Why yoga isn’t ‘stretching’

This one has been percolating away in my mind for a while and it’s a response to two issues:

– doctors and fitness professionals recommending yoga as a cure-all for flexibility and rehab issues

– yoga being perceived as a purely physical discipline, as a workout, or as a stretching protocol.

Let’s get started by reminding ourselves of what yoga really is as a practice.

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(Me in mermaid pose. Yoga, or just a good old stretch?)

What is ‘yoga’?

Yoga in its modern form has become entrenched in the popular psyche as a pretzel-making form of stretching and contortion, maybe with some chanting thrown in for good measure.

It’s actually better understood as a belief system or philosophy composed of Eight Limbs (drawn from Patanjali’s Sutras, a classic and much argued over yoga text), that include codes of personal conduct and rules for behaviours towards others, meditation, withdrawal of the senses, and the physical practice, or asana, which is intended to prepare the body and mind for the demands of seated meditation and is only one of those eight components.

You can practise yoga without performing a single physical pose if you meditate regularly, develop spiritual discipline and are mindful and compassionate in your dealings with others and yourself. I suspect this isn’t what the average GP has in mind when they recommend a patient with low back pain to ‘try yoga’.

Why is the misunderstanding of yoga problematic?

I’m not a massive yoga purist and accept that many hybrid and gimmicky forms of physical yoga practices exist that bear little relation to what I think of as yoga. It may well lead people to explore yoga in more depth later on, which is great and, if it doesn’t, c’est la vie. However, not understanding what yoga is can be potentially a problem.

Turning up to a group yoga class could be a surprise in several ways. Depending on the class, you may find you don’t move much at all but will be expected to sit, chant, breathe and meditate. At the other end of the spectrum, you may find yourself well out of your depth and at risk of injury in a class too advanced for your needs: there is a world of difference between a slow, supported yin session and the rigours of the Ashtanga primary series.

Yoga teachers are not, by definition, experts in stretching

Please don’t labour under the illusion that a yoga teacher automatically knows what stretching is. Every training course is different and some place a much greater emphasis on spiritual teachings than physical practice. Yoga teachers are taught to teach yoga: alignment, basic biomechanics, joint actions, contraindications and modifications for injuries or pregnancy. They are not mobility and stretching specialists.

I have co-taught a yoga anatomy workshop to teachers who did not know what I meant by basic terms such as flexion and extension in the spine, and have clients in my own classes who have been physically and painfully pushed into poses by other teachers of which their body was not capable. Do not assume training in advanced anatomy and physiology in a yoga teacher.

Do your research before booking 

If someone with low back pain or tight hamstrings is recommended to try yoga by their doctor or PT, they need to do some research. I would argue that they should really book a 1:1 with an experienced yoga teacher who knows about biomechanics, the science of stretching (stretch reflexes, positional isometrics, myofascial release) and have a session tailored to their needs.

It may actually be preferable that they see a physiotherapist or a personal trainer with a specialism in mobility work and movement assessment. Do your homework and choose someone who is least likely to cause further injury, not an over enthusiastic teacher who thinks yoga can cure all ills. Yoga teaching, compared with personal training and physiotherapy, is a frighteningly unregulated industry, so do your homework and check your teacher’s training background and insurance. They should not be offended by you asking.

Doctors and fitpros, please take the time to learn the difference between yoga styles, as well as the difference between the very broad church that is yoga and the purely physical training involved in Pilates, for example, which might be a much better option for a client with poor core stability. Have specific teachers to whom you can refer clients or patients, whose credentials you can trust, rather than making a blanket recommendation to ‘try yoga’. They may come back to you in worse condition than you found them.

 

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Starting again in spring

I was unlucky to be one of those people who spent the Christmas break wiped out with a horrible virus. After working stupid hours throughout autumn and into winter (every Saturday and several Sundays teaching self-defence classes and yoga events, plus covering for another trainer) I was totally depleted and fell ill on the first day of my longed-for break. I lost over 4lbs in a week, and spent most of January trying to get myself back up to speed. My first attempt at training ended up with me lying on the floor of the gym and coughing my lungs up. Not pretty.

