How Kathy Bates Taught Me All I Need To Know About Enhancing Ankle Mobility.
By Mike Dennison
Whenever I think of ankles, I think of Misery. It was 1990, and the movie based on Stephen King’s novel Misery had just been released. It starred James Caan as an acclaimed novelist and Kathy Bates as a nurse who cares for him after he is seriously injured in a car crash near her isolated, snowbound house.
As the bedridden Caan recuperates in her house, he (along with the audience) begins to realize that Bates is kind of . . . um . . . off. Well, not just kind of off, very off. Despite the fact that Bates’s nurse character is a huge fan of Caan’s writer character, she takes issue with the plot line in his new novel, and, well, at that point things pretty much go south for Caan. Sensing that something is amiss with Bates, he uses her absence from the house to leave his sick bed and roam the house in a wheelchair, plotting an escape. Oops, bad move. Bates returns, cottons on to his unauthorized wandering, and decides a preventative measure is warranted to ensure this behavior is not repeated. So she does what any demented caregiver would do: with Caan now tied to the bed, she grabs a sledgehammer and breaks his ankles. Yes, both ankles . . . with a sledgehammer. Need I emphasize that these are not light taps she administers, but a full wind-up? I think you get the picture.
There’s little doubt that in the annals of movie sadism Bates’s “hobbling” of Caan ranks near the top of any list of non-gratuitous, ghastly acts. As to the audience’s reaction, 23 years has done little to diminish the freshness of my memory of that moment. The collective gasp, muffled screams, and “oh my Gods” still ring clearly today.
But as macabre a story as Misery was, I like to think of Nurse Bates less as a destroying angel and more as a symbol of what awaits runners if they lose the range of motion (ROM) in their ankles. The demon image of Bates looming over us haunts our sleep like a perpetual nightmare. There she stands, smiling grotesquely, sledgehammer slung over her shoulder, preparing to dispense her own brand of therapy as you lie tied to your bed, mouth open but unable to scream.
When we consider the ankle joint, we see that an important requirement for its proper functioning is a high degree of mobility in the sagittal (forward and back) plane. This mobility is demonstrated by the ability to dorsi-flex (bring the top of the foot, or dorsum, closer to the shin bone, or tibia) and plantar-flex (point the foot and toes) the foot. With the bare foot flat on the floor and the heel grounded, we should be able to move the knee forward over the toes, reducing the 90-degree angle between the tibia and foot by at least 20 degrees. But runners with poor ankle mobility can barely dorsi-flex their foot/ankle, almost as if the shinbone and top of the foot are frozen into a right angle.
Unless it’s the ankle itself that’s been injured, it’s usually starved for attention. Unlike the knee, with its diva-like needs and neuroses, and the depressive foot, with its fallen arches and calloused skin, the ankle tends to linger in obscurity, unloved and easily overlooked as we rush our attention back and forth between the knee and the foot. Part of the problem is that most runners are clueless as to the true source of their pain and dysfunction. This is because pain can be a terrible liar, and has a way of manifesting where the real problem isn’t. The compensatory tricks the body employs to move around the ankle’s limited mobility are devilishly effective, but the results of that compensation are pernicious.
This is because the body plays a kind of zero-sum game, and at some point the ankle will reclaim its lost range of motion from elsewhere in the body. When we walk or run with tight ankles the body searches for the lost mobility by initiating a series of compensatory actions, and this is where the problems really begin. What’s so perplexing is that runners won’t necessarily feel this limited mobility. Instead, they’ll experience the effects of the compensations: collapsed arches, bunions or hyper-pronation in the feet, anterior knee pain, various problems in the hips, or low back pain.
There are several ways mobility in the ankle joint can be compromised. The first is as a result of injury. If the ankle has been sprained or broken, scar tissue or impingements can impair its ability to move freely, reducing range of motion.
Ankle mobility can also be reduced if the tissue in the back of the lower leg is tight. The structures that can become very short and tight, thereby reducing mobility, include the Achilles tendon, gastrocnemius (calf), soleus, and posterior tibialis.
Finally, choice of footwear can affect the ankle’s ROM. Our favorite sport (or sports) may require footwear that allows the ankle little or no movement. Downhill ski boots, hockey skates, and high-top basketball sneakers are examples of footwear that can limit ankle mobility. Also, habitually wearing shoes with high or stacked heels will shorten the tissue in the back of the lower leg, limiting dorsi-flexion.
