Everybody's doing it these days. From our favorite celebrities to athletes at the top of their game, even your mom and your Aunt pearl talk about how Yoga has changed their bodies and their lives. Maybe its because I share the attention span of my horses, or the fact that I always thought stretching only came before "real" workouts. I understood the need for flexibility and suppleness as a rider, but I certainly never thought of yoga consisting almost entirely of controlled stretching could make me stronger or more fit. Unfortunately after injuring my knee during a bad fall, I was unable to ride for quite some time. I had to find a low impact solution to regain lost muscle and flexibility in order to be fit enough to ride.
I first tried yoga a few years ago and to be honest I hated every second of it. Part of the problem was the way I was introduced to yoga in the first place. My mother lent me a 90 minute tape of Denise Austin's "Fat Blasting Yoga." You remember her right? The perky aerobics queen of the 90's with endless smiling encouragement as she bounces around aimlessly. Well, picture the same bad music and the same annoying voice while trying to follow, "Down dog, up dog! Down dog, up dog, down dog -- aaand up dog!" Maybe it's just me but I despite my best efforts I found myself cursing the TV rather than relaxing. Her overly cheerful style can quickly become irritating, especially when she coos something like, "This is my favorite stretch!" or, "Yea, YOGA!" So after about 20 minutes I decided yoga was definitely not for me.
I turned to pilates, which I still believe is the best all around workout for equestrians. Allowing you to strengthen your core and work up a sweat all while developing the coveted long lean muscles essential to good riding. While I had a lot of success with pilates the tightness in my hips and thighs persisted. A depressing fact that you may not know is that we all begin to lose flexibility at the age of 16. Like it or not, touching your toes before hopping on your horse just isn't enough, especially as you get older.
It was then at the advice of my instructor I decided to give yoga one more chance. I purchased A.M. and P.M. yoga by Rodney Yee. After the first few minutes of rolling my eyes and grumbling about the new age flutes and speedo on the beach, I gave it a real go. The entire A.M. session was a total of less than 20 minutes. I can honestly say I experienced amazing results my very first day. I felt more relaxed, loose and energized than I had in quite some time. The P.M. session is just as delightful. It is a great way to wind down at the end of the day, not only providing you a well rested night sleep but I awoke with less stiffness each morning. I don't do it every day or even as often as I should but I find that even 2 - 3 times a week will make a dramatic difference in your riding and just the way you feel in general.
In summary there are many ways yoga can help you become a better rider:
- Yoga creates flexibility in the hips.
- Yoga creates a stronger, suppler, back.
- Yoga builds body awareness and independent use of each part of your body.
- Yoga teaches you how to breathe deeply at all times, even during a difficult experiences.
After a few weeks of practicing yoga a minimum of 3 days per week you will see improvement:
- Going with your horse's motion
- Have a taller, quieter position
- Give more precise aids
- Experience greater concentration and flow
- Enjoy faster muscle recovery / less soreness
As with riding, there is no magic to yoga. It takes concentration, consistency, and discipline to succeed. Similar to training horses, yoga is not about force. Some riders are flexible, and others are not. Be aware of those differences and work towards your individual perfection. Work at your own pace and don't worry if you have to modify the stretches at first. In a short time you will find yourself improving your range of motion beyond what you thought was possible. You will learn how to move your body (and mind) away from strain, pain and imbalance toward balance of strength, flexibility and endurance. I think you'll be surprised how quickly you see results in your riding among other things.
I have also included a few clips I found on youtube of one of Rodney Yee's beginner yoga videos. These scenes are not from the A.M. / P.M. video but a lot of the stretches are the same so I figured a little sneak peak couldn't hurt.