By Leilah Devi
The benefits of establishing an ongoing yoga practice are many and varied. In the context of a well-rounded physical training program centered on strength and conditioning and/or martial arts, the inclusion of a short and simple daily yoga practice can support our main focus, as well as serve as a rewarding endeavor on its own.
Perhaps the most obvious result of yoga practice is increased flexibility and mobility. Via the kind of static stretching and isometric holds used to perform yoga asanas (postures), excessive tension in the soft tissues can be alleviated, allowing inhibited joints to move more freely. Through linking mindful movements with full, rhythmic breathing in what is termed vinyasa, we stretch dynamically and deliberately into deeper ranges of motion. By patiently developing our connection to the breath in well-aligned yoga asana, restrictions to a healthy range of motion can be softened and gradually overcome. This provides a sense of well-being, ease, and comfortability in the body.
An improved ROM can help to protect us from injury not only in daily life, but in particular during activities such as weightlifting. When impaired joint mobility no longer forces us to compensate, we can more easily maintain perfect form and technique while performing resistance training, and while under load. This ties in to another crucial aspect of physical fitness which is cultivated by posture practice- that of stability. While our media is brimming with dramatic images of poses that emphasize extreme flexibility, the importance of stability may be overlooked as a main component of correctly performed yoga asana. In fact, strength and stability are at the very core of a good practice.
The skills of proprioception, detailed attention to alignment, and the mind-body connection are all strengthened through yoga. These abilities clearly transfer to other physical practices.
The yogi learns to proficiently move the prana, or life-force, as well as his conscious awareness around the body- noticing, activating and relaxing muscles, and potentially whole systems, at will. Through direction of the breath, and while withdrawing the other senses into a powerful focus, the yogi develops the ability to control both body and mind. Yoga practitioners experience increased health, calmness, clarity, and presence.
The rewards and goals of yoga are not only physical or mental, but ultimately spiritual. Today’s posture-based yoga has its roots in traditions of Tantra and Hatha Yoga, and is a modern continuation of ancient mystical paths to liberation and power. From this perspective, the body is seen as a vehicle to awakening, and as an expression of the Divine. It is not rejected, but embraced as a means of participating in life to the fullest. The physical body, in the material plane, is considered to be the most accessible way to approach the deeper mysteries. It is through learning to govern the energies of the gross body that we become able to experience, and influence, more subtle elements. Incorporating the philosophy and esoteric techniques of yoga can add profound depth to a physical praxis the aims of which include self-knowledge, fortification of the will, and even attaining to a god-like state.
Establishing an authentic yoga practice will require some discipline, but just 5-10 minutes each morning is enough to start. As you continue, your practice may lengthen, but even fairly short, consistent practices are sufficient to receive many benefits. It is far better to practice 15 minutes 4-5 times per week, than it is to practice for an hour once a week! By carving out a small piece of time, ideally soon after awakening, one can easily establish a routine which could include hip, shoulder and spinal mobilization, deep breathing, , and meditation. Sun Salutations and a few carefully-chosen poses can wake up the body and clear the head. The isometric bodyweight holds of yoga asana, and the warming, opening flow of vinyasa, help to prepare an athlete for the variety of positions and efforts he will make throughout an active day.
Like most things, yoga should be learned from a qualified teacher. Familiarize yourself with the fundamentals so that you can practice them anywhere. Set aside a regular time for your practice, soon after you’ve risen for the day. Establish the habit of getting on your mat early each morning. At this time it is appropriate to enjoy an invigorating, solar practice, such as one based around Sun Salutations. Consider also including a more relaxing, grounding, and reflective practice to unwind before bed in the evening.
Yoga does not need to be complicated to provide numerous advantages on many levels. From producing a greater freedom of movement leading to improved positioning for lifters, to helping hone the concentration of a martial artist, it is certain that authentic yoga practice has an important place in any comprehensive physical culturist program.