That I stress the importance of ankle mobility in my runner’s yoga classes and workshops shouldn’t be a surprise. In class, people with tight ankles are easy to spot. As they sit in any posture that requires substantial plantar flexion of the foot (Virasana, for example: see photo), they’re the ones who have difficulty keeping their ankles and feet straight. One of the body’s tricks is that it will try to move around areas of stiffness, so if the ankles are tight they will crescent outwards to avoid the restriction and find room to move. When I see “bowed” ankles, I reposition them to be sure they’re straight. This way they’re moving into the stiffness and not around it.
Weird looking dude in Supported Virasana (Hero) pose, with feet and ankles plantar-flexed
Outside of yoga class, another tight ankle “tell” is a bouncy stride. As we run, the main direction of movement should be forward, with slight up and down motion. But the runner with ankle mobility issues avoids the restriction by lifting their heel of the ground prematurely at the end of the stance phase. This action sends them “up” instead of forward, wasting substantial energy and shifting the mobility emphasis from the ankle to the forefoot. The calves and other posterior structures of the lower leg are now being used to push them through the gait cycle. Runners with this type of gait pattern are referred to as “quad dominant”, because rather than using the powerful gluteus maximus (buttock) muscles, they extend through the quads and calves.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from Misery, it’s to keep your ankles mobile and avoid the problems that poor ROM creates. For added incentive, rent the movie. Think of it as Nurse Bates making a house call.
If you laughed yourself sick when you read this, then you’ll get sick again if you miss my intensives in Halifax and Vancouver. Check the schedule and sign up soon!
The Big Hurt:
Why Running is Painful and
What You Can Do About It.
By Mike Dennison
This cautionary tale, dear reader, is shocking but true. I ask only that you gather your loved ones and hold them close as you read my anguished words. And after, as you dab at wet eyes, you will nod with agreement that it would be impossible for all but the most depraved mind to fabricate such a frightful event. This sad case involves one dearer to me than any other, a person of such character and standing that . . . ah, what is the use of this charade, for I am the hapless victim. For me to claim that this episode was an impulsive escapade springing from youthful folly would be nothing but a bald lie. Because, as you well know, I am firmly ensconced in mid-life, even though I regularly feign an adolescent energy by singing along with Lady Gaga and driving like Justin Bieber.
But enough of this; on to my story . . .
One glorious summer day a few years back, I was headed to Vancouver’s North Shore to run the trails and slopes around Grouse Mountain, Mecca for local trail runners. I avoided the mob of Lulufied awesomeness on the Grouse Grind and instead headed east along the Baden-Powell trail, eventually running up the rather cruel “Cut” ski slope to the top of the mountain. But once there, I saw that hordes of tourists and “Grinders” had created a long wait for the gondola ride to the bottom of the mountain. I decided to run down.
So down and down I went, retracing my path up. Arriving back at the parking lot my legs were tired and sore, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before. The next morning, however, I awoke to something quite peculiar: as I rolled out of bed and took to my feet, my legs, painful and tender, nearly buckled as they tried to support me. Alarmed by this feebleness I returned to my bed, where a thousand bleak scenarios ricocheted around my mind. I was gripped by the kind of dread one feels when they realize their body is under attack by those ghastly, multi-word afflictions that, seemingly overnight, ambush the hale and hearty. In my mind’s eye a dark future beckoned, and all that was visible down life’s narrow and ever-shortening corridor was a wasteland of respirators, 24-hour care, and specialists who shake their heads grimly as they speak in whispers to everyone but you.
But after several minutes my rational mind elbowed its way back and the hysteria abated. It was then that I recalled the previous day’s misadventure and realized, blessedly, that my present condition was not going to be one of those things. What this was, in comparison, was really quite prosaic: it was my introduction, rather my re-introduction, to the world of eccentric muscle contractions and delayed onset muscle soreness, a painful world that all athletes, runners in particular, inhabit. I’ve been a visitor to this place many times in the past, as no doubt have you, but it’s always jarring to return and have our bodies remind us, in their own way, that none of us are exempt from the sometimes harsh rules of physiology and bio-mechanics.
