I’ve been in the fitness industry for nearly two decades and even I have to admit that I didn’t respect the yoga practice. Being an exercise physiologist and fitness “nerd”, working with elite athletes and gym buffs, I thought anything that didn’t involve traditional fitness practices was “crap”. Well … I am eating some serious humble pie now!
I started moving away from traditional fitness and exploring other avenues about ten years ago when my clients weren’t always getting expected results. In addition, more and more clients were coming to me injured or unable to do the exercises I had and had to find alternate ways to challenge them. That led me to Pilates and yoga.
The first few months into the yoga practice was not convincing. Being in the fitness industry for so many years (i.e., teaching exercise classes, presenting at industry events, photo shoots, and video productions), you become a master at making exercise “look” easy. And, that’s exactly what I did. I could perform the postures and make them look pretty but I wasn’t getting the most out of each movement. I would make it through a 60 minute class and barely break a sweat. I felt more flexible but really didn’t enjoy the experience (being the hard ass traditional fitness professional that I am).
To be honest, I was taught to believe yoga was “gentle” and a way to improve flexibility and balance. I never saw it as a total body conditioning activity and I wasn’t a believer until someone truly taught me HOW to approach the movements properly (to complete each movement with precision and intention).
Yoga is NOT for Wimps
I have to admit, I never gave yoga a chance earlier in my career because I was turned off by the spiritual side of the practice. It was explained to me and marketed for it’s spiritual and mental benefits rather than the total body physical challenge. As a “type A+” personality, that type of fitness experience really didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine dragged me to a hot yoga class and I had the pleasure of getting my ass kicked by an exceptional yoga instructor who communicated each movement with surgical precision. This instructor didn’t let me get away with anything (even though the postures looked right she knew I was cheating) and forced me to challenge my body to its core. I was annihilated by the end of the 90 minute class. I already knew 30 minutes into the class that I would forge a “love/hate” relationship with yoga for years to come!
Coming from a fitness practitioner with a broad resume, I can admit that yoga is not an easy activity to master. If you happen to be a “regular” at the gym and have grown up with dumbbells and weight machines, you are used to an industry that uses entertainment to distract you while you exercise. Music, LCD screens, mirrors, and enthusiastic instructors are meant to have you disconnect from your exercise so you don’t notice the work you’re doing. Yoga, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. To do it well, there can’t be any distractions. It’s just you, your thoughts, and your mat. If you can master the mind-body connection required to get the most out of your workout, you may just become the next fitness buff turned fitness yogi (just like me)!
10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Yoga Practice
In the three years that I have been regularly practicing yoga (in addition to being certified as a hot yoga instructor), there are five tips that have been the most useful in ensuring I get the most out of every posture I do on the mat, regardless of the type of yoga (i.e., Hatha, Birkram, Ashtanga, etc.). These five movement cues have become my yoga checklist (or mantra) during each posture:
- Inhale to lengthen and extend
- Exhale to deepen and contract
- Open the chest and keep shoulder blades back and down
- Engage the lower abdominals
- Slight tuck of the tailbone under
- Maintain alignment
- Slight bend at the knee
- Rotate from the ribcage
- Draw straight lines with the body
- Direct energy into the floor
1. Inhale to Lengthen and Extend
Breathing is an integral part any yoga practice, but knowing what to focus on when you inhale and exhale can be confusing. Traditionally, the inhale is used to lengthen through the body (i.e., open up the chest, expand the rib cage, lengthen the spine, reach out through the shoulders, open up the hips, lengthen through the back of the legs, etc.). Lengthening taps into muscles that are often unused as much of our day is spent tight and shortened. This is the “opening half” of any yoga movement.
2. Exhale to Deepen and Contract
The exhale builds on the lengthening achieved during the inhale and closes the yoga movement. As you hold the lengthening component of the movement, you then engage the muscles that directly oppose the muscles you activated in during the inhale. This creates a “tug-of-war” between the muscle groups surrounding each joint to produce the greatest amount of work. For example, during a Crescent Lunge you reach your fingertips to the ceiling during the inhale and then slide your shoulder blades down the spine during the exhalation. Your shoulders struggle to root down because you are reaching up at the same time. The challenge in yoga is finding the neutral zone between the stretch and contraction for the best result.
3. Open the Chest and Keep Shoulder Blades Back and Down
Most of us spend the majority of our day flexed forward with our shoulders tight and elevated. This is because we spend so much time sitting down and hunched forward staring at a screen of some sort. Opening up the chest, moving the shoulders away from the ears, and sliding the shoulder blades along the spine may be one of the most valuable (and the most difficult) skills to learn. These muscles are not only difficult to control, they also have very little muscular endurance. It takes time to build endurance for long postures and asanas where the arms are elevated and engaged in the constant “tug-of-war” (i.e., Sun Salutation, Warrior 1-2-3 series, crescent lunge, etc.).
Coming Up Next …
It’s important to take the time to practice these adjustments to your yoga practice. Take some time to integrate these recommendations into your practice and, when you are ready, read “10 Ways to Elevate Your Yoga Practice (Part Two)” for the next set of tips for your best yoga experience every time you get on the mat!