Outdoor Fitness Yoga

Breathe. Feel. Trust. Giddy Up.

June 29, 2009

There are many similarities between practicing yoga and riding a horse, which is how Cowgirl Yoga, a merging of horses and yoga, came about. Despite the similarities, there is one very, very big difference between yoga and riding: when you practice yoga you are on your mat, an inanimate object; when you ride a horse, you are on a living being that possesses its own feelings, intuition and instinct. Most of the time you can be pretty sure your mat is not going to fly out from under you — this doesn’t necessarily hold true for the horse. You are the only player on your yoga mat; riding a horse requires the creation of a synergy between two beings, an interactive partnership. Yoga encourages being in the present moment; riding demands it. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the components of both practices that we can take off the mat and out of the saddle into our daily life, the elements that teach us the most about living in the present moment at its fullest expression.

Cowgirl Yoga

BREATHE

The breath is often the first thing to go when we are challenged (i.e. a tough yoga pose or feeling scared in the saddle). We lose our awareness of it, it becomes light and shallow and doesn’t penetrate the body much. We might even get lightheaded as a result. In Cowgirl Yoga, we’ve got a checklist of yoga moves to do the minute your butt hits the saddle to help put you in the right frame of mind (and body) for riding. Step 1, before anything else happens: cultivate breath awareness. Don’t just get on the horse and go; take a few moments to center yourself by closing your eyes, connecting to your breath, and allowing yourself to relax. Your horse will too. When I teach yoga, I start every class with a few minutes of centering quietly to establish the breath and separate this time from the rest of the day. I do the same on horseback.

A quote from a lovely book called She Flies Without Wings – How Horses Touch a Woman’s Soul evokes the simple pleasure of breathing on horseback:

We can begin with the breathing. When we pause to draw air deeply into the lungs, we lift the diaphragm, open the ribs, and rush oxygen to the spine, into the back of the neck, and along all the extremities. Relaxed, deep breathing is an instant pick-me-up for all our senses because it replenishes every cell. We don’t have to flare our nostrils the way horses do, but we can follow their example of breathing deeply enough to fuel every muscle for movement.

“Fuel every muscle for movement” is a great way to think about the power of the breath and its connection to everything we do. It’s the foundation behind asana, and it can be a strong link between you and your horse too.

Breathe

FEEL

I recently rode bareback again, after a long hiatus. I’m more secure in the saddle, so losing it set me back a bit in the fear department. But the trade-off is this: there is nothing between us. I can put my hands on the horse’s powerful shoulders and feel them shift with every movement; I can feel his movements translate into my body if I let go and just be along for the ride (literally). Feel. I can feel everything.

Another quote from She Flies Without Wings:

Sitting bareback astride a horse, touching his warm sides along the full length of our legs, feeling movements up the length of our backs and into our heads, sensing in our hands as we hold the reins, we tap into the physical nature of the horse and become aware of our bodies the way a horse is. Increasing our body awareness increases our ability to experience the world sensually.

Sometimes being able to feel is scary. Many people work hard to numb themselves to life. When something like yoga or a horse comes along to awaken us, it can be a rude awakening. We might fight what we feel, we might not like what comes up. But if we work through that initial discomfort, and understand and appreciate that it can resurface at any time, we set in motion an ongoing process of self-discovery that can liberate us from numbness and a life spent on auto-pilot. My riding instructor senses when I get comfortable (perhaps complacent?). Off comes the saddle, or I’m asked to dismount on the opposite side, or we go off the trail when I’m not expecting it. All reminders to wake up and live in this moment.

Cowgirl YogaGear Up For Cowgirl Yoga in Montana. Yoga, horseback riding and hiking retreats for all levels of yoginis and equestrians. Imagine a week of yoga and horses — a girl’s dream come true. Explore how both can put you in touch with your potential and teach you about yourself. You’ll practice yoga, spend time with horses, and kick up our heels in cowgirl-friendly Big Sky Country. Yeehaw and Namaste!

