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Why Yoga Practitioners Should Do Crossfit (and Other Cross-Training)

A few posts ago, I talked about why Crossfitters (and other athletes) should do yoga. This isn’t a one-way street though! The philosophy of Crossfit encourages “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity” after all.

While yoga may not seem as high intensity as your average WOD, any yoga practitioner knows just how challenging it is: both physically and mentally. It’s hard to hold your own body weight for minutes upon minutes with only the sound of your breath and thoughts, or lack thereof.

Crossfit athlete performing push press.
Push movements, like the push press, translate well into build strength for arm balances.

What is Crossfit?

While it may seem like a bunch of sweaty, grunting, half-dressed people, the philosophy of Crossfit is simple: developing your level of fitness. In fact, Crossfit has a very specific definition of what is fitness. At its core, fitness must be measurable and performed across a variety of disciplines, such as gymnastics and weightlifting.

One of the core tenets of the Crossfit philosophy is that, in order to work towards fitness, you cannot specialize in one area. The fittest people can perform well in a variety of disciplines. As an example, an elite swimmer likely won’t perform very well in a workout focused on explosive strength, like Grace, but would rock a 1500m freestyle. A Crossfit athlete, however, should be able to swim, run, do handstand push-ups and muscle ups, and knock out 30 clean and jerks in a moderate amount of time. She certainly won’t beat the swimmer at swimming, but she’ll hold strong everywhere else, too.

Yoga arm balance.
The upper body and core strength required for advanced arm balances is no joke!

Misconceptions

On my own health journey, I began with running, and then yoga. I liked the calm that running brought me, from the rhythm of my feet hitting the concrete to the steady pace of my breathing. With my yoga practice, I eventually decided to do my yoga teacher training and taught in a gym for a little more than a year. It was a tough environment, trying to balance meditation and breathing practice with the groans and grunts of weightlifters. So annoying!

Little did I know, I would later become one of those weightlifters. As my exploration of strength training expanded, I found myself drawn to powerlifting. Focused on three main lifts – bench, deadlift, and squat – powerlifting is extremely stable and static, much like yoga. Crossfit, on the other hand, seemed too out of control. With everyone jumping around, competing on a daily basis, it seemed like a great path towards an injury.

At first glance, a Crossfit box seems like a zoo: it smells, it’s sweaty, there are lots of very strange noises, there doesn’t appear to be any order, and everyone seems to have some sort of injury. Because of the competitive nature of the sport, it can seem like people push themselves too quickly. (That can be true, but you’re the one in control of that!)

It’s also intimidating. The weights are heavy, loud, and, so often, dangling over your head. For many, their first reaction is, “can’t do that!”

But that’s exactly the point. Crossfit is designed to be high intensity for all levels, relative to each person’s ability. You don’t need to perform any of the movements as is. Instead, every single workout can be tailored just to you. Pretty cool, right?

Yoga arm balance in Brazil.
I so strongly believe that Crossfit and yoga are complimentary practices.

So why Crossfit?

1. It makes you stronger.

Yes, Captain Obvious here. Of course Crossfit makes you stronger! But what does that have to do with yoga?

Yoga incorporates both stretching and strength-building exercises. While a forward fold requires a great deal of mobility in your hamstrings, arm balances like crow or firefly pose require a considerable amount of upper body and core strength. Guess what? Crossfit helps with that!

Through weight-bearing activities that get progressively more intense over time, you begin to build more and more resistance. As such, the more you gain strength in Crossfit, the more that strength carries over into your yoga practice.

2. It requires mental strength and focus.

What’s the longest you’ve ever held a yoga pose? One minute? Two? Five? The first challenge of holding any asana for an extended period of time is your body. In an extended Warrior II, your quads would give anything for a break.

Yet once you get through that initial pain, the biggest challenge is your mind. Convincing yourself that you’re capable, rather than focusing exclusively on the pain, is a mental game. Your legs may burn, your arms may be tired and droopy, but you can do this. By focusing on the present moment, particularly through your breath, you can try to stop thinking and just be.

Similarly, Crossfit has many long workouts that are challenging. (Think 25 to 30 minutes and up.) In the last Crossfit Games, athletes performed a marathon row. In other words, each athlete was on the rowing machine for 42 miles, which took about three hours minimum. Just like you need mental stamina to maintain a yoga pose, these long workouts help you to build a similar type of focus.

