So, for almost 12 years I only practiced yoga for exercise. I do live an active life, and have mostly had jobs that require an amount of labor, so yoga has not been the only thing to keep me moving. However, when faced with the idea of lifting weights, or adding in a regular "cardio" session, I always turned it down. After all, "yoga is all I need" or so I thought. Lifting body weight, and doing vinyasa flow (including Ashtanga Primary Series) seemed to cover those bases, 3-4 yoga classes per week gave me plenty of activity to increase and maintain flexibility, as well as maintain a healthy body. But I did tend to have about a 10 pound weight swing every 2 years or so, and each year, it seemed like it was becoming more and more challenging to 'right the ship'. So on my 39th birthday, I thought it was time to do something different, and try something new. What would it be like to add in some weight and/or resistance training on a regular basis? Would I lose flexibility? Would my binds become less available because of increased muscle mass? Wasn't yoga "enough"? It was time to try and see. After all, one of the reasons us yoga teachers want others to practice is to increase performance in other physical activities! As a yoga teacher, I would surely benefit by having some personal evidence to back this up.
As I approached this endeavor, the first thing that I thought of was to use what yoga has taught me in regards to physical fitness, and what I know about creating a new habit was to simply create space for the habit first, and then worry about exactly what you are filling the space with later. I also knew that one of the reasons why I have kept up with yoga for 12+ years now is because I've never stopped enjoying myself, so it had to stay fun.
I chose a simple exercise that allowed me total freedom, and I challenged myself to do it every day for 30 days: Push-ups. I did as many as I could each day (with no expectations or attachments) with the idea that I would over the 30 days likely increase the total number to an unspecified amount. I was totally successful. Each day upon rising I did as many push-ups as I could with a 5 second rest in the middle. Started out with 15-20 each day, then worked up to 30, then 40, then maxed out around 55 each day with no break. I only did as many as I could without "pushing" too hard because the bar I set for myself was fairly low, and the idea of 'finding my edge' rather than barreling past it was another thing that yoga had taught me a long time ago. Each day I walked away feeling accomplished, and not overwhelmed. I wanted to do more push-ups the next day.
At the end of 30 days, I did not want to stop. I also felt like I wanted to expand what I was doing. I had seen some fairly substantial gains in strength and size of my shoulders (something I had always kind of fantasized about), so I figured I would start to add some other resistance in the form of free weights. Again, I started small. 10 lb. dumbbells, bicep curls, squats, and lunges. just a few of each at first to see how it felt, then decided to do 'just enough' so that I felt like I had exerted myself, but that I wasn't tired or feeling a 'dreading' at the end of the workout. Slowly, adding more and more repetition, and eventually sets, each day, and building in some 'rest' days I really felt as if I was on my way. All of the exercises seemed easy, and were actually fun. Balance was never an issue, and proper form seemed like second nature. Yoga had taught me these things well.
Weeks continued to pass, more and more sets of movements added on, eventually, it morphed into a workout that took me down the street to the football field and track where I added in a morning bike ride, followed by an athletic version of sun salutations "B" underneath the goal post where I added in a bonus move of pull-ups in between each visit to mountain pose. Upon getting back home, a 10-20 breath headstand would finish off the morning's workout. Still, each day I asked myself if I wanted to do it once I got up, and the answer was always 'yes', and when I was done, I would ask if I felt too worn out to go on with my day, and that answer was 'no'. This was the magic of 'honoring my body' in the face of a workout that did not look that much like yoga, and more like CrossFit.
It is important to note that this daily routine did not take the place of my regular yoga practice, rather it supported it. Some days were just a work out day, others included either taking or teaching a yoga class. It all seemed perfectly spaced out. I truly never dreaded any of it. I actually looked forward to the next opportunity. All the while I was getting stronger, leaner, and- to my surprise- more flexible. As the weather began to cool off, I thought about switching things up, and the indoor swimming pool next to the football field seemed like and interesting choice. This would turn out to be the best choice I could have made, although I had no idea at the time. My experience with swimming was limited to recreation. I knew some basic strokes, but that was it. I was nervous the first time I jumped in. What if I couldn't even make it across the 50m pool? What I discovered pretty quickly was astonishing. I didn't realize until I had been swimming for a couple of weeks that I had a particularly strong, full freestyle stroke compared to other swimmers. I realized that it was very easy for me to keep my hips high in the water. My speed increased quickly with each passing week. There was a learning curve, however, with the breathing. Yoga had always taught me slow, deep, even breathing. This does not work in a swimming pool! I realized that I could look at the required breathing for swimming as pranayama (breath exercise), and it became easier and easier with each swim. It was not long before I could not wait to get back in the pool, and then it became a daily workout. Monday - Friday 6am - 7am.
This morning everything seemed to come full circle. During a 'restorative' yoga practice, I decided to take a headstand, and it was incredibly powerful. I have to say that for the first time ever in my yoga practice, I felt as if there was no pressure in my neck or on the top of my head for a full 20 breaths. I felt like I could actually stay there forever... although I came out after the 20 breaths. I was still in 'restorative' mode, and did't want to push it. It's totally the swimming! From increased strength in my shoulders to deeper core activation, I am certain that not only has yoga helped prepare me for swimming, but my swimming has now begun to improve my yoga practice.
I am so incredibly grateful for the past 9 months. Now I'm not sure why I always would turn down opportunities to add in new and different exercises to my yoga practice. But that doesn't matter. What does matter is that presently, I'm doing more and feeling the effects. I feel as if I'm in the best shape of my life. The swim coach at the pool has asked me to join the adult swim league, and a couple of my new buddies are egging me on to do a triathlon! Nothing seems off the table at this point, but what I do know is that I'm on a LONG-TERM PLAN, and it may be a few years before I do either of those activities, but what yoga has helped me do is INTEGRATE what I am currently doing into my life, and not just be something that I dread doing, but force myself to do because it's "good for me". Not only is the physical benefit of yoga a wonderful compliment to other exercise, but more so is the mental and spiritual aspect of maintaining center and staying with what works TODAY.
If I can get these sort of results, then I am 100% positive that athletes that add yoga to their routines will see similar results. For the athletes, though, there is the added benefit that they will have available to them: the mental and spiritual aspects of yoga that tend to blossom over time if one chooses to acknowledge them. I have no doubt that yoga is indeed as powerful as the sages say.
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How to find contentment with your past and future by doing your best today. Doing your best.