Sports, Women, Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch
© by Beryl Bender Birch, Author of bestselling “Power Yoga” & “Beyond Power Yoga”.
It is incredibly interesting to follow the evolution of the relationship between yoga and women over the past 20 to 30 years. Western women were apparently first drawn to yoga because it was gentle exercise for the mind, body and spirit. Women continue to be drawn to yoga and are still, at the turn of the millennium, the primary yoga teachers and practitioners of yoga in the West. But now it seems that women are drawn to yoga for its strength and power. And this exactly corresponds to the change in women and women’s sports that has taken place.
For example, as recently as the early 90’s, women were still assumed, by both men and women, to be “naturally” more flexible than men. For the most part, that was because women didn’t participate in sports during childhood to the same degree as men and, as adults, didn’t “train” at sports in the same way men did. As that is changing, the “natural” flexibility of women is changing. Women are tighter than they used to be. Not only are they tighter as they have become more involved in sports and fitness, they also have become more tense (translate “tight”). As women have gone from the role of passive onlooker to active participant in the world of sports, politics, business, education, health care and so forth, women have been subject to greater tension. On all levels, women, like men, have developed a greater need for a strong antidote to the constricting stresses of life.
This jump into a pro-active role in life and harder training in sport creates tightness. Whether you are a man or a woman, training makes you tight. Now, we know that women who train as hard as men, for the most part, will become just as tight. This creates a new problem in women’s sports. It used to be that the only injuries in women’s sports were those that came from being hit in the head by a field hockey stick or from falling down playing softball. Now injuries are a main concern of both professional and recreational women athletes.
To quote Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch, a book written in a down-to-earth style for mainstream Americans and the traditional athletic community about the astanga yoga system of Pattabhi Jois, “Sports don’t really get us in shape. In fact, sports get us out of shape. Sports develop tight muscles and uneven use of muscle groups, or the uneven use of one side of the body. Running, for instance, is great for the cardiovascular system. But it dramatically tightens the muscles at the back of the legs and does virtually nothing for the rest of the body. This intense shortening or disproportionate strengthening results in muscular and structural imbalance.”
If training continues without alternative work to open the tightness and realign the imbalance, injury is inevitable. Stopping training isn’t the solution because injury or imbalance that has resulted from or been aggravated by a particular sport can’t be fixed by simply discontinuing the training at that sport or exercise. Yes, rest may give the torn connective tissue or muscle tissue a chance to heal, but it doesn’t eliminate the source of the problem. Once training starts again, the same limited range of motion or biomechanical imbalance will cause the same injury over and over again.
If only flexibility and balance could be regained by just not training for a few weeks. The muscles could simply “remember” their original limber state and go back to the way they were. But it doesn’t work that way. We could quit training for 20 years and, of course, we would have lost our fitness, but we would still be as tight as the day we quit training. Tight muscles simply do not get longer by themselves. The alternative work to open the tightness and balance misalignment is yoga practice! The physical discipline of yoga, especially the combined systems of Jois, Iyengar, and Desikachar, has proven to be a uniquely effective method for restoring range of motion to tight muscles and therapeutically realigning the body.
Yoga works in a way that no other system of “stretching” or “specific muscle” strengthening can equal. With the emphasis on correct biomechanical alignment, strength within a posture in the form of static muscular contractions, and specific breathing techniques for heat and energy, this intense and physically challenging methodology, particularly that of Jois and Iyengar, appeals to the modern athletes because of its multi-faceted approach.
Yoga can be practiced anywhere in any weather, without a trainer, special equipment, or health club membership. One workout develops strength, flexibility, range of motion, concentration, cardiovascular health, and reduces stress, tension, and tightness. The most outstanding benefit of adding yoga to a training program, in addition to preventing and/or rehabilitating injury, is the effect it has on performance. It enables an athlete to train harder and at a higher level because range of motion is greater and the fear of injury has lessened. The practice also develops sinewy strength, as opposed to bulky strength, and while that might not be an advantage for all athletes, it certainly is a plus for endurance athletes.
While all these physical benefits are truly remarkable, they somewhat pale by comparison to the mental benefits of a serious yoga practice. Yoga, after all, as defined above, is about learning to pay attention. As athletes seek higher levels of excellence in sport, the part played by mind in training and competition, increases exponentially. The ability to direct energy, concentrate on the present moment, and shut out noise and distraction becomes an essential skill.
In astanga yoga, developing proficiency in concentration, focus, and breath control is part of the asana practice. Although asana refers only to the third limb of the astanga path, the other limbs come into play as the practitioner trains the mind to focus on the postures and the breath. The fourth limb of pranyama, or breath (energy) control, the fifth limb of pratyahara, or “withdrawal of the senses”, the sixth of dharana, or concentration, and the seventh limb of dhyana, or meditation are continuously interwoven into the practice. And that is why astanga yoga is unique and runners, cyclists, hikers, skaters, dancers, skiers, climbers, swimmers, tennis and golf players, baseball, basketball, and football players and so forth, men as well as women, can all be found in today’s yoga classes.
Often yoga seems extremely difficult to beginners, especially tight athletes who are very “fit”, at their own sport. It is hard to get “into” something that is so downright difficult and discouraging. These people will eventually find, however, if they stay with it, that it will get easier. On the other hand, to some people when starting, yoga seems relatively easy. These people actually have a tougher time of it, because for them, it’s “batten down the hatches.” Things will become a lot harder. The secret to success in yoga lies in three things: practice, practice and more practice. Practice with earnestness. Practice without a break. And practice for a long time. Transformation will come. There is no short cut.
If there were, someone would have figured it out already. No one can understand what it is going to be like to do yoga. There is only one way to know, and that is to have the experience of doing yoga, and that only comes from one’s own practice. And with our own practice comes the understanding of what people mean when they say why they do yoga. “It sets me up for the day.” “It smooths out life’s rough edges.” “It makes my day go better.” “Everything else seems to flow better after practice.” “It keeps me healthy.” “My back pain and stiffness are gone.” “I can breathe better.” “It gives me a sense of accomplishment that nothing else ever has.” “It quiets my mind.” “I feel better about myself and the rest of the world.” “I’m a better person because of it.”
Yoga is a discipline, a path for physical, mental, and spiritual growth. While a person may come to yoga seeking a solution to tightness and tension, she might eventually find that yoga becomes truly a “practice” unto itself. Not something done for some other reason, like done “for” flexibility in order to run a marathon, or done “for” range of motion so as to climb better, or done “for” steadiness of mind in order to be a better surfer or stockbroker. No. Practiced as simply yoga for yoga.
© by Beryl Bender Birch, Author of bestselling “Power Yoga” & “Beyond Power Yoga”.