Smarter Fitness—Integration

So I’ve said farewell to a formal yoga practice and I’ve confessed my desire for a better bum. Now, in true contrarian fashion, I’m going to tell you why yoga has been instrumental in my current fitness endeavors. If you’re not thoroughly confused at the end of this, then I’m not doing my job.

As I mentioned, I’m working with Clifton Harski of BA Training in San Diego via online coaching. That included me sending him videos of the moves and him giving me some form checks during a Skype conversation. Humbling, I assure you. There was some initial activation energy required to get over the hump of having to learn things unfamiliar. Kind of like the first time you go to a yoga class and you feel like you’ve landed on another planet, but you keep going until it’s old hat. But once the body creates some recognition, the brain can relax a little and get out of the way.

TreePoseSeveral things have struck me as I’ve been going through these workouts. We hear about, and talk about, “form” all the time, but what are we REALLY talking about? Practicing yoga has shown me the difference between holding a pose and actually understanding what’s involved in positioning our body in such a fashion. Let’s take Tree Pose (Vrksasana) for example. So you’re holding a foot on your inner thigh, balancing on the other, and raising your hands somewhere overhead or in front of your heart. Most of us can do this, I have no doubt. But many people mistake a pose for something static, as though we are statues cut from stone.

In reality, a yoga pose is more dynamic, constantly adjusting and changing like a tree blowing in the breeze. Some of these adjustments can’t even be noticed by the naked eye. So in Tree, are your hips level with one another? Are your shoulders shrugged up around your ears? Are your feet gripping for dear life? Is your jaw clenched? How’s your gaze (drishti)? Your breath? The quality of your thoughts? And once you focus on one of these, chances are you’ve slacked off on the one you just fixed. Welcome to why it’s called a “practice.”

Much of this is true in MovNat too. I loved that the first thing we’re taught in MovNat is breath control. Your breath is one of the most important signals you give to your body. We do it all day long (until we don’t, of course), but we rarely give it much thought. If you’re at all interested in relieving yourself of stress, I highly suggest breath practice. If you think you’ve mastered anything, the next time you do it, check in with your breath and if it’s not flowing freely and in a relaxed manner, I would suggest you’ve mastered nothing at all.

So what is form? I can’t offer an all-encompassing definition, and was unable to find an existing one, so let’s start with a simple definition:

form—n. The visible shape or configuration of something.

Ooh, look! It’s also a verb:

form—v. Bring together parts or combine to create.

From here, I can identify at least two major areas that comprise form. If you can think of more, please add to this in the comments.

Form. Function. Obey.

Form. Function. Obey.

Alignment

Yoga is an excellent way to learn how to stack your body appropriately. Alignment is something that you have to practice and you need someone objective to help you reach it and feel it in your own body. When we add weights, this becomes critical, not just for effective exercise, but for injury prevention. If you just start kettlebell swinging at home with no one to guide you, injury is a real possibility, if not probability. Our bodies are articulated in a specific way and we disobey that set-up at our own peril.

Engagement

This is a biggie. It has several components.

  1. The Physical. Obviously. Everyone just nodded their head and internally said, “Yeah, I’ve got this.” Hmm…I wonder if that’s true. When I Skyped with Clif, it was amazing to me how he could start me off in something as simple as a hip thrust by telling me to scoop my pelvis/flatten my back, and how by three or four reps, I would have relaxed out of it, thereby missing the benefits to my backside. Yoga is full of little tips and tricks that are useful here that I’m not sure I would’ve learned any other way. When I’m on my hands, in a push-up for example, I know that the creases of my wrists should be facing forward and that in order to keep weight off of them, I should engage the tips of my fingers kind of like a gecko gripping the floor. Try this if you have achy wrists. Anytime you’re doing something, like a Bird Dog, where your hands or feet are going straight out from you, you should be engaged through the fingertips and heel, as though someone is pulling on them. And, as Clif likes to point out, you should never have rib “boners”, because that means your back is slack and whack.
  2. But Not Where You Don’t Need To. Our face is oftentimes the place we confess our body’s situation. Clenched teeth, furrowed brows, pinched eyes, wrinkled forehead. For others, it’s hands and feet clenching, gripping, holding. All unnecessarily. Maybe it’s your breath you’re withholding. I’ve only experienced one time in my life when that was necessary, and that was the one fine evening I pushed out a baby. So unless you’re doing that, BREATHE. Test it out for yourself—is this gesture helping me? If the answer is “No”, and it will be “No”, then let it go, man. Save that energy for the task at hand. The gym/studio is a great place to practice this skill, but its utility becomes obvious outdoors. When you’re MovNatting, rock climbing, Parkouring, or what-have-youing, there is nothing to do but become the nature surrounding you. Nobody cares about how hard you’re working out here, so don’t try to prove it with your grunting and straining.
  3. The Mental. What are the quality of your thoughts? Are you doing something, hating every second of it? Are you bored in a warm-up and looking forward to when the “real work” will get started? Are you doing your WOD and constructing your grocery list at the same time? If you’re not here mentally, are you actually benefiting? If I lose count of reps because my mind has wandered, guess what?! I get to do another set! I find it funny that we can look forward to busting out of our fluorescent-lit, recycled air offices and having a good workout, but once there, we’ll bitch and moan or mentally escape it. Be there. For all of it. Start to finish. A great exercise for mental engagement is this Lunge Matrix, because you can’t fake your way through it. If you’re not present, you will fall down or mess up, and I will laugh at you.
Plank

