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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Why yoga shouldn’t be your only form of fitness

I’ve been in love with yoga since 1987 when I picked up a copy of Teach Yourself Yoga from the Uxbridge branch of WH Smith aged only 16, and starting contorting myself on my bedroom floor while being grossed out by the dhauti cleansing practices involving swallowing lengths of cotton.

Yoga has certainly increased dramatically in popularity in the UK and US since the 80s and I ended up training to be a yoga teacher myself at the age of 42, after deciding to focus on a kinder and more compassionate form of movement after years of bruising martial arts. Guiding my clients through group and individual practices and seeing them grow in confidence remains one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my work.

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Is yoga really about fitness?

The older I get, the more I view my practice as a form of mental relaxation and focus and less of a physical discipline. Yes, I use it to stretch and maintain the body of which I demand a great deal each day, as well to devise ideas for teaching my classes, but I mainly see it as a quiet place to go and switch off, rather than as a way to bust some bendy moves.

Like most people, I came to it initially for the physicality and to achieve some of the more impressive poses, but it has become a much more spiritual practice for me over time, which is what many yogis will argue what yoga is in essence: something driven by mental discipline and not by physical accomplishment. It does grate on me personally to see yoga advertised as giving you a tight tush or as a form of calorie-burning exercise. That’s definitely not in Patanjali’s Sutras as a benefit of regular practice and there many ways to lift your butt without calling it ‘yoga’.

The way in which you choose to practise is up to you, of course but, if you use yoga as your primary form of fitness or just to improve flexibility, this post invites you to rethink your approach.

There are three aspects of complete fitness

To have a fit body means having a healthy heart and good cardiovascular capacity, muscular strength and power, and flexibility.  Most people neglect one or two of these in the pursuit of their favourite sport. For example, runners will often underestimate the benefits of strength training for their stability, while those who focus on lifting can neglect their cardio. The majority of my clients confess to forgetting to add stretching to their weekly programmes to develop or maintain flexibility.

To be fair, how you train needs to be appropriate to your goals, so we need to work out programmes proportionate to those. A runner will always need to focus primarily on running with shorter weight training and stretching sessions, and a lifter isn’t training to race. However, they will benefit from doing metabolic sessions occasionally by  not resting between sets and getting their heart rate up.

Which aspects of fitness can yoga support? 

Yoga will help to develop and maintain flexibility and, depending on the style being practised and level of effort applied, can absolutely improve strength through all those vinyasas, chaturangas and warrior poses. However, where yoga can’t help if you are trying to build complete fitness is with cardio. Yoga practices have been measured and shown not to push the heart rate into the zones which increase cardiovascular capacity. You may feel a little out of breath during all those jump backs and transitions, but it’s nothing compared to the cardio workout you would get from running even at a conversational pace for the same amount of time. To gain any additional cardiovascular fitness through yoga means you would have to been relatively unfit to start with.

While yoga can increase flexibility and strength, it will not give you cardiovascular fitness, which contributes to your overall health in important ways, including decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. So get running, on your bike, into the pool or find any other kind of activity you enjoy to really get your heart rate up. Yoga, I’m afraid, isn’t enough on its own.

Does yoga burn calories?

If you’re looking to burn calories, choose a different form of movement. Yoga burns surprisingly few calories even during a fairly vigorous practice and, even if you’re sweating your way through hot yoga, any immediate weight lost is water, which will be regained throughout the day as you eat and drink.

As a fitness professional with a lean muscle mass of 38% and weighing about 56.5 kg, I still only burn about one calorie per minute practising yoga, and just a little more in a very dynamic practice. That’s about 35-40 calories during a moderate 30 minute session and 50-60 for a tougher practice of the same duration. A 35-40 minute run sees me burning around 350 calories by contrast.

That’s not to say that yoga is not a worthwhile form of physical activity but you need to be realistic about what you can achieve.

IMG_4508What does yoga actually do for you?