We certainly don’t need to run down a mountain, throw a javelin, or fast-pitch a softball to discover eccentric contractions. They occur routinely in everyone, athlete or not. But because of the demands that athletes place on their bodies, eccentric contractions can be more frequent and intense, and their after-effects far more debilitating. So what are eccentric muscle contractions and what can be done, if anything, to lessen their after-effects?
Acting on orders from the nervous system, the body uses three types of skeletal muscle contraction to achieve its goals: isometric, concentric, eccentric. The concentric contraction, where the muscle shortens or contracts, is how we typically think our muscles work all the time, but this is not the case. Have a look . . .
Isometric: muscle does not change length as it fires
Concentric: muscle shortens as it fires
Eccentric: muscle lengthens as it fires
To wrap your minds around this it might be helpful to think of muscles functioning much like the gas pedal and brakes on a car. The concentric contraction (muscle shortens) is like stepping on the gas pedal; it creates force to move or accelerate the musculoskeletal system. The eccentric contraction (muscle lengthens) does the opposite: it acts as a brake to slow and stabilize the body and store elastic energy. Remember, the essence of an eccentric contraction is that the muscle lengthens as it fires. And, as Shakespeare wrote, there’s the rub . . . or in our case, the pain.
The problem is that the biomechanical process at the heart of an eccentric contraction is quite violent. Enormous negative, or oppositional, forces are applied to the working muscles to slow (or brake) them, causing them to pull apart with every stride. There is substantial evidence that eccentric contractions cause damage to the muscle, which is why they increase the risk of muscle and tendon injuries and inflammation, and cause pain for the athlete who hasn’t specifically prepared for them.
The “day after” pain we feel is called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. The symptoms of DOMS can range from muscle tenderness to intense, debilitating pain that peaks 24 to 48 hours after the exercise and usually subsides within 96 hours. DOMS is common after a race or when runners initiate new, unfamiliar types of training, or even when re-introducing specific training that our muscles have “forgotten.” This could include faster interval or speed training, long runs, and yes, even downhill running. All can be painful if done for the first time or for the first time in a while.
To add insult to injury, the pain from DOMS is also accompanied by an acute loss of strength that can continue for several days after the exercise, even outlasting the soreness from DOMS. This loss of strength is substantially greater than that found in other types of muscle contractions and takes longer to recuperate from.
A side note: For those who hope to run the Boston Marathon someday, prepare well. Boston’s insidious nature reveals itself in the first 4 miles, during which the course loses about 310 feet of elevation; by 16 miles, the course loses another 120 feet, for a total to that point of 430 feet. “So what’s wrong with that?” you may ask. Well, maybe nothing, or possibly a great deal. Because of the strength-sapping nature of eccentric contractions, runners whose legs are not “calloused” for downhill running can feel substantially weakened by the time they reach the Newton hills, beginning at about 16 miles, and the notorious Heartbreak Hill at roughly 20 miles. Their legs, feeling wobbly due to the substantial downhill running in the first half of the course, not to mention the exhaustion of running that far, can often feel exceedingly fatigued in the race’s later stages, much more than on a flatter course.
But fear not, a solution is at hand. Researchers have shown that “muscle damage need not be an obligatory response following high-force eccentric contractions” (LaStayo et al). In other words, if we prepare the body for eccentric work, we can do a great deal to substantially diminish or eliminate their nasty side effects. Even better, “inoculation” to eccentric contractions occurs rapidly.
The irony is that the original cause of the damage and pain is what we use to inoculate against further pain and suffering. This is no different than getting a flu shot, where a watered-down version of the virus itself is used to build an immunity to the specific strain of flu. We introduce the “new,” more specific eccentric work, whether it’s faster interval training, downhill running, or long runs, and build immunity by applying the eccentric stimulus progressively and repeatedly. The protective adaptation occurs quickly, with the effects being felt within 24 to 48 hours of the initial exposure to the damaging eccentric bout (Lindstedt et al).
What’s important to remember is that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been running or how much experience you have, if you’re new to a specific type of training, or you haven’t done that type of training in a while, progress slowly. If you’re training for a hilly trail race, don’t run down the side of a mountain the first time out.
Armed with this information, we can train with a better understanding of why running hurts, and what we need to do to reduce the effect eccentric contractions have on our body.
