There are so many great reasons for outdoor athletes to start a yoga practice. Many people are already aware of the incredible physical benefits of yoga like building strength, becoming more flexible, aiding recovery from challenging adventures, or creating more balance within the body. But yoga can also be a path to self-discovery and this self-awareness can be just as beneficial to outdoor athletes as any of the more physical benefits.
Many people today think of yoga mainly as physical practice. So, it’s reasonable to wonder how stretching or contorting your body leads to anything but extreme discomfort, let alone self-discovery. Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that was first compiled in the “Yoga Sutras” around 200 BC. The “Yoga Sutras” state that “yoga is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind” and that by stilling the mind, “the self can abide in its own true nature”. The sutras then go on to describe a method to achieve this state of mental stillness and self-clarity. This method includes 8 steps, two of which are the practice of asana, or what most people commonly think of as yoga postures, and the practice of pranayama, or controlled breathing. Thus, yoga is not just a set of peculiar postures. Rather, these postures, along with focused breathing, are part of a path that leads to self-realization.
And just how does holding a yoga posture lead you down the path to self-discovery? Well, striving to maintain a yoga posture requires a lot of focus. Yoga students usually begin with focusing on their breath and as their minds focus, miscellaneous thoughts dissipate. After all, you can’t hold a steady pose if you’re thinking about what you’ll make for dinner or whether your co-worker’s mad at you. Instead you become more aware of what’s happening in your body here and now. You begin to notice how your body feels. Maybe some muscles are tight while others are engaged or sore or tired. You may notice new things, like imbalances in your body. One side may be stronger or more flexible. Or maybe your legs feel strong, but your core feels challenged in some postures. You also begin to notice how your body is aligned. Is your spine long and straight or do you tend to hunch? Is your pelvis level or tilted? Is your knee aligned with your hip and ankle or does it turn inward?
So, now that you’ve noticed all these physical quirks, how does that help you as an outdoor athlete? Many overuse injuries are caused by the muscular imbalances yoga helps you identify. So, through yoga, you can become more aware of fatigue, muscle imbalances and tightness before they lead to injury. Plus, you can use yoga to help address these imbalances because yoga poses employ many major muscle groups and many complementary muscles.
Also, you’ll bring that body awareness off the yoga mat. The focus on physical alignment inherent in yoga promotes better form over longer distances to keep you on your feet and prevent injuries while you’re enjoying outdoor recreation. The focus and concentration you develop with yoga will help you listen to your body while you’re on the trail so you’ll understand when you can push and when you need to take the intensity down a notch. You’ll be more aware of when your body needs things like rest, hydration or relaxation. And what better way to relax and recover from a strenuous day in the mountains than with a few restorative yoga poses.