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Why Crossfitters (and other athletes) Should Do Yoga

I absolutely love when I hear someone in the box start talking about yoga. Despite my own personal practice (plus this blog and my Instagram), I don’t proselytize much about my passion for combining yoga and weight training. In fact, the two still remain pretty separate in my day to day life.

So when I hear “yoga” amidst the clank and clatter of a Crossfit gym, my ears perk up. There are so many misconceptions about what a yoga practice is and why it’s beneficial.

It takes a Crossfitter to do a pistol, but a yogi to do it without needing a warm-up!

Misconceptions

Funnily enough, those skeptical of yoga tend to fall into two seemingly opposite camps: it’s not hard enough or it’s too hard.

For those who don’t find yoga to be enough of a workout, its slower pace and lack of intense activity feels boring. Without the sweating, the grunting, the pushing, what’s the point?

On the flip side, those who find yoga hard tend to struggle with the slowness of it, but for different reason. Yoga is hard, and not just physically. Staying in the same pose for five minutes does’t just make your muscles burn, it makes your mind start to race. While a long WOD also builds mental endurance, the fast-paced movement still allows for some momentary distraction – unlike yoga.

Practicing breath work before a rowing sprint means it’s easier to breath in the moment.

What is yoga?

In our day-to-day consumption, there’s so much of yoga that we miss. It’s so much more than just the poses, called asanas. In fact, there are eight limbs of yoga. So what is yoga?

  1. The Yamas, or what I like to call the do not‘s (i.e. practicing non-violence).
  2. The Niyamas, or the do‘s (i.e. practicing gratitude).
  3. Asana, practicing yoga poses/postures.
  4. Pranayama, practicing breath work.
  5. Pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses.
  6. Dharana, practicing concentration.
  7. Dhyana, developing a meditation practice.
  8. Samadhi, union with the divine.

While I would venture to guess that most folks at the gym aren’t looking for spiritual guidance, per se, it still is critical to root your practice in the entire philosophy of yoga. First, because it’s important to be respectful and mindful of the cultures from which you’re borrowing. (In other words, try not to just culturally appropriate what you like and leave the rest.)

Second, because yoga, weightlifting, Crossfit, and any kind of body-related practice also involves the spirit and mind. If you cannot develop your mind-body connection or a solid breath practice, how will you effectively and efficiently develop as an athlete?

Squats, snatch, cleans, and pistole: all require excellent ankle mobility.

Okay, so why do yoga?

1. It increases mobility.

Let’s start with the obvious. Most asanas involve stretching in some capacity, whether that’s through practicing hip openers, like Warrior II, or chest openers, like bridge pose.

In my own vinyasa yoga practice, I start almost all of my routines with a Sun Salutation. A Sun Salutation is a series of poses that appear together, usually at the beginning of a yoga class. These poses help to warm-up the body and prepare it for the asanas to come. It incorporates the practice of linking your breath to your movement and, of course, stretching.

By spending an extended period of time in any of these yoga poses, and practicing them consistently, your mobility improves. For complex movements like snatch or the clean and jerk, better mobility means better performance.

2. It increases self-awareness.

While yoga does increase self-awareness in the metaphysical sense, it also increases your own sense of proprioception, or where your body is in space.

When you spend an extended period of time in an asana, whether that’s 30 seconds or three minutes, you invariably make minor adjustments. These small adjustments to improve your alignment also deepen the sensation of the pose. For example, you may go a little bit further into your lunge or create a little bit more space in your spine as you reach upwards.

The more you practice, the more you can feel when you need these small adjustments, even without a teacher. In the same way you might adjust your hand or foot position before a squat, being able to feel where you need to adjust your body for optimal alignment carries over directly into the gym.

3. Breath work allows you to practice your breathing outside of your lifts. 

Many weightlifters and powerlifters are familiar with the Valsalva maneuver, unintentionally or not.

The Valsalva maneuver is, essentially, when you inhale to brace your core before a heavy lift. For example, before a heavy back squat, I breath deeply into my belly, hold that breath there while tightening my abs, and squat. On the way back up, I slowly release that breath to help keep my core tight and safe, and to also increase my power.

Yoga has many, many different breath work, or pranayama, practices.

Whether it’s the deep, guttural breathing many practice during their yoga practice or the more focused, balance-inducing alternate nostril breathing, spending time focusing on your breath allows you to better connect with and control it during intense activities. (Check this out for some beginner-friendly breathwork practices.)

4. It builds patience and focus. 

Dharana, the sixth limb of yoga, is the practice of concentration. What does that mean exactly?

Concentration is somewhat like the step before meditation. It’s the moment when you stop what you’re doing, come into the present, and begin to quiet your mind.

Through the practice of concentration, whether that’s through a meditation practice or through practicing yoga poses, you build your focus. Practicing how to focus allows you to work on this skill in an optimal environment. While it comes in handy during a one-rep max during a weightlifting competition, practicing concentration while you’re nervous, barbells are clattering, and people are yelling is less than ideal.

In other words, train your mind, just like you train your body.

5. It builds static strength. 

Many of the movements in both Crossfit and weightlifting require explosive strength: a quick burst of energy for maximum power. Yoga, on the other hand, builds more solid, static strength as you hold the poses for extended periods of time.

All types of strength interplay with one another. Just like the Crossfit philosophy encourages athletes to be good at all types of movements, adding yoga into your practice helps you to build a different type of strength that will enhance your performance.

If you don’t believe yoga can be hard, try holding a plank or Warrior pose for a few minutes. It’s okay, I’ll wait 🙂

Being able to do a handstand hold requires core strength and focus.

Incorporating it into your program

I’m a huge proponent of doing just a little bit of yoga, every day. Whether it’s ROMWOD, a simple sun salutation, or spending some time in a few of your favorite poses, even just five minutes a day makes a difference.

For active rest days (because rest is important!), yoga is fantastic. It’s much less impact on your body, but still helps to increase your mobility and strength. A one-hour class at a local yoga studio, or online, can help familiarize you with the different movements. Plus, feedback from an experienced teacher can make all the different in finding proper alignment or highlighting postural issues you may not even know you had.

A word of warning: I’ve noticed that a lot of athletes tend to prefer hot yoga because, well, you sweat. While the increased body temperature means you do get those same sweaty endorphins as a Crossfit class, it does also mean that your body may be more warm than you’re used to. This can lead to a misleading amount of flexibility. In other words, you may feel more flexible than you are because of the heat and that puts you at greater risk for injury.

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