There are however many excellent reasons to practise yoga!

increased range of motion and flexibility. Practised regularly, yoga can help to undo some of the damage done if you have a sedentary job and to complement and balance out repetitive movement patterns in sport. It will not, however, permanently lengthen your muscles. They will retract to their original size and shape post-practice but, over time, you will be training your nervous system to relax your muscles more readily. Note that most athletes require a degree of tension through the muscles for propulsive and explosive power. For example, super-flexible hamstrings are not a runner’s friend. Keep everything in balance.

increased core stability and overall strength. Working with your body weight and challenging your balance can strengthen the muscles around the lumbo-pelvic hip complex, abdominals and spine. You also get some upper body work if you regularly practise chaturanga. However, you need to complement all the pushing work in yoga with pulling movements, so get on the rowing machine, perform bent over rows or use a TRX system for pull ups.

greater focus and mental well-being. Yoga’s attention to the breath and its meditation practices, as well as broader mindfulness-based work, are being recognised as beneficial for mental health, in terms of helping to manage anxiety and pain. Learning to control the breath and relax is also hugely beneficial to many sports when training at lactate threshold or when working anaerobically. It has helped me enormously since I started learning to swim in February and with the cardiovascular demands of boxing.

Next steps 

If you decide to attend yoga classes to increase your flexibility, then be prepared to learn to meditate and do breath work, too. It all comes as part of a more spiritual practice. If that doesn’t appeal, then you don’t have to practise yoga at all to improve your range of movement. Pilates could also work for you and there has been a recent increase in the number of mobility classes available in gyms.

You can look on YouTube for videos helping with stretching and mobility, as well as lots of free yoga content. I would also highly recommend a 1:1 with a qualified teacher to look at some of the basic postures to bs sure that you don’t reinforce any movement imbalances and actually create a problem.

Yoga is often touted as a miracle cure for a wide range of movement problems as well as mental and physical ailments.  But like any discipline, it has its limits and should be seen as appropriate in some scenarios and maybe even irrelevant in others. What it can’t be is a complete movement and fitness system. It never evolved to be such a thing, no matter what modernmarketing may tell you, but its benefits can be significant and potentially life-enhancing, if you are willing to embrace it as more than some fancy moves.

www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

Yoga for my (real) life

I spent yesterday at the OM Yoga Show in London, a massive festival and trade event, and I usually make the trip each year to network, touch base with my yoga contacts and stock up on new clothes and products to try. It also offers a vast programme of free classes, so it’s a great opportunity to practise with new teachers. I took a great workshop with Katy Appleton a few years back and got a fabulous hug from Tara Stiles, too!

My visit usually prompts reflection on my own practice as well as on my teaching, which are two quite different things. Teaching group yoga sessions is one of the most enjoyable parts of my work. Creating a space for people to feel safe, relax and feel confident in their practice is the essence of my teaching. My home practice is probably not as much as you think.  My sessions can be quite short and often focus on meditation and breath work, rather than on gut busting vinyasas or trying to nail a fancy new pose.

And that’s where my approach to yoga has changed so dramatically since my first visit to the Yoga Show more than five years ago. I went back then as someone with a long standing home practice, not a keen class goer, and not only felt like a bit of a fraud but was a bit too impressed by all the green juice-drinking contortionists. Now I go as a teacher and a well trained fitness professional with a nose for bullshit and a lack of tolerance for a lot of the nonsense that comes with the yoga world. I have met some horribly aggressive people there as well as stalls peddling totally useless products ‘guaranteed’ to change your life. The yoga industry, like any community, contains a cross-section of humanity, with all the good and the bad and the greed that entails.

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(My own teacher, Sally Parkes, leading a session at this year’s OM Yoga Show London.)

