Variety is the spice of life, and as a yoga teacher I’m blessed with the opportunity to work with all levels of yoginis in spaces throughout Wisconsin. In the summer, I lead yoga retreats on a beautiful island in northern Wisconsin and teach yoga on stand up paddleboards. My winters are spent in my own studio and more recently at a CrossFit® gym in Eau Claire. Contrast is an understatement. A CrossFit gym is the yang to my yoga studio yin. These separate spaces represent a completely different element of energy; but similar to yin and yang, the two blended together provide a beautiful symmetry of a healthy fitness plan for the athlete.
Despite this, when I first started working with the CrossFit crew at Momentum Fitness in Eau Claire I experienced teacher trepidation. That team is fierce and their workout is HARD! Convincing them the benefits of a yoga practice steeped in softness felt like a tough sell. Fortunately, these athletes see the results in working with a yoga teacher and those results translate into better performance.
Consider just a few of the many benefits:
Flexibility: Obvious, right? But to a CrossFitter who primarily focuses on building strength, the promise of flexibility may carry a concern of leaning out a muscle they worked hard to build. Fortunately, science combined with the need for mobility supports the necessity of a yoga practice. Yoga assists the muscles by stimulating the production of tissue lubrication and even helps rebuild the muscle’s cellular structure. It encourages release in the elasticity of connective tissues and fascia, freeing up the body for a wider range of motion.
Breath: Our breath sustains us through any fitness activity. Olympians are taught to tap into the power of breathing to strengthen their muscles and improve performance. Yogis are acutely aware of how breath lifts you up and creates focus, and health experts support the understanding of breath work as a powerful tool to calm the central nervous system and promote stress reduction. CrossFitters benefit by learning to tap into their breath for both power and recovery.
Alignment: A yoga practice is a great way to understand how to stabilize the body. In yoga, you are often called upon to connect to how your body is feeling. A yoga teacher makes subtle adjustments to your alignment creating a body memory for better asana. It also teaches you to work from your power center (your core), connecting to that stream of energy that safely moves your body from the inside out. All of the CrossFit exercises require finely tuned kinetic awareness. And because the body’s movement in CrossFit is quick and assertive, yoga teachings of body alignment reinforce safety and injury prevention in a fast-paced fitness realm.
The best method of teaching yoga to CrossFitters is understanding the areas they need to target. All yoga poses are beneficial, but I would like to target some of the areas of concern that a CrossFitter faces.
A kettlebell movement is a quick movement providing cardio benefits and strength training, but requires flexibility in the low back, hip flexors and hamstrings. As the swing progresses downward, the athlete sits back into her hips and fully engages the lower body muscles. Supple hamstrings are critical to absorb the shock of this movement.
A supportive yoga practice for the kettlebell swing would begin with a downward facing dog leading into low lunge. Downward dog is magic for the entire body and is a great way to both strengthen and stretch.
From downward dog, inhale and lift your leg. On the exhale, bring a knee into the chest and then draw the foot through to the hands. Your hands will frame the foot as you move into proper alignment, lengthening your heart forward and creating a proper knee to ankle crease alignment. If you foot gets stuck in the process, just grab it with your hand and assist it through. This is called low lunge.
If you have tight hip flexors in this lunge position, use two blocks to lift your hands higher and slowly ease into the stretch. Move the blocks forward or drop your fingertips to the floor as you feel your muscle give you more space. Take deep breaths for a minute or more as you encourage this stretch. You may feel a bit fragile coming out of this one, but your flexors and low back will thank you.
Another opportunity for better performance in CrossFit is to lengthen your hamstrings with yoga. From a runner’s lunge position, straighten the front leg and draw the hip back into alignment with your opposite hip. Square the hips to the front edge of your yoga mat. And keep your inner thighs engaged. Lengthen the spine forward maintaining length (not curl) in your lumbar spine. A little bend in the front knee may be necessary if your hamstrings are tight.
A more restorative stretch and a perfect addition to recovery day for the lower back would be reclining twist. Beginning on your back with knees to chest, allow your spine to soften as you relax through your shoulders and tap into your breath.
On an exhale, drop the hips to one side and anchor your opposite arm down towards the floor. This particular twist is a great way to stretch back muscles, re-align the spine, and decompress the nervous system after an intense kettlebell workout.
Tight IT band? Extend the top leg and breath in the stretch.
“Yikes,” said the yoga teacher the first time I watched CrossFit yogi Rachel perform her snatch. Done correctly it is a beautiful display of strength and mobility backed by sheer determination. The need for hip flexibility was apparent, as the deep squat requires obvious hip and psoas mobility. I remember thinking that a lovely appointment with pigeon would be good medicine for Rachel’s hips.
The pigeon shouldn’t be practiced with reckless abandonment. Tension from a movement like the snatch could potentially build up in the bum and psoas and dropping into pigeon without thoughtful consideration of your body’s particular tight spots isn’t a good idea. There are some great modifications for this pose if you have knee issues as well.
Begin in downward dog again (yes, we yoga teachers like to liberally pepper a practice with our good friend Adho Mukha Svanasana). Bring your left knee in and aim it towards your left wrist. You should feel the stretch in your psoas area and not in your knee. Lift up through your heart on an inhale and release on your exhale to your forearms, then possibly even to the floor. A foam block is a lovely place to rest your forehead as this should be a pose to embrace for at least a full minute.
Added bonus for release in pigeon? Extend the arm forward — on the same side as the forward knee — and tent your fingertips, then walk your opposite shoulder underneath. This will deepen the stretch in the hips and provide stretch to the shoulder.
Another opportunity to experience an open hip is moving from downward dog to an outstretched and lifted leg. Your yoga teacher may refer to this as a 3-legged dog. Pressing down into the palms of your hands to lengthen your spine. lift your leg and feel the openness in the hip area. With softness behind the knee, drop it to open up the hip even more. Don’t lose your connection with the strength of your side body. Remember to focus on feeling your hip and make an effort to stabilize the core center by engaging the abdominals.
Dumbbell rows are one of many ways CrossFitters build strength. From a yogic perspective, there is a strong belief that we move from our core. This solar plexus is our energy and a force that supports our stamina. From a CrossFitters perspective, their powerhouse stabilizes and protects. A yoga practice teaches the CrossFit participant to deconstruct the elements of core components. Awareness of the pelvic floor, the side body, and the intercostal muscles translates into a healthy spine.
Moving from your center, transitioning from downward dog into plank pose in a wave-like motion is a great way to feel the inner workings of your core center. From your dog, inhale and ripple the spine forward. Keep the navel lifted into the spine and draw your low ribs up. Engage your intercostal muscles by pulling your side body in as well. Manage this motion as your breath moves through your center. This spinal sequence should look like a ripple of water. Settle into plank by considering all of the elements of alignment — wrist placement directly under the head of the shoulder, shoulders blades spreading apart, quads lifting and energy in the toes. It’s an entire body experience!
Like CrossFit and its strong connection to community, there is a positive energy that occurs during a yoga practice. It’s quieter and more subtle, but both fitness disciplines complement each other in the realm of tapping into the best we can be as humans. Co-existing with CrossFitters has become another opportunity to live my yoga. Namaste and YBF (you’ll be fine).
Photo Credit: Steph Seymour Photography