By Maggie Coles-Lyster, Road and track cyclist
Ten minutes ago, I first sat down to try and write this blog. I had just finished a hard ride, my body was sore, I was having a serious writer’s block and was fidgety from the coffee I had. Without beating myself up about it or writing it off as something to do on another day, I went to my yoga mat. I rested in “child’s pose” for a couple of minutes, flowed through a series of “cat & cow” to release the ache in my lower back, then lay down for 5 minutes and just breathed, drawing my focus onto counting my breath: 4 counts of inhaling, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for four. Repeat. As if by magic the tension in my body started relaxing, I was able to focus and ideas started flowing. Six years ago, before starting my journey with yoga, I would have hit the override button, so familiar to many athletes and high achievers, and tried to continue to sit there and write this blog. An hour from now I likely still would have been sitting here with half of these words on the page, but here I am, full of ideas and inspiration to share with you.
I started yoga six years ago for the same reason most people do: I couldn’t touch my toes. I had access to free classes at EPIC Yoga and Fitness through carding and figured why not try it out! I was practicing yoga purely for the physical benefits, and my flexibility, mobility and stability were improving drastically.
This was my approach to it until 2018, when I suffered 3 bad crashes and concussions in the span of 6 months. I was irritable, unable to focus on anything, and had to take some time away from racing to fully heal. I found yoga was something I was able to do that would ground me and give me little, attainable goals I could work towards, as well as gently helping me rehab my injuries. Around that time I also started doing a lot of work with psychologists to work through trauma from the crashes and start getting back to the mental place I needed to be in to train and race. I started realizing that the exercises they were giving me were very similar to the breathwork and meditation we would do at the beginning and end of yoga classes, and this work was making leaps and bounds in my recovery. The powerful impact of the physical practice, breathwork and meditation was astounding to me and I was only scratching the surface of it all. I wanted more, and I wanted to share my discoveries with others from an educated place so I signed up for yoga teacher training in 2019. This course has completely changed my approach to life, my performance in work, sport and school and how I feel in training and racing. In 2020, I passed the exam portion of the teacher training and became a Certified Yoga Fitness Leader, and am only one course away from completing my Registered Yoga Teacher 200hr Certificate.
From a physical standpoint, yoga is a unique form of exercise in the way it works your cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, digestive and musculoskeletal systems at the same time. It is hugely variable in the types of yoga you can do, as well as the intensity and level, and is my go-to way of stretching at the end of the day, healing any injuries and addressing achiness or tightness. I have also found it extremely useful for relieving any cramping, indigestion or bloating before/after training or races, something that I have struggled with for years.
I noticed the most significant changes when I started layering in the meditation and breathwork. Meditation has been shown to have numerous effects on the physiological systems, including decrease in heart rate and blood pressure and increase in exercise tolerance and motor control. In terms of the brain, meditation has been shown to have strengthening effects on the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for positive emotions, self-control and temperament. It is easy to see the positive correlation between the impacts of meditation and better recovery from training, focus in races, work and school and overall happiness.
Similarly, the positive effects of breathwork and ability to breathe properly are often overlooked, which is something I believe should be a bigger priority in all athletes training. Some key benefits of proper breathing and daily exercises include stronger lungs resulting in increased breathing capacity, a more efficient and stronger heart, reduced anxiety and greater nourishment of the brain.
Like anything in life, yoga takes practice. It’s the old saying: consistency is key. Doing the physical practice, meditation and breathwork for 5 minutes each every day versus once or twice a week for an hour will help you reap the benefits so much quicker. At first, it may seem like work, but approaching it with the same mindset as training can turn it into routine and maybe eventually, something you find helps you approach each day as the best, strongest version of yourself! Namaste friends and happy practicing!
Photo: Mark Whitehead, Get the Shot Studios