If you loved this article, you’ll also love my 3-day runner’s yoga certificate program to be held in Vancouver over the Remembrance Day weekend (November 9, 10 & 11) and in Halifax, N.S. on October 26 & 27. Tons of information and great yoga practices that will make you weep with gratitude.
Find Relief For Your Chronically Tight Hamstrings
By Mike Dennison
Ask a group of runners about their hamstrings and you’re likely to hear sad stories about chronically tight and painful muscles. No matter how much stretching runners do or how many hot yoga classes they attend, some never seem to get relief from the unrelenting tension that plagues their hamstrings and makes their running less than enjoyable. Is this story familiar to you?
What’s important to understand is that many factors affect the tension of the hamstrings, and of these running may be the least influential. There are two likely culprits when it comes to the creation of tight and painful “hams”: the position of the pelvis and dormant or weak Gluteus Maximus muscles.
First, a brief anatomy lesson: the hamstrings are three large, strong muscles that begin or “originate” on each side and at the very bottom of the pelvis. From there they run down the back of the thighs, then via tendons cross over the back of the knee and attach high up to the bones of the lower leg. They play a crucial role in stabilizing our knees and, of course, in running, where one of their jobs is to assist with hip extension. (This just means they help bring the hip and leg behind us as we run.)
Because the hamstrings originate primarily on the pelvis, the position of the pelvis plays a key role in determining the amount of “pull” that is exerted on the hamstrings. From its ideal “neutral” orientation, the pelvis can be moved into many different positions, acted on by dozens of soft tissue attachments. If the pelvis is in “anterior rotation” (tipped forward) then the leverage will cause the hamstrings (attached to the bottom of the pelvis) to be pulled more taut. Presto, you’ve got tight hamstrings.
But is it that simple? Well, yes and no. Now we have to figure out why the pelvis is tipped forward. The usual (but not only) reason is that the hip flexor muscles, especially those that originate on the anterior (front) of the pelvis, exert considerable influence on pelvic position. And because the hip flexors are usually very tight, they can create a strong forward pull. Voila, there’s your anterior tilt. So by stretching the hip flexors, you’ll reduce the grip they have on the front of the pelvis, and this, everything else being equal, will help return the pelvis to a neutral position. Got it? Well . . . maybe.
This nationally ranked U.S. marathoner displays a nasty anterior pelvic tilt
Let’s figure out why the hip flexors are tight to begin with, and from there we can determine if we really need to stretch, or if some other remedy is called for. Your hip flexors may be tight simply because of the activities of daily living, in particular too much sitting. If this is the case then they will respond well to stretching. But what if your hip flexors are like your hamstrings, chronically tight and seemingly immune to the effects of a regular stretching program? Then there’s a good chance that your core or low back is unstable, and in their search for stability the back and core recruit, and overload, the hip flexors. As a result they become overworked and, predictably, very tight.
If you’ve been stretching the hip flexors doggedly without the slightest improvement, stop, and do side and forearm planks instead. Stretching will do you no good until the core/spine is stabilized. If you find that hip flexor stretches actually offer relief, then continue with them.
The Gluteus Maximus
A second possible cause of your hamstring woes is the Gluteus Maximus, or buttock, muscles. A wide assortment of muscles play important roles in running, but the GM is preeminent among them. Quite simply, the “glute max” is the mother of running muscles, and if it’s not working properly it is far more likely that some malfunction will occur.
More anatomy: the bilateral GM muscles sit prominently on the posterior (back) of the pelvis. The GM muscles are the main muscles or “prime movers” when it comes to hip extension in running. When I said that one of the jobs of the hamstrings is to assist hip extension, what I meant specifically is that they’re assisting the GM.
The problems begin when the GM is either “dormant” or weak, and for many runners the GM is definitely in poor shape. If the GM is not functioning optimally, then the hamstrings (and the adductors as well: chronic groin strains anyone?) must take over the role vacated by the GM. This is a role the hamstrings were not designed for or intended to fulfill, and because of this added burden they become overworked and yes, you guessed it, very tight. This is precisely the same scenario we saw with the hip flexors, but now it’s the hamstrings that are being asked to pick up the slack for a deficit in strength or stability.
