Cross-Training for Yogis
I don’t want to be one of those haters that tells you yoga asana isn’t enough for your physical fitness. Depending on your lifestyle and how skillful a practitioner you are, hey, it might just be enough. Those of us who view yoga as a lifestyle and spiritual practice recognize that the benefits of yoga are far more than physical. That being said, yoga has become something of a fitness craze in modern times.
Vinyasa yoga in particular has become many people’s main source of exercise. Again, Vinyasa yoga is amazing. I teach Vinyasa yoga! It’s the best. However, the way Vinyasa is often taught keeps it lacking in a few key muscles groups and well, there’s just some physical things you can’t get from yoga. I also like my yoga to be my practice, and when I’m in practice I don’t want to have to worry about my heart rate or my reps.
Here’s some humble suggestions to help yogis up their fitness game and take some pressure off our practice.
Vinyasa yoga is extremely repetitive. How many Chaturanga, Up Dog, Down Dog combinations does one body really need to do in one practice? Probably not 50…
Yet the same sequence of poses are taught over and over again in this style. This nice for rhythmic quality and tone. This also isn’t a big deal if you only do Vinyasa yoga once a week but if you do it 6Xs a week for 20 years, without some attention to sequencing, it can lead to repetitive stress injuries.
To balance the actions of Vinyasa, you can add less frequently taught variations into your sun salutations!
- Swapping your 11th Forward Bend for a Malasana (Deep Squat) or Chair Pose
- Locust, locust, locust: Salabasana on the Belly instead of Upward Facing Dog is great for bringing strength and tone to the whole back body (which in Vinyasa Yoga gets stretched plenty)
- Focus on the slow process into the full pose. For a long time in my practice I felt that getting into the pose was more important than well…anything else. So I cheated…a lot.
Fortunately I don’t have too many crazy injuries because of that process, but it’s kept me for realizing the “full pose.”
As a teacher of mine, Chuck Miller often asks, “Can you do the basic posture in a more advanced way?” If you can, than the keys to the harder things are there for you. Worry less about whether you can do the big crazy pose and try to focus more on enjoying the process and the elements that arise in all poses. Can you see the similarity between Cobra pose and Vrischikasana, Scorpion Pose? This will build integrity into the pose over time.
No matter how well we sequence, we can’t avoid that fact that much of Vinyasa yoga involves PUSHING actions through the upper body (think DOWNDOG, HANDSTAND, PLANK, CHATURANGA, MOST EVERY ARM BALANCE) In each of these poses, we’re bearing weight with our upper body and pushing the floor away too keep ourselves up against the force of gravity. Pushing actions leave parts of the upper body super strong and others under utilized. Of course, this can be worked with sequencing, or hitting up a class with walls ropes, but it’s also really helpful to balance all that upper body work with some PULLING.
Not only will this help balance the body, but overtime it will make challenging postures like handstand a little more accessible because we can get a bit more support from the bigger muscles in our back, like the lower part of our trapezius and our Lats.
Invite your friends over for a game of Tug of War or hit the Climbing Gym.
If that’s not happening, consider going to the gym, even just once a week to do some Lat Pull Downs, Pull Ups, Rows, or any of the plethora of cable machines or free weights available to you.
If that’s not happening either, well, don’t tell any of my teachers I told you this, but buy a few light free weights and a resistance band and add it to your home yoga practice.
Take a few rows in your plank pose. Strap your door handle and pull back on a resistance band.
Seriously, if you’re doing enough Vinyasa yoga, you will appreciate this, and your shoulders likely will to.
TONE GLUTES & WORK THOSE HAMSTRINGS
I am relieved to see that the cue of softening the Glutes in postures seems to be on its last leg. Your glutes are the largest muscle in your body. Why on earth would you have them if you weren’t intended to use them? Your glutes stabilize both the pelvis and the low back and make many ranges of motion possible including just standing upright and walking.
Yogis, please use your Glutes! If your yoga teacher is asking you to soften your glutes, question them. Ask them why. Seriously, ask them why. Some of them will have no idea why they say it. Others will mention overusing the glutes and something to the effect of external rotation of the femur in backbends. This, of course, is problematic; but it’s a problem of not also firing other important muscles in backbends, namely the inner things and pelvic floor muscles.
USE YOUR GLUTES IN BACKBENDS AND USE SOME OTHER MUSCLES TOO. Don’t just stop using one set of muscles because you might use them too much. That is ridiculous.
Please also strengthen those hamstrings. For most Vinyasa yoga practitioners these get stretched plenty. All our muscles need to be strong and flexible, so yes, also strengthen those hamstrings. This is easy enough to do in your yoga practice with poses that already are yoga poses. LOCUST! Really work the back of your legs in all your backbends. If you’re entering a back bending sequence consider starting with a very low bridge where you can feel the whole back of your leg fire, from the heels up to the glutes.
Want a little more tone? Add some paper plates under the feet in your bridge and slowly slide one heel away form you at a time. Move slow and mindfully. When you feel confident, try to slide both heels at the same time.
Just because you do yoga in a hot room and you sweat your entire soul out does not mean you are doing cardio. It’s a trick. You’re working half as hard for twice the sweat. I know that sounds harsh. It is. I like doing yoga in a heated room every once in a while, but I’m under no illusion about “releasing toxins” or losing weight. I’m just doing yoga in a sauna and getting more tired than I would if I was practicing in a normal temperature.
Yoga asana is NOT cardiovascular exercise. Your heart rate in an Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is roughly equivalent to what it is when you vacuum your living room. That doesn’t mean yoga isn’t amazing for you! IT IS! It’s just not cardio.
Because there's only so much time in a day, this requires yogis to have active hobbies. Play with your dogs. Spend some time outside. Go for a walk. SWIM. Climb a mountain. Skip from your car to your next class. Dance like no one’s watching. Do whatever you have to do to get those steps in and that heart rate up.