3. Hone your gymnastics/body weight skills.

Crossfit is more than just the barbell. While it incorporates both weightlifting and powerlifting, it also includes endurance and gymnastics movements, such as pull-ups and hand stands. In fact, some of the most challenging movements in Crossfit, like the ring muscle up, only include body weight.

Yoga practitioners know that body weight is a challenge. Incorporating more body weight movements, such as the ones in Crossfit, will encourage you to recruit different muscles than the ones you’re used to. The more you practice, the more these skills will carry over into yoga. So if you want a beautiful handstand away from the wall, you might want to consider Crossfit as part of your path.

4. It incorporates pulling movements.

In body building and powerlifting, we often see a distinction between pushing and pulling movements. Pushing movements might include squats, push-ups, and jerks. Pulling, on the other hand, may include pull-ups, deadlifts, and lat pull downs. They recruit different muscle groups in different ways, leading to an overall balance in training.

With yoga, because we’re only using body weight, we lack pulling movements. While pushing movements do build strength, they’re one-sided. As such, progress is slower. While slow progress is a-ok, using your body and muscle groups in a wider variety of movements helps lead towards overall greater health and long-term progress.

5. It challenges your balance.

Tree pose with a scattered mind is like, well, a tree swaying in the wind. It’s possible to stay balanced, but not without a fight.

In Crossfit, movements like pistol squats, or single leg squats, require an incredible degree of balance. As an added challenge, they also incorporate quite a bit of intentional movement. Static balance must be developed over time. Staying balanced while performing an explosive movement very much carries over to any static movements that require stability. Both build upon each other.

6. Variety is the spice of life.

Despite being, what I consider, a very active person, I still have muscles that are weak from not being utilized. In fact, beginning all the way back in my running days, I’ve had very weak abductors, those muscles on the outside of your legs. Even when doing both running and yoga or, today,a performing Crossfit, it’s still something that I have to consciously work on.

Since starting to practice a wider variety of sports and activities, I find that I feel stronger overall with fewer imbalances. The more I can recruit different muscle groups for different movements, the more I build strength everywhere.

For those who practice yoga, this is important. While your yoga routine will vary on a daily basis, there are many practices that require us to follow the same pattern of movements, such as a sun salutation as a standard warm-up. If you have imbalances in a movement that you perform extremely often, that can lead to an injury. (In my case, my weak abductors lead to an injury that showed up in bridge pose, of all places.) In short, changing things up helps to avoid any extreme imbalances.

7. It will make use of your flexibility in new ways.

But really, the best reason for a yogi to do Crossfit? You’ll be the most flexible in class!

Okay, I’m joking, but just a little bit. Many Crossfitters do not practice as much mobility as they should because it’s not as intense or “exciting” as that adrenaline hit that comes from an intense workout. This can limit their ability to perform certain movements, such as overhead squats, which require a good deal of shoulder mobility.

For those who practice yoga, you’ve already developed your mobility through your regular practice. Because of that, as you build more strength to perform various Crossfit-based movements, the challenge will lie primarily in your strength, not your flexibility. In other movements, more movements will be more accessible to you, especially as you continue to get stronger.

Side plank in the gym.
Strength and mobility go hand-in-hand.

They’re complimentary

I so strongly believe that yoga and Crossfit are complimentary practices. Yoga practitioners benefit from the focus on strength, variety, and cardio endurance. Crossfitters benefit so much from the mobility, meditation, and breathwork of yoga.

It’s natural that some will prefer one over the other, depending on your priorities and personality. As an introvert, there are times when I want to hide in the corner of our loud Crossfit classes, especially when they require a partner for the workout. At the end of the day, the delight I feel in getting stronger is worth it for me.

Likewise, the clarity and focus I get from practicing yoga, especially in terms of mental strength, is a gift that never stops giving. At work, in a competition, or just before going to sleep, my meditation practice stays with me. None of these are exclusive are exclusive habits.

I encourage everyone to give yoga, Crossfit, powerlifting, gymnastics, Strong Man, or what-have-you a shot. You never know what’s going to work for you.

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