It’s been 2 1/2 weeks since I added yoga to my training regimen. My goals are to increase both flexibility and strength while reducing the chances of injury as I push my body harder to perform at higher levels. This is a long-term view and I didn’t expect to feel or observe any changes for several months.

So far, I love how I feel after a morning yoga session. Andrea, my instructor often describes the practice as an opening of the body. It is true, I’ve begun to feel more open after each session. Although my body is becoming stronger and more flexible, I’m not actually expanding physically, so describing the changes as “opening”, logically, seems inaccurate. However, emotionally and neuromuscularly, feeling more “open” is truly the best descriptor. This nuance is not something that I understood until experiencing it.

Already observing changes

Although I’ve been practicing for less than a month, I am already observing changes in my mind and body. I’m encouraged that my lateral stability has improved a lot. Initially, I was unable to move from downward dog to the warrior I pose without losing my balance or even falling to the side. Now, I am able to move, relatively fluidly, through the positions and feel stable throughout. My flexibility is still very limited, but, I am able to hold the poses.

Ankle and hip stability are also improving. At first, I was not able to balance on one leg. Even when I did lift one leg off of the ground, I couldn’t maintain the stability with the other for more than a few seconds. As she watched me flounder she suggested that I engage my core muscles. As I’ve begun to be more aware of the engagement (or lack thereof) of my core while holding a pose, my stability has improved. I’m able to get into a few of the one-legged poses and hold them for more than a few seconds.

Connecting with my breath

I tend to forget to breathe often, especially when I’m holding a challenging pose.  As an observer, yoga appeared simple, you do a pose then move into another one. On the surface, this is correct. However, developing the ability to enter one pose, hold it well, then move into another requires focus and coordination beyond what’s visually apparent. Since I’m relatively inflexible right now, simply getting into a pose can be a challenge and many of the poses evoke quite a bit of discomfort. As a consequence, I’ve “discovered” how important deep deliberate breathing is to hold poses. 

When I’m in a difficult pose and the urge to give up grows stronger, I can focus my mind on breathing and I am able to reduce the feeling of discomfort for a while. While inhaling, I hold myself in the position trying to be relaxed as possible. Then, as I exhale, I lean a little deeper into the pose and can feel my muscles allowing for additional stretch. After repeating this for 3-5 breathing cycles, I’m often deeper into the pose and what was initially uncomfortable isn’t so bad. Sometimes I even want to remain in the pose and try to stretch deeper because it feels like a welcome release.

Impact on broader training

As I noted above, improvements in both my flexibility and strength are already apparent. In addition to these changes, I’m experiencing an increased awareness of my whole body. The awareness shows up when I am swimming. For example, during the last 9 months, I’ve noticed that my wrists and fingers point upwards when I am reaching forward during freestyle. I wasn’t aware of this while swimming, only as I watch videos of myself. It’s a small correction but I’ve been unsuccessful in changing it. The primary reason, I believe, is that I wasn’t feeling my hand’s placement in the water. I kept trying to remember to point my hand and fingers without truly feeling their placement in the water. This approach only works if I’m actively concentrating on my fingers, so it’s been a hit-or-miss effort. 

I first noticed the increased whole-body awareness while swimming earlier this week. The awareness of how I was moving through the water was suddenly present. So I began taking slower, more deliberate strokes which allowed me to feel small movements. I was feeling my body in new ways like the position of my elbow, how the water was rolling over my back, and even the angles of my wrists and fingers as they entered the water. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to think about these things or try to concentrate on any of them, I was simply aware of them. It was effortless.

Next, I set up a camera to record myself swimming and see if there were any visible changes. Yes! I saw differences. Johnny also noted that he could see improvement in my front quadrant. Being able to adjust my fingers, wrists, and hips on the fly resulted in a more efficient and streamlined swim. I can see that my left hand still points upward, and I drop my shoulder when I take a breath. Fortunately, now I can feel when that happens, so it’s easier to correct these things when I take the next stroke. In addition to an increase in my pace, I’m covering more distance with each stroke. Overall, I’m swimming faster with the same effort which is exactly what I’ve been working to achieve.

I believe that I’m having such success and joy with yoga this time because it’s the right type at the right time in my athletic development. Bigger goals are on the horizon.