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How about with yoga? We like to be good at things, so when we find a yoga style that feels good, that flows easy, we can get stuck in another way. As a teacher I am always asking my students to push against this comfort zone, and often the reply I get is something like, I cannot do such-and-such pose because…[fill in the excuse]. But have you ever tried it? It might not be pretty at first, but oh what a feeling when you know you’ve tried it, you try it again, and eventually it comes together. Sometimes we need a nudge towards exploring how to feel on a deeper level, because we’re not entirely willing to go there on our own.

Trust

TRUST

Closing your eyes while on a horse brings up trust issues. Can you trust your horse enough to be able to let go of one of your senses for even a moment? Can you trust yourself? Most importantly, can you trust that the lines of communication between you are open enough to foster this? Closing off one of your senses (in yoga, a practice called pratyahara that encourages turning one’s focus inward) can feel dangerous and risky, and not just when you’re on horseback.

Back to the beginning of my yoga class: when I ask students to take those first moments to center themselves and focus on their breathing, I ask them to do so with their eyes closed. There is always at least one person, usually more, that just cannot do it. We live in a culture that is visually-distracted; we feel the need to always see what is going on around us, perhaps because we don’t trust it. Closing our eyes heightens our other senses considerably, senses we’re not used to processing as eagerly as our vision – mainly because this slows things down. Our sight is the instant gratification of the senses. If the student keeps her eyes closed and someone new enters the room, she has to listen to figure out what this person is doing, where they are setting up their mat, etc. She has to trust not seeing this immediately, processing it another way.

Now back on the horse: if you allow yourself to close your eyes, you listen, you feel, you become more aware in other ways. Your breath is likely to deepen because you transfer more awareness to it. We let go of the control we might think we have by seeing our surroundings, and connect with them in other ways. We feel the horse under us. We might hear its breathing. We slow down. Get on your yoga mat, get on the horse, and while you take those first moments to transition into the activity, close off one of your senses willingly and allow the others to blossom; a beautiful heightening of awareness will result and enhance what follows.

Breathe. Feel. Trust. In yoga, riding, life. Giddy up. Blur the lines and reap the benefits.  Nothing has made me feel more alive and in the moment than my yoga practice and my riding experiences.

Yeehaw & Namaste

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5 Comments

  • Reply Kathleen July 2, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Wonderful article Margaret! I’m going to close my eyes when I ride my horse this afternoon.

  • Reply Jess July 6, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    This definitely captures many elements of what I felt during my recent Cowgirl Yoga Retreat but as you can probably tell from the pictures – this is an absolutely indescribable experience! Margaret led us on a week-long, life changing adventure.

    Rocky – the horse I was blessed to spend time with during our retreat – taught me how to connect with being present and in the moment again. Cowgirl Yoga enabled me to be strong and true to the people I love when I returned to Connecticut to meet my 2 day old nephew in intensive care and days later when my mom had a stroke.

    No words can explain how thankful I am for my week in Montana. STRONGLY recommend anyone with an interest in yoga and horses to go visit Margaret and experience Cowgirl Yoga for yourself – I am SO glad I did!

  • Reply Jodi Seals February 25, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Yay! Now I want to come to the week long retreat!

  • Reply Heather June 23, 2011 at 7:45 am

    I definitely need to do one of these retreats!

    As a therapeutic horseback riding instructor and horse owner, I see the benefits of merging yoga and horses constantly. When a rider or horse is nervous, it’s so beneficial to have the rider take deep breaths as it centers both and makes for a better experience all around. The movement and warmth of the horse beneath the riders in our therapy programs while doing stretches of any kind cannot be replicated anywhere else. In fact, because of this, horseback riding is the best form of physical therapy because it simulates the human walk with the 3 dimensional movement.

    It’s all so fascinating! Thanks for this wonderful article!

  • Reply Margaret Burns Vap June 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks Heather for your comments! always love to hear about the blending of yoga and horses. what an amazing partnership. keep up the awesome work with your therapeutic riding…and we’d love to have you join us for cowgirl yoga anytime! Yeehaw & Namaste.

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