If I’m exercising these days in a non-transportation capacity, it’s likely that if I’m not on a bike, I’m on a yoga mat.
In the beginning, I was skeptical about yoga. My first yoga class was about fifteen years ago at our local YMCA, when it was just starting to get popular. At the time, the class seemed to be just repeating stretches I had learned long ago in competitive swimming, just more slowly. It didn’t help that I was the youngest person in the class by 10 years. I hadn’t thought about yoga for years until I received the Wii Fit for Christmas three years ago. Its yoga section was far more challenging than the Y poses and offered a whole new realm of strength training far more interesting than the weights at the gym. That experience inspired me to try out some classes locally. I first chose Yogalates, a combination of pilates and yoga, that offered a good strength training and cardiovascular workout. I especially liked that the place I attended – Yoga District – was inexpensive, welcoming to newcomers, had an eco-friendly focus, and did outreach to underserved populations. But as much as I like Yoga District, it was too inconvenient for me to make a habit of it.
That changed when I joined my rock climbing gym, which offers yoga twice a week. I didn’t always meet my two-a-week goal, but I consistently went at least once a week. You can at least maintain and build your skill a little bit by going once a week and with twice a week, you see some significant improvement.
I soon learned how much I not only enjoyed yoga but also valued it physically. I practice vinyasa flow yoga, a tradition that emphasizes moving from pose to pose in rhythm with your breath. Its combination of static poses and dynamic movement has been great for building my core strength, something that’s always been a weakness of mine. Even when I didn’t rock-climb for weeks at a time, my climbing skills wouldn’t decline drastically if I had been doing yoga in-between. In addition, because yoga works all of the small muscles needed for stability, my balance has improved quite a bit. The movement has also helped improve my sense of where my body is in space. While I still occasionally whack my shoulder on the wall if I’m not paying attention, I have a much better inherent idea of where I am in relationship to other objects. Lastly, it’s vastly improved my posture. I’m notorious for slouching and carry all of my stress in my shoulders. I literally didn’t know how to stand up straight until I was an adult. With its emphasis on opening up your chest and forming straight lines with your body, yoga’s allowed me to actually have good posture without pain. I wouldn’t say yoga has transformed me from a weak klutz into a potential gymnast, but it’s offered whole-body improvement in a way that I’ve never experienced in any other sport.
For me, yoga also offers a lot of mental and emotional advantages. Learning to work with my body in a productive way rather than against it is completely opposite of the “just push through it” attitude I always had towards strength training. (Not to say there aren’t days where I still want to push through, but I know that’s an attitude to work against, not aim for.) It reflects a sense of respect for my body that I didn’t have previously, where integration of the mind and body is more than the mind telling the body to do something it doesn’t particularly want to. Yoga has also taught me my limits. You can get seriously hurt in yoga if you do something that’s far out of your range, so I’ve learned to listen to my body. And of course, yoga classes always end with a short meditation session. Yoga was created to help people build the muscles to sit comfortably for long periods of time in Hindu meditation. While I’m not Hindu and would never claim yoga is meant to serve Christian religious traditions, building my meditation abilities for my own faith is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I generally lack the patience and discipline to do it on my own, but being forced to lie quietly has helped me learn some good meditation and visualization techniques.
In terms of bicycling, yoga has helped that as well. My ability to bike up steep hills has improved because I was used to putting hard pressure on the muscles through standing poses. Those same standing poses also help balance out the serious hamstring tightness from cycling. Previously, I bounced up and down on the bike like a kangaroo. Now, I’m sure I save a lot of energy because of my improvements in core strength and balance limit the bouncing. And of course, collaborating with my body rather than forcing it just makes cycling more fun.
If you’re a bicyclist interested in yoga, there are some great resources available. I have a Yoga for Cyclists DVD that provides a good introduction, although it only has a couple of routines on it. Pedal, Stretch, Breathe is both a printed guide to yoga for cyclists and a fun blog.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to cancel my membership to the climbing gym, and I’ll miss my yoga teachers very much. However, I hope to keep practicing at home and back at Yoga District when I can. Like biking, yoga offers me a great combination of benefits that I just haven’t found in other activities!
Have you tried yoga? Have you found it useful?