These days, my focus on yoga is very different from that first visit. I used to want to be ‘good at yoga’, whatever that means, whereas now I prioritise it as self-care, which means gentler practices and a lot more regular meditation. My priority for teaching is now based much more on the wealth of anatomical knowledge I have acquired in the last three years and is focused completely on client safety. The idea of correcting and adjusting people to fit the preconceived idea of a perfect pose (if such a thing can exist) leaves me cold. I am far more interested in clients working with what their bodies allow them to do and ditching a pose completely if it doesn’t work for their anatomy. Again, meditation is a key part of my teaching, as is reflecting on how we live yoga outside the studio. You can be all sweetness and light on your funky Lifeform mat, but if you’re rude to staff on the way out then you ain’t no yogi, no matter how many turmeric lattes you drink.

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If you want to expand your practice, think about living your yoga, going deeper into your practice and not just throwing shapes, as fun as that is!

Great books to read include:

Donna Farhi – Bringing Yoga to Life

Judith Hanson Laseter – Living Your Yoga

Deborah Adele – The Yamas and Niyamas

Richard Rosen – Yoga FAQ

Sally Kempton – Meditation for the Love of It

If you would like to practise with me, you can find my current Bristol teaching schedule here. You’ll be well looked after in a friendly group with lots of laughter and plenty of personal attention for a safe practice. Beginners are always very welcome.

You are also invited to join myself and Jenna Freeman at Foundations Cafe, Baldwin Street, Bristol at 10am on Sunday 26th November for our first yoga brunch: one hour of a relaxing flow plus protein oats or waffles and coffee for just £15. Places are limited and booking is essential so email me at info@brainboxcoaching.co.uk to pay for your place with YOGABRUNCH in the subject box.

Looking forward to seeing you soon!

 

 

What I’m thinking as a trainer while I’m working with your body

My own personal trainer is a lean, mean, muscled machine, as is my boxing coach. Both are very fit and experienced competitive fighters who can look pretty intimidating. Was I nervous when I started training with them? Absolutely! I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of being trained, worrying about knowing nothing about lifting weights or throwing punches and feeling distinctly underpowered in the cardio department while they both run rings around me during padwork drills.

There’s always someone fitter, stronger and more knowledgeable out there than you, and that’s why I have my own coaches to keep me challenged and progressing and accountable; it’s why most people sign up for personal training and I also feel that every trainer should have their own coach to push them on. We all need someone else to motivate us. But we start where we start, and it’s the responsibility of a good trainer to meet the client where they are and not pass judgement. I know that when I train with my coaches, I’ll be getting valuable feedback on my skills and not on the size of my thighs.

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(Training my client Helen at Powersports.)

I think worrying about being judged as weak/fat/clumsy can put people off signing up with a PT, and that’s a real shame. A good trainer isn’t the same as a shouty military  instructor who motivates through humiliation (unless you like that sort of thing, in which case be my guest and find someone who isn’t me). A skilled personal trainer is an empathetic listener, an excellent coach and flexible according to the needs of their client. If someone arrives fighting off the flu, then the tough HIIT session I planned is going to be dropped in favour of light training and a stretch-based session. Working 1:1 on fitness is about far more than writing someone a programme full of sets and reps. You can be someone’s agony aunt in times of trouble, you will be asked for a lot of advice on areas well outside of health and nutrition, so be prepared to go way beyond what you think is required if you are thinking of becoming a personal trainer!

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(Working with Ella and her arthritis at Sweaty Betty Bristol – training isn’t just for the athletic elite.)

My client base is predominantly female (I have three male 1:1 clients and a handful more in my yoga and HIIT classes) and I have been very conscious about how I speak in my work about women’s bodies. There’s enough shaming going on across social media; I want everyone who comes through my door to know they are not judged. Just being in a class for the more anxious members of my client base is a big achievement, as is training in front of other people in a shared space. For many people who have not exercised for some time, are injured, experiencing personal problems, are pregnant or carrying a lot of weight, training is a matter of getting through it, and I commend my clients for their efforts. People’s lives and their motivations are often far more complicated than we can appreciate.

