“Whatever you do in life, yoga shows you how to do it better.”
~ Chuck Miller ~
I love yoga. I have posted a little about it before, but I decided to devote an entire post to it and how beneficial it is for equestrians. I have been practicing yoga for a little over two years, and I have adopted a daily practice over the past few months. I am not an expert, or an instructor by any means, but it has made a huge difference in my riding and my life. Thus, I would like to encourage fellow riders to try it! Between alignment, breath control, balance, and flexibility, yoga is great for equestrians – or any athletes for that matter!
For the most part, I practice vinyasa flows and I dabble in Ashtanga. Vinyasa is a fairly vigorous practice in which you connect breath with asana (pose). Ashtanga is a more traditional practice. I use the video Ashtanga: Primary Series with Kino MacGregor. It is a ninety minute practice. And it is tough! I am a sweaty, tired mess by the end of it! Kino MacGregor has other videos and is really active on YouTube, as well. I also recommend her book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga. In Ashtanga, you practice the same asanas and transitions each time; while in Vinyasa, you can mix it up a bit. I like to mix it up. Also, after a run, or if I am short on time, I cannot manage a full hour and half of yoga. Even ten to fifteen minutes is effective! Typically, my practice is between thirty and ninety minutes – shorter after a longer run. It is typically vinyasa with Ashtanga asana incorporated into it. I practice at a fairly fast pace; however, on days I feel tired or sore I will slow down. Yoga is all about listening to you body, and sometimes it is necessary to adjust your practice based on how you feel. If you are new to yoga, I recommend experimenting with different styles. People often tell me that they have tried yoga and did not like it; usually they have only tried one or two classes. There is a practice for everyone! Just because you weren’t feeling one style, does not mean you will not fall in love with another! If you want a sweaty workout try Bikram, Ashtanga, or Vinyasa. If you want something gentler, try Yin or restorative practices. Like I said, I typically stick with faster paced practices that make you sweat! It’s a personal preference, but any type of practice is beneficial.
One of the biggest benefits I have received from yoga is body control. Unlike lifting weights, the strengthening asanas are not about power, but rather control. Balancing on one leg, or on the arms, takes a lot of strength; but also control to isolate specific parts of the body. You cannot rush into half moon or dancer by merely flex your muscles and expect to balance. You will fall. You must isolate the muscles you need to engage – and focus your gaze at a single spot (ahead, or at your fingertips, etc. depending on the pose). I think the same approach can be taken when riding and training. If you rush a horse at a jump while kicking and pulling, it will likely not be very pretty – or even dangerous. You must be able to feel what his or her body is doing. Is he or she off to the races, or moving at a snail’s pace? Is his or her body leaning one way or the other? You must then be able to isolate parts of your body in order to correct and adjust the horse. Horses feel every movement of our legs, and every shift of our seat. They also feel where we are looking. A couple of yoga teachers I have had often said, “where your eyes go, your body will follow.” In balancing asanas, looking around rather than focusing your gaze will make you fall. Likewise, if you do not focus your gaze while riding (straight ahead, at the jump, etc.), your body will shift and the horse will not know where the two of you are going, or what you expect of him or her. Having greater control of my body and gaze has enabled me to be far more effective in the saddle.
“Yoga is a powerful vehicle for change. As you build strength, you start to believe in your own potential.” Tiffany Cruikshank
Yoga has greatly improved my focus also. Holding arm balances, for example, takes a lot of mental focus to keep from falling. Focus in yoga requires relaxation as well. I often find in my yoga practice that I can do some of the more difficult asanas like side crow and handstands if I focus and breathe! I engage my body yet relax at the same time. That is exactly what we must do when riding! We must engage our bodies and tell the horse what to do, yet be calm and relaxed in our manner and mind.
Furthermore, I cannot even begin to describe the mental and emotional benefits of yoga! In the sport of equestrian, the rider’s emotional state can greatly affect how a horse responds. Horses are mind-readers. They can feel everything we feel, so being able to arrive in a place of calmness is essential. I don’t know about you, but I have always struggled with this! I am a very emotional person, prone to anxiety and greatly affected by stress. This has always hurt my riding. However, yoga has really helped me. Learning how to quiet my highly active mind while practicing yoga has given me tools to do the same when riding. It has helped me deal with nerves, fear, frustration, and so much more. It has enabled me to relax in the saddle, and enjoy the ride rather than obsess over every little thing – which in turn, has turned me into a far more effective rider.
For these reasons, and so many more I love yoga! Hopefully, you are inspired to get on a mat and fall in love with it as well. 🙂 Namaste.