The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Mar 2012

The Shape of Your Life: Month Three

RUNNING BUILDS endurance. It also transforms your hamstrings into inflexible steel rods. Just ask any seasoned marathoner to lie on his back and lift a straight leg 90 degrees to the sky. Fat chance. And it's not just the road warriors who've been literally bent out of shape. Mountain biking puts a padlock on your hip flexors, weight lifting bows your shoulders forward, and over time, too much climbing will tighten your forearms like over-torqued piano wires.

"People think that training gets you in shape. Training gets you out of shape," says Beryl Bender Birch, an East Hampton, N.Y.-based yoga instructor and author of two books on Ashtanga—aka power yoga. "Because their range of motion is so shut down, a lot of weight lifters can't access the strength they've spent so much time developing. Other athletes are in perfect cardiovascular shape for their chosen sport but they may be nanoseconds away from exploding somewhere."

Birch believes you have to be soft to be hard, flexible to be strong. It's a mantra she settled on several years ago after teaching a class to the U.S. Nordic Ski Team and discovering that, even after their first, easy yoga session, the best endurance athletes in the world were so sore in the shoulders, back, and quads that they had to call in sick the next day.

Nordic skiers aren't the only ones who've found flexibility enlightenment: 18 million Americans—from hippie chicks to NFL linemen—now practice yoga, and three-quarters of all U.S. health clubs offer classes. Still, many of the elite competitors Birch works with take a little convincing. "Most athletes worry that if they start undoing the tightness they will lose performance," she says. "In fact, it's the opposite. Becoming more flexible enables you to push the envelope further."

Birch's counsel is especially applicable to those of you who have been diligently following Outside's five-month Shape of Your Life fitness plan. By now, strength training combined with two months of pounding the trail have increased your endurance, but likely rendered you as flexible as a certain flat-headed monster with bolts sticking out of his neck. In this, the third month of the program, you'll counteract this effect by learning the easy-to-incorporate set of Ashtanga yoga sequences pictured on these pages. Combining classic stretching poses with deliberate breathing techniques, Ashtanga, a 2,000-year-old Indian tradition, increases flexibility and builds eccentric strength—the kind you need to decelerate while, say, chugging down a trail. You'll also benefit from performing multiple joint movements (like the sun salutation, see next page) through all three planes of motion—front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational—which will help fortify your core.

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Lung Power

"ASHTANGA is the single best thing you can do for flexibility, breathing, and balance," says big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, our fitness consultant for the Shape of Your Life program. Hamilton recently took up Ashtanga in an effort to boost his all-around athleticism, and he's already seen improvements in his flexibility and his ability to repeatedly extend into tougher poses on the board—and pull back into position without wiping out. "The biggest thing it has done is give me more positions I can be powerful in," he says.

But athletic perks aren't the only reason to embrace the world's oldest fitness practice. The controlled, rhythmic breathing central to Ashtanga benefits your life in ways that extend far beyond your favorite outdoor sports. Two-part yoga breathing involves taking a deep inhale through your nose that fills your rib cage, and then exhaling through the back of your throat—slightly constricted—and out your nose with an audible sigh. By constraining and pressurizing your airflow, you generate heat internally, allowing you to reach deeper into difficult poses. Studies show that yogic breathing also slows the heart rate, decreases tension and blood pressure, and even increases V02 max, the standard gauge of your cardiovascular efficiency. For Hamilton, the breath work—and the accompanying mental clarity—is a great part of power yoga. "There's a certain calmness you get by dealing with pain and pushing through the wall," he says. "You become more comfortable in situations that would be really taxing."

Feel-good stress relief aside, don't be lulled into equating Ashtanga with a retirement-home stretching class; just learning the practice will entail a holistic ass-whupping. Men, notoriously lazy when it comes to doing anything about tight muscles, face a steeper learning curve than women, says Birch, because their greater muscle mass initially makes bending more of a struggle. The best way to confront that disadvantage is to join a class with a knowledgeable instructor—and to check your ego at the beaded door. Sit out the moves when you get winded; exhaustion will lead to bad form, and worse, injury. When asked, be honest about any past injuries; each yoga pose has a variation to minimize strain on problem areas. Most important, resist the urge to compete with the human pretzel next to you—this is Zen land, and no one is competing. And don't stress if you can't quite get into the chanting. The power-yoga drills you're learning can easily be done at home as a post-workout cooldown.

Barrier: Stretching feels downright tortuous.
Breakthrough: Remember to breathe.
Beginner yogis are often so tight that, when contorted into tough positions, they forget to breathe. The better you get at two-part Ashtanga breathing, the easier it will be to relax and feel comfortable in each pose. "Initially you will have to give attention to it," says Baron Baptiste, yoga instructor and author of Journey Into Power. "But eventually you rewire yourself so it becomes subconscious." The enhanced focus the technique develops also applies to sports. "I've worked with people preparing to do major climbs," says Baptiste. "When they go back to climbing, they catch themselves in the same breath-flow pattern. It anchors you to what you're doing."

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Strike a Pose

For this month's Shape-of-Your-Life regimen, you'll incorporate power yoga into your Monday through Friday workout schedule with the poses illustrated in the sidebar. We've provided instructions for each pose, but to get started on the right foot, we recommend that you sign up for one 60- to 90-minute introductory yoga class per week for the first month. You can likely find a decent class at your local gym or health club, but chances are you'll discover the expert teachers at dedicated yoga studios (ask around, and check the Yellow Pages or the Internet). Consulting an experienced instructor isn't mandatory, but he or she will ensure that your form is correct and provide you with alternative poses if you have lower back injuries or other problem areas.

Done correctly, our 20- to 30-minute Ashtanga series will work as a flexibility-enhancing cooldown to your continuing heart-rate endurance work three days per week. Meanwhile, to allow your body the periodized break it needs to learn to stretch, your functional-strength training is slightly curtailed this month—a strategy that will also help to get you rested for month four's speed and power plan. Which is the best reason to start yoga now: You'll build maximum flexibility in the ligaments and tendons, giving your muscles more room to perform. "It's like your body is your tennis racket," says Hamilton, "and you're giving it a bigger sweet spot."

WARRIOR [5-8 Breaths]
Start standing and inhale while stepping your left leg into a forward lunge with your left knee directly over your ankle. Exhale, keep your back heel on the floor, rotate your hips forward, try to get your left quadricep parallel to the ground, and raise your arms to the sky.

TRIANGLE POSE [5-8 Breaths]
While standing, place your right leg in front of you, keeping both legs straight and your back foot turned out 30 degrees. Inhale, raise both arms straight to the sides; exhale and bend down so your right arm rests on your right shin. Lift your left arm to the sky and turn your head to focus on your left palm.

TREE POSE [5-8 Breaths]
Standing with your feet together, inhale, use your hand to lift your left leg up, and exhale, placing the sole of your left foot on the inside of the right thigh above the knee. Inhale, lift your arms above you, and turn your left knee outward to open your hip. Too hard? Try starting with your left foot on your right calf.

BOAT POSE [5-8 Breaths]
Sitting with your legs bent in front of you and your back straight, exhale as you lean your weight back, and lift your legs out straight at a 45-degree angle to the floor. If you're unable to straighten your legs, keep your knees bent, and grasp your legs just above your knees.

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