Why Yoga Deserves a Place in Your
Training Regimen by David Ansel
Haven't you heard? Didnt you see it on Oprah? Didnt 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 Yogas 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 Iyengars 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.
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 werent 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
Treating the Cause
us take a proactive approach to our health, where problems are addressed before
they get ugly. Lets take knee tendinitis. The symptom is pain. The
accepted treatment is a counter-force strap which only suppresses the
painit 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
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 havent even manifested yet.
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."
Yogas 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 were getting lower back pain, or why our necks feel kinked
after a run.
Inflexibility is a Gift
I meet tell me, "Oh, Im too stiff to do yoga. I could never do any of
that stuff." But yoga isnt about being able to scratch your ear with your
big toe. Its 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.
its arguable that inflexible people have an advantage in yoga. Lets
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
Be Like Zola
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.
shoes wear out according to our patterns of weight-bearing. Thats 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.
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 happeningI 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
trains and strengthens the feet, making them more intelligent, protecting the
ankles, knees, hips and spine.
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
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
approach is similar, and you know how much of running is in the mind. Its
the same with yoga.
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 aint 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."
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.
Ansel is a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Austin, TX.