This is just a cartoon and her form is bad.

One of the exercises I love the most because it perfectly illustrates everything I’ve just talked about is The Plank. Everyone can do a plank. But can you do The Plank? If you really want to show yourself the power of this, get down on the floor right now and time yourself doing a plank on your forearms, remembering that your mind will give up long before your body. Got it? Not bad, right?

So that was your plank. Now try The Plank.

Forearms shoulder-width apart, your elbows should bend on the floor right under your shoulders. I like to spread my feet out a bit from each other, my knees complain less when I do this. Neutral spine, tuck that pelvis in. Shoulder blades up, back, and down. Head should be neutral, chin slightly tucked, lengthening through the neck. When you’re aligned and adjusted, clench your fists (I know I’ve been harping on this, but here it’s okay).

Now, without actually moving, pull your elbows toward your feet and your feet toward your elbows. We’re looking for isometric energy here. Your core should be engaged, almost as if someone has a string attached to the base of your spine and they’re pulling it, but you won’t let them move you. Engage your thighs and butt.

Start counting. I’m willing to bet, unless you’ve been doing these for a while, 10 seconds will be enough. If it feels easy, I’d wager you ain’t doing it right. Besides, how’s your breath, face, mind?

I admit it—yoga helped me tremendously in this journey. Would I be as effective as I am today without it? No way in hell. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned from yoga so that I can take it and run with it now. In so many ways, it follows me everywhere.

So what can you do to learn these principles?

  • Take yoga. What?! I know it sounds silly since I just recommended you don’t. Consider the “restorative” classes which are gentler and not about twisting into funky, patchouli-scented pretzels. Iyengar classes are fantastic for alignment principles. Feel free to ignore the hardcore stretching, especially anything regarding the hamstrings or shoulders, by hanging back. If they ask about it, tell them you’re listening to your body. No proper yogi/yogini will argue with that. Look for a good teacher who possesses an understanding of anatomy and the need for strength and engagement when dealing with flexibility.
  • Find a knowledgeable and responsible trainer. The reality is you’re going to need one-on-one attention or small class sizes. Look into personal training, even if only for a short time to ground yourself in the skills you need before you go solo. MovNat has started training all sorts of folks around the country, and they’re a good place to start since they’re coming from this background. Check out their partners/affiliates and certified trainers pages for more info. As much as CrossFit wasn’t going to work for me, good trainers can be found there. Consider online coaching if you can’t find local resources.
  • The internet, land of free information. I highly suggest getting some real-world coaching first, but if that’s not possible, do your due diligence online. Plenty of videos, blogs, and advice out there, just make sure you’re getting good ones. Look at reputable blogs and websites and click on recommended links. MovNat has started providing workouts on their blog, for starters.
Doesn't that look...interesting?

Doesn’t that look…interesting?

So much of what people call “exercise” these days has nothing to do with anything I’ve just discussed. When I’ve talked to friends of mine who love their chronic, low-level cardio, they all cite the mental benefits of just letting go and not having to think. I get it, but you can reap the same benefit with a walk or hike and less damage to your body. Zoning out for a half-hour run a day just won’t get you there. No wonder so many people are frustrated and not meeting their goals. I’m sorry, but you can’t get where you want to go by reading a magazine on a treadmill.

While I poke fun at myself for wanting a bigger ass, what I really want is a body built for purpose, for practical strength, for capability, for a long healthy life. To do this, I have to give my body the tools it needs to chisel and form that body—diet, exercise, sleep, etc. It’s time to shut out the noise and start defining our goals and radically shifting our intentions to meet those goals. One tucked pelvis at a time.

Other tips available in my Mindful Fitness series: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5.

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One Response to “Smarter Fitness—Integration”

  1. Excellent post! Loved that plank video… and all the comments under it.

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