We talk about form and technique in my classes and 1:1s, not about being skinny. My clients literally applaud each other’s efforts and we have fostered a reputation for being one of the most friendly and welcoming groups around, of which I am very proud. I know when someone new arrives, my fitness tribe will make them feel comfortable and motivate them through the class, whatever their size, whoever they are and whatever they can do.

 

(With Pearl and Shirlee, left, and Meg, right, at my group classes. We’re a friendly bunch!)

And when I am watching my clients working out, what goes through my mind? To be honest, it’s very technical. I’ve been trained through my studies to look at the body in terms of balance, form and alignment so I’m absolutely focused on how you are performing a movement and nothing else. I’m looking for the best, safest form you can achieve, and then working out ways to modify something you may be struggling with or progressing an exercise if you are looking strong. I will notice your mood and your energy and how that is affecting your training, and I might ask you some questions to see how I can help if you seem a bit off. I’m looking at your static posture as well as your dynamic movement patterns to see if something needs correcting, not because it makes me feel clever but because incorrect information is being fed to your brain and central nervous system when something is out of alignment. That’s a potential injury waiting to happen and it won’t get you closer to your goals.

I pay my clients compliments on their form and give praise where it’s due. I’m honest if I think you need to work differently or you could try harder on your nutrition, because that’s my job and I would be doing you a disservice as a coach and maybe even compromise your safety if I don’t speak up or call bulls**t where necessary. Telling someone they are not ready to perform a certain exercise or why they not losing weight isn’t fun, but I will always explain what you need to do to get there over time and with practice.

Am I thinking you look fat/thin/too muscly/too anything? Nope. I really am a dispassionate observer trying to help you achieve what you told me you want to do. If I pay you a compliment, it’s because you’re working hard to get closer to where you want to be, and you deserve it. I feel that my yoga teacher training and practice makes me a more compassionate trainer, but I also feel that is an essential quality for any decent trainer working with clients putting their mental and physical wellbeing in their hands. It’s a matter of basic respect and helping someone feel better about themselves. If you’re not willing to be motivational and take joy in your client’s gains, no matter how small, then it’s not the job for you.

If you’d like to read more about how I think trainers should responsibly coach their clients, then have a look at this article I wrote for the Personal Trainer Development Centre.

If you are interested in working with me 1:1 or coming to my group classes, then visit my website – link below. We also have a fitness half day event coming up on October 14th where you can get a taste of several areas of my work: HIIT, yoga and coaching.

I’m always happy to see a new face looking for a warm welcome!

www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk

www.befitbristolfit.com My episodes show me in group training and with 1:1 clients.

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

 

 

 

Fittie Over 40: the sometimes relevant ramblings of a middle-aged personal trainer

I thought it was time to offer a few musings about my own life as a fitness instructor, yoga teacher and personal trainer at the grand age of 45, given that I have plenty of clients over 40 these days who seem to enjoy my social media posts and look to me for fad free, no frills advice on healthy living.

I want to share the truth behind being a middle aged female working in the fitness industry, dealing with all the physical and hormonal delights that come with ageing. And yes, that means talking about menopause, ‘cos it sure isn’t going anywhere and is a natural phase of life that all us female badasses have to learn to negotiate.

So stand by for some fairly honest observations about trying to stay fit as a middle aged training professional when you’re hormonal and knackered and yet still needing to perform and set a good example to everyone else. Because in the face of green juice, I’ll always take a chocolate milkshake instead, and *no one* will replace my love for Dairy Milk with raw cacao.

If you’ve had enough of quick fixes, eating clean and trying to reach unattainable standards of six packs and svelteness, you’re in the right place. I’ll be sharing my own struggles to keep myself on track while offering some sound advice on how to succeed for yourself. Until then, where’s my next client?

Find me at www.brainboxcoaching.co.uk and on the telly box with www.befitbristolfit.com