You know how, when you learn a vocabulary word, you suddenly start seeing it everywhere? Was is everywhere all along, and you just skimmed it because you didn’t know the word? Or is it cosmically appearing now that you’re in on it? I usually file that one with other unasnwerables like the silently felled tree in the unoccupied forest. But I had an experience like that this week, and have had a few of them this year amidst the Digital 40 Days Challenge and now during the March Yoga Challenge, to wit: Once I learn something about biomechanics, or breathing, or mental focus, or balance in a yoga practice, I find that it applies almost identically to other areas of my life.
In any workout, I very often find that the biomechanics impressed on me in yoga practice improve my performance in other pursuits. For instance, and this is going to sound a little nuts, I really think being on a bike (not in the aeros) is almost exactly biomechanically the same as being in downward-facing dog. These are the checkpoints I run through whenever I’m pedalling away (but only during the times that I’m not gasping for precious air, cussing a vicious hill, or avoiding eye-contact with a motorist mocking my spandex. So, you know, like the first five minutes).
- Your shoulders should be down and neck long, drawing the weight of your upper body up out of your wrists (seriously try this and be grateful when you’re not shaking your proto-arthritic jazz hands on mile 25).
- Turn the eyes of your elbows forward to leverage the strength and stability of your upper-arms instead of relying on your carpal-tunnel bound forearms.
- Spread the upper illia and rotate femurs in and down tapping into core stability for the mid and lower body while relieving pressure on the lumbar.
- Snap your belly button to your spine and imagine an anchor dangling from the coccyx to create rock-solidity in the core. Alternately, imagine two gears connected by a belt that runs from your hips up to the front connection between your ribs and then down your back to come back up through the hips again. Think about this belt constantly running up the front, causing you to pull up on the lower front abdomen and down the back causing you to consciously create space there and not tense the lumbar.
- Drop the heels, drop the heels, drop the heels. I don’t know if this DNA is located on the head-pat-belly-rub chromosome or what, but it’s near impossible for me to simultaneously drop the shoulders, hips, and heels. I can get two out of the three, but the third one has always been the un-whackable mole.
It works for other practices, too; not just cycling.
In Yin Yoga earlier this week, the instructor taught us about the mechanics of the shoulder-rib-lung connection. Her point was that raising the shoulders, not lowering them as we are often instructed, makes more sense in poses where the arms are extended over the head. Not only is there clearly more extension there, but she was pointing out the added space for lung capacity. So while swimming Tuesday night, I tried it out. Not jamming the shoulders up under the ears, but consciously including the shoulders in forward extension on my strokes and not making any effort at a long neck, I thought I could get better lung capacity and feel a little improved endurance. The timing of her lesson couldn’t have been better because Tuesday night was the longest workout in my whole training cycle, and I genuinely could not believe the improvement in breathing, endurance, and stroke-efficiency. Even during the last third of my workout I was breathing fine, feeling strong, and kicking the tar out of the would-be intimidating triathlete in the lane next to me.
Nowhere in my life has yoga improved my performance more than in my running. Before anyone says anything, let me be clear that I’m officially done talking about mechanics. I get that my running mechanics are horrific. What I’m talking about here is meditative mental focus: the ability to observe thoughts (Why, oh why, am I doing this?) and sensations (Why do they call it a “side stitch” when it feels less like something done with a needle and more like something done with a rusty grapefruit spoon?) without owning them. This practice, above all else, is the contribution of yoga to my ability to engage in any sport that makes common use of the word “endurance.”
One of the yoga podcasts I subscribe to is taught by a guy – Chaz – known for making cheesy jokes and encouraging his practitioners in a generally goofy way. Typically, his Chaz-isms are eye-roll inducing, but he knows it, so it seems ok. One Chaz-ism though has cropped up for me repeatedly. Chaz famously incorporates downward dog into all of his practices and never misses an opportunity to extol the virtues of the post. In response to what I can only assume are friendly pokes in his online feedback fora, Chaz frequently pokes fun at himself for this tendency. In one particular class laden with MANY down-dogs, he let us know when, at last, we were in the final down-dog of class. He told us to make the last one the best one; to imagine that a photo crew had just arrived to shoot us for the cover of Down Dog Magazine. Beyond goofy, right?
But then I find myself occasionally during the last 400 meters of a run, and almost always on the last 50-100 meters of a swim drill thinking “Down Dog Magazine.” This has come, in my mind, to be a mantra that means No Tomorrow. It means the photographers are here now, this is the way everyone sees you, this is how you will be remembered. There’s no tomorrow, so give everything you’ve got, perfect form, right now. This is it.
And it means something to me. It means more now than it did when Chaz said it, and I think it’s safe to say it’s taken on a bigger meaning than he even intended.
If I’d heard five years ago, or even two years ago, that “whatever you do in life, yoga shows you how to do it better,” I would have thought: “Oh what a line.” Like, yoga really has the answers to everything? Like stretching, breathing, and awkwardly trying to balance my butt above my elbows (in spandex pants) will make me to EVERYthing better? Come on. But actually, I struggle now to find a single pursuit that hasn’t benefitted in some way from the influence of a consistent yoga practice.
Am I crazy? Tell me what you do in life that yoga’s shown you how to do better.