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Why Yoga Deserves a Place in Your Training Regimen

by David Ansel

Haven't you heard? Didn’t you see it on Oprah? Didn’t you see it on the cover of Time? Yoga is the next Big Thing. Soon your friends will be toting sticky mats, sipping chai, and greeting each other with Sanskrit words. Youll officially be behind the times. As a runner, you probably want to let this fad, like every other, pass by as you get in your miles. But as a runner concerned about longevity, this is one trend you should definitely check out.

Yoga is a centuries-old system of physical postures and breathing techniques. In 1966, B.K.S. Iyengar codified Hatha Yoga’s meticulous alignment principles in his treatise Light on Yoga, opening its esoterica to an audience of millions in the West. Hatha Yoga, largely based on Iyengar’s axiomatic approach to fine muscular control, is a perfect complement to your running practice. It promotes refined attention to balance, posture and alignment, preventing injury, and improving your form and performance.

Hatha Yoga is a process of self-discovery. I initiated a yoga practice while training for a marathon, and soon discovered I had held all my weight on my right leg for the first 25 years of my life. I found that my hips weren’t aligned, causing the nagging knee pain I was getting on long runs. Yoga cultivated my awareness, allowing me to diagnose the problem, and help treat it and prevent further damage.

Treating the Cause

Yoga helps us take a proactive approach to our health, where problems are addressed before they get ugly. Let’s take knee tendinitis. The symptom is pain. The accepted treatment is a counter-force strap which only suppresses the pain—it does nothing to attack the root of the problem. The cause of tendinitis is tendon inflammation. The cause of inflammation is the high tension of the shortened muscle connected to the tendon. Yoga treats the cause, increasing the resting length of the muscle, reducing the tension of the tendon, and promoting the synovial fluid secretions that lubricate the tendon.

Not only does the yoga practice lengthen the muscle, but it tells you why the muscle was shortened in the first place. It prescribes an action plan for preventing it from happening again. And, perhaps most important, it can forewarn you of problems that haven’t even manifested yet.

Perfect Posture

Our mothers knew what they were talking about when they admonished us to "stand up straight!" The importance of correct posture, and more specifically, your awareness of your posture, cannot be overstated. The tenth edition of Structure and Function of the Body says, "Good posture means that body parts are held in the positions that favor best function. These positions...put the least strain on muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. Poor posture makes a person tire more quickly...It puts an abnormal pull on joints and bones...It crowds the lungs, decreasing their breathing capacity."

Hatha Yoga’s system of standing poses pays rigorous attention to posture and simultaneously trains us to understand and correct our our own postural deficiencies. As runners, we should pay close attention to these lessons. By sharpening our awareness of our spine and rib cage and of our hip and shoulder girdles, we can understand how our posture is limiting the efficiency of our breathing, why we’re getting lower back pain, or why our necks feel kinked after a run.

Inflexibility is a Gift

Most runners I meet tell me, "Oh, I’m too stiff to do yoga. I could never do any of that stuff." But yoga isn’t about being able to scratch your ear with your big toe. It’s about understanding how your body works, how certain muscles work against others, and how to selectively engage and release muscles with a fine resolution of control.

Furthermore, it’s arguable that inflexible people have an advantage in yoga. Let’s say a runner has shortened hamstrings and glutes. The muscles that oppose that tightness, the quads, sartorius and gluteus minimus, will have to work that much harder to perform the femoral flexion that many of the yogic postures require. These muscles will, as a result, rapidly become stronger and much more responsive to the nervous system. Due directly to his inflexibilities, the inflexible yoga practitioner quickly improves strength and muscular awareness.

Be Like Zola

The majority of painful conditions in the ankles, knees and hips can be traced to imbalanced and lazy feet. Yoga teaches that the foot should be engaged and considered as a weight-bearing tripod. The center of the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the pinky toe are the three points and weight should be distributed evenly between them. The arches should be lifted and the toes relaxed. Dangerous pronation and supination of the ankles can easily be correlated to slackened arches and imbalances in weight distribution across the foot. A very simple one-footed balancing pose, vrksasana, develops this awareness and is extremely helpful in eliminating ankle roll injuries.

Running shoes wear out according to our patterns of weight-bearing. That’s why physical therapists always ask you to bring your running shoes to a session. They simply reflect our misalignments right back at us. Yoga is practiced barefoot in order to escape from the crooked confinement of our shoes, which helps us to refine our perceptivity of our feet.

This notion is supported by some in the running community. In explaining why she runs barefoot, Olympic distance runner Zola Budd wrote in her autobiography, "I felt more in touch with what was happening—I could actually feel the track." This awareness is what strengthens the foot and brings it into the shock absorbing equation of running, even when it is encased in a supportive shoe. Jeffrey Ferris, a barefoot runner from New England, says, "Using the balls of the feet is essential. It allows both the ankle and the arch of the foot to become shock absorbers in addition to the knee and the spine. Running barefoot is a feeling of free movement and of healthy physical contact with the earth."

Hatha Yoga trains and strengthens the feet, making them more intelligent, protecting the ankles, knees, hips and spine.

The Zone

Runners are uniquely well-equipped for yoga practice. The stoicism that a runner displays through the adversity of distance training is akin to the impassiveness that a yoga practitioner displays in a demanding posture. Texas ultra-runner Rick Lewis, who has been practicing yoga for several years now, says, "Distance running requires a mental stillness that is often compromised by the inner chatterbox. Yoga provides a fertile ground for learning these mental skills."

When successful runners are presented with a hardship during a run, perhaps a cramp or fatigue, they calmly deal with it, altering their breath, gait or pace. Likewise, in a challenging pose, a yogi goes inside, monitoring breath, releasing unnecessary muscular energy, and surrendering to the situation. "A muscle cramp is no longer cause for panic," Lewis says. "From my yoga practice I know that the cramp is a symptom of imbalance, so I calmly make the necessary slight adjustments."

The mental approach is similar, and you know how much of running is in the mind. It’s the same with yoga.

The Guru

Although there are plenty of excellent yoga books and videos out on the market, there can be no argument: yoga is an ancient oral tradition based on the relationship between teacher and student. Yoga by video is like painting by numbers. You can get a nice picture out of it, but it ain’t art. "I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of one-on-one instruction from a yoga teacher," says Lewis. "You get simple but crucial adjustments to your body position that completely change the experience of the posture."

Find a certified Iyengar teacher near you at http://www.iyengaryoga.com. A good introductory video is Rodney Yees new Yoga Conditioning for Athletes, and a good illustrated book is Yoga: The Iyengar Way.

David Ansel is a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Austin, TX.

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