But why does the GM get weak or dormant to begin with? That’s a bit beyond the scope of this article, but briefly: the GM is a phasic muscle. This means, in part, that it can react to problems elsewhere by becoming weak and/or inhibited. Those problems can include reciprocal inhibition or injury to muscles or joints in the leg (the ankle in particular).
Poor GM development is something I see commonly in runners; more accurately I see flat bums and prominent hamstrings. If you’ll excuse my rude humor, this is ass backwards, a classic sign that the “hams” are doing too much of the work and the “glutes” too little or none at all. Effective remedies for lazy or weak glutes can include deep squats, supine bridges, lunges, and one-legged postures.
If you can restore the pelvis to its proper “neutral” position and activate and strengthen your Gluteus Maximus muscles, then you’ll have taken huge steps toward restoring your body’s functional motor pattern and proper biomechanical alignment. You’ll feel relief in the hamstrings (and likely other areas as well), and your running will feel fun again.
Did this article excite you beyond belief? If yes, then consider attending my runner’s yoga certificate course happening in November over the Remembrance Day long-weekend. There’ll be three days (15 hours) worth of lectures full of fantastic information and runner’s yoga practice for attendees. No experience is necessary in either running or yoga.
Mike’s article on Yoga for Runners for the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of IMPACT magazine.
And pick it up at your favourite newsstand, with Rick Hansen and Rick Mercer on the cover.
Or read it here in a nifty digital magazine format.
Photos by Jay Russell.
Running and Yoga:
Taking a New Look at Fitness
By Mike Dennison
How then should we define physical fitness? To help answer that question, let me tell you my story. During one period in my life I was a respectable runner, competing for my university’s track and cross-country teams, running marathons in decent times and finishing near the front in the annual race up the Grouse Grind. My body fat was really low, my VO2 max very high. I was pretty good in the gym as well, knocking off 15 pull-ups, 50 pushups or 200 sit-ups without a second thought. I wasn’t just fit, I was super-fit, or so I believed. Then one fateful day, ablaze with superiority, I found myself in a yoga class. I can’t remember exactly why I was there, but I’m sure it had to do with the fact that I was married at the time to the teacher. Otherwise I’m quite sure I would never have gone, convinced as I was that at the end of my days science would ask me to donate my body for deeper study, such a specimen was I. What little I knew about yoga consisted of photographs in a book from the 1960s that my mother owned. The black and white photos showed a woman in dark leotards contorting herself into impossible shapes, one leg was up here, the other down there, and God knows where her arms were. I didn’t get it even remotely. Could this person run 10 miles fast? Then what was the point?
Perhaps due to the brain’s ability to block traumatic events from conscious memory, my exact thoughts at the conclusion of the class are lost to history (or more likely stored – forever I hope – in a deep and dark corner of my mind). Nevertheless, something quite profound must have occurred, because I began to practice with the same dedication and effort that I had brought to my running. What started as a simple gesture of spousal support began a journey that forced me to examine what physical fitness is and why current definitions are somewhat lacking. Because it was there in that class, somewhere between the sun salutations at the start and the deep relaxation at the end, that I learned I wasn’t the fitness machine I thought I was. Stated simply: yoga kicked my ass. And it gradually dawned on me that there was a lot more to being fit than sculpted abs and fast 10Ks. This comeuppance forced me to confront a painful reality: if I was so damned fit why couldn’t I make some very simple shapes with my body without shaking and sweating as if possessed? Just what the hell was happening here? The simple answer is that my body was frozen from years of athletics. And my mind, well, that was a mess too – clouded, scattered, unfocused – and as dense and unyielding as my body. Yoga forced me to re-define my idea of both physical and mental fitness, and how the two are complementary necessities as a true measure of not just physical fitness, but health. It was the rude awakening in that yoga class that showed me I was, at best, only partially fit.