Bored of being sick and tired

It was a lesson thoroughly learned. While I recovered, I made plans: regular weekends off, holidays booked in advance, no more working bank holiday weekends, and cutting right back on Sunday events to just a handful a year. It’s been a fresh start that means I always have a break to look forward to, can pace myself more effectively and really enjoy working again. I had lost the concept of self care and basic fun, and now make sure I get time out every day to read, reflect and just chill. I try to welcome breaks between clients and actually stop, not just push myself to find work to do. I’m also reading a lot more than watching Netflix and finding this more healthy overall, although I always have time for a good movie or an episode of Jessica Jones. I’m just not reliant on zoning out in front of a screen to ‘relax’ so much.

Beginner’s mind and new challenges

So this is how I made a fresh start… Something I think is important to do when you train and educate others, is to regularly put yourself in the position of the beginner who is starting over. It can really help a trainer to remember what it feels like to know nothing and to experience the vulnerability of putting yourself in someone else’ hands, developing more empathy for your clients. I was writing a new workshop on emotional agility for my agency, Realise UK, during January and read something along the lines of, a life without risk is only possible if you stay on the sofa all day flipping the remote. This really resonated with me as while I had been stuck indoors being ill, all I could think about was getting outdoors, up a mountain or into the sea, and doing something well out of my comfort zone.

The latter was a particularly new feeling for me and really felt like a risk. I love being near to or on the water but chaotic school lessons as a kid had pretty much turned me off swimming forever. However, I suddenly became obsessed over Christmas with the idea of learning to surf, despite my non-swimmer status. Cue summoning my courage and signing up for adult swimming lessons. In just a few weeks of pure determination and a lot of spluttering, I am now far more confident in the water and am developing a strong enough front crawl to be discussing training for my first triathlon with my coach, the excellent Sarah Mildenhall at Create Fit Bristol – highly recommended.

Not only have I booked a surfing holiday in Morocco, but my training (which had got a bit stale) has been enlivened by the prospect of competing in a performance sport again. Indeed, just having a sport to focus on has been hugely motivating. After a few months of just going through the motions, I have a renewed reason to train and work on my nutrition, not to mention the thrill of taking myself out of my comfort zone on a bike and in the water. To make all this easier, I splurged on a new gym membership so that so can access the pool, weights, bikes and treadmill near to all the venues where I work, so I can easily get a session in. I’m already training with more vigour and enjoyment and can’t wait to see what the next 18 months will bring: apart from serious savings depletion as I invest in a road bike and a trisuit…

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Spring has sprung! What will you try?

I hope this has helped you think about making a fresh start if the year is already feeling stale. It’s been a long winter in the UK and we’re craving sunshine and warmer weather. Now is the time to try something new and set up a system to make it happen: get to a yoga class for the first time; try a martial art; try a climbing lesson – anything that makes your heart beat faster and feels a little risky. It’s going to get your heart pumping, help you meet new people and take your mind away from your daily worries, so pick something today and sign up! We can all benefit so much from starting over and doing something that scares us; it’s a guaranteed strategy for personal growth and facing life head on with that much more confidence.

What better time to start than now? And if it’s personal training, yoga or a group fitness class, find me at www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

Recovery: an essential aspect of a balanced training programme

So I fully expect this post to be met with howls of laughter from my friends and clients. Only last year I was commissioned to write an article on the importance of holidays to people’s health, only for everyone to pitch in along the lines of  ‘you never take time off, you big hypocrite’… Anyway, I’m starting to draft this on the eve of a full seven days off work, I’ll have you know, so I feel perfectly justified in pointing out the added value of rest and recovery as part of your training schedule. Ahem…

As much as some of my clients find getting off the sofa and into my classes a tough call, others I find hard to dissuade from exercising every day, and sometimes more than once. I’m not a fan of the ‘yoga every damn day’ thing. Everyone’s body needs at least one rest day a week, and that includes from playing pretzel.  Make it a meditation practice instead, and just give yourself a break. There’s a mental stress involved in making yourself achieve every day without respite, not to mention putting your hard earned physical gains at risk by overtraining.

