have learned to love the process.

Yoga can be so many things. It’s really what you need it to be. When you step on the mat try to be open for whatever life lesson is there for you today. To me the mat can be daunting, because it’s so freaking revealing. You can’t hide on that thing….. because it will bubble to the surface. It’d be easier to avoid it all together…… but for me…… that just be too easy.


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