In her book Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout, Beryl Bender Birch writes that sports don’t get us in shape, sports get us out of shape. Too true! As runners, we have to face the fact that as much as we like to run, it is traumatic to the body. This is because running, like most sports, is a one-dimensional action that stresses the same muscles groups, tendons, ligaments, and bones in almost exactly the same way hundreds, if not thousands of times each time we run. And you can see the results of our sports lifestyle everywhere: athletes and ex-athletes who wear their athletic careers like suits of medieval armor. By the time most runners come to yoga the years of pounding are beginning to show. When you combine the wear and tear of everyday living with participation in sports the list of bodily ailments begins to creep up on us little by little. Intermittent pains here and there become nagging pains that become serious pains that become chronic pain that we become so used to we don’t even think of it as pain anymore. It just fades into the background music of our life, only hitting our full awareness when the barometer starts to fall. The smart ones understand, they do yoga (or something similar) and begin the process of preserving or restoring their bodies. One of the highest profile athletes to compete at last summer’s Olympics was American swimmer Dara Torres. To prepare her 40-year-old body to compete against other swimmers – some half her age – Torres worked with a small army of coaches, including two stretching experts. She eventually won a silver medal. The reason yoga is such an effective tool is because it is a multi-dimensional mind and body discipline that takes the physical body through every possible plane and range of motion, while at the same time asking the mind to be absolutely composed.
Certainly, an important reason for runners to practice yoga are the benefits that arise from training the body and mind, and of actively nurturing and developing mind and body interaction. Using this approach, the mind and body are seen as a single interactive unit, much like the Yin and Yang symbol that expresses a set of complimentary opposites, with the seed of one found in the body of it’s complementary opposite, rather than as separate components of the individual. So if we believe there exists a powerful interaction between the mind and body, and modern science has certainly proven this to be the case, then the welfare of one is inextricably linked to the welfare of the other. And we then have to believe that chronic and unrelenting tension and imbalance in the body’s musculature will not only lead to an impaired ability to perform optimally on an athletic level, but will also lead to a mind that is, at a minimum, unrelentingly tight and unbalanced. Yoga tells us that body is a creation of mind, so it follows that because the practice of yoga creates an open and spacious body, this will in turn develop spaciousness in the mind, and the practitioner will become literally become more open-minded. And as with any of the eastern practices such as Tai chi, Qi Gong or the martial arts, yoga is as much about training the mind as it is about training the body. Yoga was first practiced by sages to strengthen their bodies as a means to withstand the rigors of countless hours of meditation, and over the millennia it has continued to evolve, arriving finally at the modern incarnation we see practiced today in studios and health clubs.
Yoga teacher Richard Freeman says that yoga begins with listening, and when we listen we give space to our own bodies and minds. The problem, of course, is that we don’t listen, at least not to our bodies. Go into any fitness facility and watch people go through their routines, eyes glued to a TV or magazine, iPod blasting the tunes, completely distracted and out of touch. How could what your body has to say ever compete with Oprah or Madonna? With all that is known about fitness and health, the idea that the mind should be distracted, even entertained, while the body works-out – and that this separation seems to be encouraged – is quite astounding. After all, what is the point of going to the gym and working out, to watch TV and read magazines? What would happen if people arrived for a workout and there was no TV, no magazines, and no music? I am absolutely convinced – and this is without a shred of evidence to support my theory – that the blaring music, TV, iPods and magazines are doing nothing more than adding to our stress levels. We go to the gym to work out and achieve good health so we can cope with stress, instead we are met with more stress. The gym should be a temple to the cultivation of fitness and health, a place where both muscles and mindfulness are strengthened, but it has become just another extension of our vastly over-stimulated and stressful lives. The author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn summed it up perfectly, “It is amazing to me that we can be simultaneously completely preoccupied with the appearance of our own body, and at the same time completely out of touch with it as well.
If the health of any relationship depends on the quality of the communication, then the quality of that communication depends on our capacity to listen. Why is it such a radical idea for most people to simply sit still, watch the breath, quiet the mind, and listen to our body’s story? If we stop and listen to what our bodies have to tell us, even for five minutes, and truly develop an open and unquestioning awareness to what our body has to say, our approach to running, and by extension health and fitness, would be grounded in an attitude of balance and symmetry. Here’s an idea: instead of thinking of your body as, say, a conglomeration of parts each performing a separate function, think of your body as an ecosystem, and that it is as densely packed, as intricately layered, and as interdependent as any rainforest, swamp or desert. When you take that approach to the entity that is you, you can perhaps begin understand why yoga can be so beneficial to the body and how it attempts to radically rebalance both mind and body, while promoting the efficient communication and connection between them.
