My first yoga experience took place in a dimly lit studio behind a Lutheran Church. The aroma of wax and incense infused every square inch of the place. When I arrived for my first class, the advanced students had congregated in the lobby. They appeared tranquil and poised, cradling their sticky yoga mats, neatly coiled like cinnamon rolls.
Glancing at beach towel I had brought, I prepared myself for a humiliating experience. Luckily I wasn’t alone: A nearby grandmother put out a shaggy bathroom rug.
Perhaps like me, you have felt intimidated by yoga. Maybe you won’t even try taking a class because just the thought of chanting “om” for any extended period of time-or the image of someone with both feet casually tucked behind her ears-makes you run in the other direction.
Intimidation shouldn’t keep you from trying yoga. It can be extremely beneficial for athletes.
“I think a lot of athletes have learned to stop paying attention to the signals their body is sending,” says yoga instructor Brent Holten, who works at the five Crunch Fitness locations in Chicago. “They are running, and they are on their 10th mile, and they are in a lot of pain, but they just keep running.”
Consider this: Your foot will hit the ground between 800 and 2,000 times during the course of a one-mile run. The force of impact is approximately three to four times your weight. This force drives pressure to the back, knees, hamstrings and feet, the locations of the most common running injuries.
Athletes typically experience too much pounding, tightening and shortening of muscles and not enough opposing movements like elongating and loosening, Holten says. To counteract this, certain muscles have to work harder to restore the body’s balance, making the strong muscles stronger and the weak muscles weaker.
This is where yoga can help.
Yoga is an ancient practice that uses slow and controlled poses, or asanas, to help create balance in the mind, body and spirit. Poses are entered using slow, steady motions, ensuring all the muscles are working equally to help support the pose. These poses can be held for as little or as long as the body allows. Yoga can be done alone or in a group, indoors or outdoors, and while most yoga classes are 60 to 90 minutes long, yoga can be practiced for any length of time.
Holten, who primarily teaches Power Yoga, says many of his students come to him after they suffer a sports-related injury and find that they have no place to turn. He says many of his students who also run experience significantly reduced recovery time. Others find it helps them build strength.
“I have students who stopped doing resistance and weight training because they were getting that from their yoga practice,” Holten says.
Janell Cox, a yoga instructor and general manager at Moksha Yoga in Chicago, cautions yoga is more than just a physical exercise.
“Because of this western obsession with fitness, a lot of people think of yoga as just another way to get fit,” Cox says. “Yoga is not just about fitness. It’s about so much more than that.”
Yoga leaves you rejuvenated, more flexible, stronger and more vital, she says. Moreover, Cox and Holten say, anyone can do yoga. “In class this morning I had a group of college students and a runner who is 70,” Holten says.
For most athletes, the biggest obstacle is their own preconceived image of yoga, Holten says. They think if they don’t take Power Yoga or a more rigorous style, it won’t be physically challenging. Others attend one class, don’t see any results, and conclude that yoga didn’t work for them.
Holten recommends attending at least five to 10 classes and experimenting with different styles and instructors before deciding.
If you’re a newcomer, start with a beginner’s class or a basic Hatha Yoga class. You may want to try a session at both a gym and a yoga studio since they often offer a different focus.
“Health clubs get more into the physicality of yoga,” Holten says. “A lot of people may be intimidated by chanting and a more meditative approach [at a yoga studio]. If you’ve never done it, it can be a little strange.”
But others appreciate the meditative elements of the discipline.
“We view yoga as a lifestyle, not just a one-hour class.” Cox says. “There’s a different energy, a different atmosphere, a different feeling.”
So how does one go about accessing the benefits offered by yoga? By just showing up, Cox says, and by keeping an open mind.
So after eight weeks in the chocolate-covered room with the orange terrycloth yoga mat, after eight weeks of crouching, bending, reaching, extending, inhaling and exhaling, I realized yoga isn’t about touching your toes or holding a pose the longest. It isn’t about who’s good at yoga and who’s bad. Yoga is about taking care of your mind and body.
“It’s been around for so long,” Holten says. “There must be something about it that makes people feel better.”