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(Don’t. Really. Everyone needs a day off, even yogis.)

Fundamentally, we make improvements to our bodies by putting it under controlled stress when we train. This encourages growth of lean muscle tissue as well as gains in strength, power and endurance. Cardiovascular fitness will also be improved, depending on the nature of your training; it is possible to get cardio into weight training with the use of explosive movements and short rest periods, but you need to slow down and lift heavy to build muscle.

Putting our bodies under this stress means we need to give it time to recover, which can be a day spent relaxing    away from the gym as well as planning our training to avoid exerting the same muscle group or energy system on consecutive days. For example, you wouldn’t gain anything from two leg days in a row as your muscles would be too tired to perform well on the second day, and we also don’t recommend HIIT more than two to three times a week either, as it is so intense when performed correctly. Programme to get the most out of your body. Here is my typical week:

Monday: yoga and weight training

Tuesday: boxing-style gym session with skipping, bag work, kettle bells and body weight exercise

Wednesday: maybe yoga and a walk, sometimes a 5km run

Thursday: boxing lesson and yoga if time allows

Friday: weight training

Saturday:  no training

Sunday 5km run and yoga.

For me, this is a good mix of cardio, weight training, stretching and the boxing conditioning that I love. I also teach eight hours of group yoga and fitness classes, 16 hours of 1:1 personal training and walk up to 100km a week, so I get a lot of incidental exercise in addition to what I schedule specifically for my body.

I sleep well, feel tired when I should and, until I wrecked my right tensor fascia latae while dancing  (not training!) I’d also not experienced any physical problems, so I feel okay with this balance. What I need to do more of is be ready to take a ‘deload’ week more regularly, where I decrease the intensity of training and let my body recover (roughly every six to eight weeks), as well doing more foam rolling and get regular massages. This would definitely improve my overall physical maintainance. I have a happy home life, excellent friends and a yoga and meditation practice for my mental well being. I also love what I do for a living, obviously, so I feel pretty balanced.

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(Me, this week, on holiday: no sports kit and a big chocolate milkshake! Bliss…)

If you are experiencing the following, you may be overtraining and are due for a deload:

– experience regular niggling injuries

– never seem to recover completely from training

– are always tired but get poor quality sleep

– feel guilty if you take a rest day or feel that you need to ‘earn’ your food. Neither of these are healthy approaches to fitness.

To maintain balance:

– always take at least one day a week off from training. Active recovery is fine, such as walking, but skip the tough vinyasa yoga class for something more relaxing.

– vary your training and avoid the same activity or working the same muscle groups on consecutive days.

– prioritise sleep. If you are very active, you may well need an extra hour nightly and certainly not less than seven.

– eat well to fuel your recovery, including quality sources of protein and plenty of vitamin-rich vegetables. Don’t e restrictive.

– ease off the ‘I must’ attitude. A day off won’t hurt if you are genuinely needing a rest, have to work overtime or life gets in the way Frankly, if Tom Hardy asked me out for dinner, I wouldn’t give the gym a second thought before running into those tattooed arms. I digress…

Ultimately, unless you are a pro athlete being paid to look and perform in a specific way or are a serious competitor, remember to take time out and be kind to yourself. You don’t need to push so hard. Even those athletes have an off season. Training regularly still puts you in a very small percentage of the population that performs vigorous exercise routinely. Be proud of that fact in a week in which we learned that most adults over 40 aren’t getting as much as 10 minutes of brisk walking a MONTH!!

Be proud of your prowess, but also know when to stop.

www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

www.befitbristolfit.com