One off the many benefits of a regular yoga practice is that the mind can be taught to endure discomfort as a means to achieve what is known as equanimity, a state of calmness and non-reactivity while under duress. During practice, a conscious breath is cultivated as a means to warm the body, stimulate the nervous system, and provide an anchor for the wandering mind. Breathing that is short, choppy or ragged reflects an uncomfortable or wandering mind; breathing that is smooth, deep and focused tells us the mind is present, centered, and calm. So the breath becomes both a means to self-control and a measure of it. Breath cultivation in yoga is like a safety gauge, designed to measure the practitioner’s level of physical effort and the quality and overall presence of the mind. And by “quality of mind” I’m referring to a mind that is focused, clear and aware. The applications for this type of mind/body awareness training in athletics are obvious. Who wouldn’t want to be more relaxed and focused while competing in a marathon? What athlete wouldn’t want to achieve a deep, almost meditative, level of calm and focus before and during a competition?
This is not to say that an inevitable outcome of performing a particular yoga posture is discomfort. That is certainly not the case. But certain styles of yoga are undoubtedly more challenging than others, and these “athletic” styles do tend to attract people who love to push the limits of whatever physical endeavor they undertake. These yoga styles, which can be grouped very loosely under the heading of Power yoga (but which also includes the subtly intense Yin style of yoga), are quite dynamic and muscular, and can place the practitioner at certain points of the practice into postures with a high level of discomfort. If the instructor is competent, they will have thoroughly prepared the students both mentally and physically during the initial stages of the class, and the students will then carry this preparation into the execution of the postures. The instructor will impress upon the students the importance of mindfulness and will actively work to instill this quality in the students. And returning to Richard Freeman’s earlier comment, an attitude of listening to the ever-flowing river of sensations in the body is strongly encouraged. Without that attentive listening and mindfulness, the element that makes it a safe and true practice of yoga is lost.
Yoga is the antithesis of running, that’s why it’s so necessary – and so challenging – for people, because it represents everything that running isn’t. Running tears down and depletes the body, yoga rejuvenates and restores it; running activates and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system; running tightens, compresses and shortens the muscles and other soft tissue of the body, yoga opens and releases the body’s musculature, creating space, suppleness and resiliency; the running breath is fast and shallow, the breathing in yoga is slow, focused and deep; the mindset in running tends to be unfocused and shallow, the mindset in yoga is quiet, calm and meditative; finally, running weakens, yoga strengthens. If we’ve had a hectic, stressful day, we can find it challenging at the beginning of our yoga practice to break free from the “flight or fight’, sympathetic nervous system mindset that our bodies and minds operate in much of the time. Paradoxically, this usually happens at the end of a run as well, when people mistake the seeming sense of calm they feel with relaxation, when what they are actually feeling is a deep sense of fatigue. Through the effort expended running, people burn themselves into a state of exhaustion, so they return home after a run and collapse onto the couch. Their minds may seem focused, but all that’s happened is the run has burned off the body’s nervous energy, and people mistake this for being calm. This is certainly not relaxation, and the effect on the body and mind from running is very different from being very relaxed. The extreme physical exertion has stimulated the sympathetic nervous system, but by practicing yoga, sympathetic arousal is reduced or eliminated and the parasympathetic system is stimulated, leading to what is known as the relaxation response. This is the true feeling of calm and relaxation that we are looking for.
Finally, a few tips should you want to try yoga. First, don’t expect quick results. Like any physical exercise, progress in yoga is gradual and incremental, with peaks, valleys and plateaus along the way. But that being said even small improvements in flexibility can lead to huge changes in how the body feels and performs. Remember, the body has its own agenda quite separate from the needs of the ego, it doesn’t respond well to force or aggression. Second, find a good teacher. As with any profession there are good ones and there are hacks, so ask around. And what about the bewildering assortment of styles and names? I could fill ten pages by describing each style in detail, but the way to tell what’s right for you is by actually taking a class. I recommend you practice once per week at a minimum, two or three times is optimal. Don’t forget, yoga is a supplemental activity that will fit around your training, so it will depend on how much time and energy you have after your regular workouts.
Which returns us to the starting point, and I will repeat my initial question: how then should we define physical fitness? How about this: mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body. It makes perfect sense, don’t you think?