I saw the linked article about CrossFit and Yoga this morning. I agree with what she says, but want you to appreciate this more deeply. Most traditional yoga teachers cringe when you call yoga exercise. But lets be honest, asana (the physical postures practiced in yoga) is a form of exercise. So why do we cringe? Because it is so much more than exercise. Do we want you to be safe, strong, and open? Of course. But what we really want is to get you to slow down and breathe so that you can feel your body. It sounds simple, but those of you that practice yoga can attest that the mind is one of  if not the hardest “muscle” to control in the body.

If you practice with me, you know that I am very focused on the details of your alignment. On the most superficial level, this is because when well aligned your joints are safest and it allows you isolate the muscular work you need to strengthen and/or stretch a particular part of the body. So you are safe and are going to progress more quickly. Double win!

Moreover, when you focus on the seamless minutia of muscular action and learn to work in highly refined ways you strengthen neural pathways that increase your ability to sense your muscles, control them, and build strength in a highly localized way. Attention to an area of the body, opens up the tiny capillaries there and the resultant increased blood flow supports these processes. To keep it simple, blood equals oxygen and nutrients flowing in- and  metabolic waste( CO2, lactic acid, etc) flushing out of that region of the body.  Even the mere act of imagining a physical movement builds the neuromuscular pathways required to perform and perfect that action. Also it is this focus on breath and body that makes yoga more meditative and relaxing than most of its counterparts. That is to say, it gets you in the zone and sets you up for an awesome savasana that keeps you coming back for more.

Sometimes we move dynamically in yoga (in and out of the pose with the breath) and sometimes we hold. Dynamic movements are a great way to warm-up. It increases blood flow and flexibility. Dynamic movements are also great for reinforcing neural pathways or “building muscle memory”. Test it out.  From a lunge press down into the front leg, straighten it,  and inhale into warrior 3 with the back leg floating at hip height. Exhale back to the lunge. How did it go? A little sloppy? Shaky?  Major wipe out? Start doing it over and over again. You will refine the placement of the limbs and the body starts to figure out how to strike that balance. Over time you will “hit it” more and more.

So you are probably asking, why do I make you hold certain postures sooooooooo long if dynamic stretches are so great. Interestingly, research studies show that static (holding) stretches before a workout has a very limited benefit, but static holds do have their place and purpose. For one,  static holds gives you strength in the opposing muscle group. Two, it is one of the best ways to break down the tension/tightness that repetitive sports actions create in the body. It lengthens the muscles and improves balance.  Research tells us that 30 seconds is the ABSOLUTE minimum to stretch a muscle in a static hold. Muscles can be tense, but in a lot of cases it is the fascia (AKA connective tissue  or the reason you use foam rollers) wrapped around the muscles that limits one’s range of motion. Some data says it takes two minutes to stretch fascia (there is a ton of science going on in the pain and fitness world about this, but we’ll leave that debate for another day). Suffice it to say, that to get in there you have to hold it. Just don’t forget to breathe.

This is also where that pesky  exercise vs. yoga distinction comes up. Imagine you are in pigeon for two minutes. There is a good chance that you are staring at the clock in agony or swearing at me (or whoever your teacher is) under your breath. You probably start to feel heat and anger swelling up inside. Your eyes look like dagers ready to strike. It is from this place of discomfort, that we really start doing “yoga”.  Yogis breath long, deep, and smoothly. When the breath slows down the mind slows down. You’ll find that as you release some effort, it helps the muscles to relax and you can ease deeper into the pose by exerting yourself less and less. On another level, you are literally stuck in an uncomfortable position with no where to go and nothing to do. Eventually the body opens and it feels divine, but until then you have nothing to do but breathe and notice the mind. In the beginning the mind will be going crazy. Eventually, with the breath things calm down and over time (weeks, months, years, decades, eons, etc) you start to see patterns in the predominate thoughts that emerge. Step one is noticing them. Step two is figuring out why you think these things. And step three is to decide if this thought or thought pattern is useful. Are you swearing at me because I am evil and you hate me? Or is this your natural reaction to difficultly? Is it helping you to be angry at me? Or would relaxing serve you better? Do you think that you suck  at yoga or life in general because your shin isn’t at a perfect ninety degree angle with your chest and belly flat on the floor? Then maybe this is what happens in real life when things aren’t going so hot. You judge yourself and reinforce thoughts about not being good enough at whatever the endeavor. Does it mean you need to apply yourself more and  learn to motivate yourslef in a healthy way? Or is it a knee jerk reaction left over from how you were rasied?  Because, seriously pigeon isn’t the goal.  Your health, happiness, and realtionships are.  In yoga, we like to say that what happens on the mat is a mirror for what happens off the mat. The good news is that if you can breath, slow down, and  develop the ablity to stay calm and present in a hard pose, chances are you are more likely to take time to process a situation before  reacting (AKA unnecessarily lashing out)  in “real life”. So breathe and breathe deeply.

This is why we don’t “just stretch” and why I love yoga. It works on the physical and non-physical levels. I started with a purely physical practice and over time I couldn’t help but to appreciate how yoga leaked into (and took over) the rest of my life.  Just by showing up, breathing, and doing the physical work the subtle benefits will build. And yes, it will make you better at CrossFit.

So get your crossfit yoga on! 

# the problem with having an MD/PhD student for a yoga teacher. xoxoxo