Along with age comes a greater appreciation for simple things—blue skies, fall colors, family. We grow more content with things as they are. Contentment with the current state of things avoids the suffering caused by avidya, or misperception, wrong-seeing. When we drop the struggle, we can find peace and contentment in the moment. Yoga describes this contentment as santosha, and it’s one of the five niyamas—the prescriptions for how to behave. This Thanksgiving, can you find gratitude for all the wonderful things you’re able to appreciate about your body, your situation, and your existence, as they are right now?
Chuck completed my certification in Sage Yoga for Athletes in 2012. Yoga has been integral in his transition from competitive sports to recreational sports, and in helping him cope with atrial fibrillation, as he details here. —Sage
After thirty years of ultramarathon and time trial cycling, I thought my days on the bike were over when I hit 284 heartbeats per minute during a state championship 40K time trial, went off the road, and crashed. The original diagnosis was atrial flutter, and an ablation was done, which, unfortunately, didn’t work. A flutter became adrenalin-induced atrial fibrillation. It was a sad day when I had to sell the time trial bike and decide how to move forward, and that’s when yoga came to the rescue.
I had been practicing and teaching yoga for over ten years and knew that it would provide the way forward for mind, body, and spirit. First the body: while I can no longer race, I’m still able to ride, and ride I do—6,000 miles this year—for the sheer joy of the sound of the whir of the spokes and the feel of the wind. If I feel my heart rate heading for dangerous levels, I slow down, begin yogic three-part nasal breathing (dirghapranayama, detailed below), and if necessary, the ultimate yogic calmer, alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana). It’s amazingly wonderful how something as simple as pranayama (yogic breathing) that is so easy and has been practiced for millennia can be so beneficial! Second, the mind: being able to still participate in the sport I love—you fellow athletes will understand this—just seems to keep the mind clear. With the body healthy, the mind follows. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, with my daily yoga practice enabling me to keep participating, there is just no room for depression, and the spirit soars!
There is no time like the present to explore the benefits of yoga breathing, so let’s begin with the basis for all the different techniques, dirgapranayama. If you are about to do your yoga practice, sit comfortably up straight on a cushion, and let your hands rest lightly on your knees. If you are not about to practice, just find a comfortable chair in which you can sit up straight. Let your hands rest on your legs, close your eyes, and begin deep, slow breaths through your nose. Nasal breathing promotes peace and calmness. Extend each breath, especially your exhale, letting a long slow exhale inform your next inhale. Place a hand on your belly and feel it move in and out with each breath. As you inhale, your diaphragm’s contraction will be pushing your belly out, letting you feel the depth of your breath. Then, place your other hand just at the lower edge of your ribcage, and feel it expand and contract much like the gills of a fish. You have done the first two parts of your three-part breath; now finally imagine yourself as a vase you are filling with oxygen all the way up to your chin, and take that extra bit of air in. Let your hands relax back to your legs, continue dirgha and enjoy the rhythm of your body as it takes in prana, your life force. (Try dirgha just before savasana at the end of your yoga practice, or for a most relaxing experience just before bedtime, play some relaxing music, place your legs up a wall or bend your knees, rest your legs on a coffee table, and do three part, dirgha breathing.)
Doing some yoga? You should give yourself props! And although you deserve accolades for getting to a mat and moving, the props I’m speaking of are the literal ones. This week, let’s talk about the yogablock, an important prop that can help you align, strengthen, and play your edge. In weeks ahead, we’ll explore other uses of the block (it can be supportive, too!) and we’ll look at additional props—the strap, bolster, blanket and more.
Yoga blocks are small, firm rectangular blocks, often made of heavier foam or wood. If you don’t have a block, a thick book can do the job just as well. It’s useful to have at least one on hand, and in some poses two blocks would be even better.
Use your yoga block to help you find optimal alignment. In a pose like triangle pose, it’s easy to reach too far forward of the front shin or to lose integrity in the pose by reaching for the ground. Placing a yoga block under your hand helps you keep your arms in a straighter line, and it allows you to find a “just right” stretch instead of a “too much” one. Any time the ground feels far away (especially in forward folds or lunges), a yoga block can serve as the buttress for better yoga, helping you find safe alignment for your knees, hips, shoulders, and back.
Use your yoga block to make poses a little spicier. In poses like plank, bridge, or mountain, you can add a block to build strength. In all three of these poses, placing a block between your thighs and squeezing will help you find more engagement in your legs and inner thighs.
Play your edge
Use your yoga block to play your edge in balance poses where one or both hands reach toward the earth. In half moon pose or standing split, the block brings the earth closer to you. This creates stability so you can explore the fullness of the pose in your body. By pressing into the block, you can better stabilize the standing leg and find your edge in lifting the extended leg.
Here are some simple tips on how to build better balance.
Balance is increasingly critical as we age, and especially so for aging athletes. A sense of where your body is in space will not only reduce your risk of falls, it will help keep you nimble.
Spend some time challenging your balance every day. This can be as simple as standing on one leg as you brush your teeth, or as complex as enjoying a lengthy string of balance poses in your yoga practice. Hold your single-leg stance until you feel pleasant fatigue in your lower leg or hip.
Start on a hard, smooth surface, with something nearby to rest a hand or fingertip on. Having a chair back, counter, or doorknob close yields a strong placebo effect and makes balance easier. Move to a carpet, rug, or yoga mat for greater challenge. Folding the mat, or balancing on a folded blanket, makes it tougher still, especially for your lower leg. For more, try standing on a yoga block—being slightly higher in space will test your vestibular system. In any of these positions, a slow blink of your eyes, or holding them gently closed, will enhance the work, as will shaking your head from side to side.
Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” Plank always wins this category for me: it’s simple to do, you can do it anywhere (you just need a comfortable spot for your hands), and the payoff is big. Not only does plank help strengthen your core in a major way, it also encourages strong posture, helps keep your back pain-free, and is a great pose to do before you get moving.
Core strength is crucial to aging well. It’s also crucial to good performance in your sport. Having strong abdominal muscles means you’ll have less back pain. But core strength isn’t the only benefit of this pose: holding plank is a balance challenge and provides good work for your arms and upper body. It also has the added benefit of gently stretching the backs of your legs.
Come to hands and knees and then lift your knees off the earth, extending your legs fully. Spread your fingers wide, and push down firmly with your palms, knuckles, and fingertips. Pull your belly in and engage your core. If you’re not sure how to get your abdominal muscles to fire up, take a moment to check out Core Engagement 101. Press back through your heels, lengthening your legs. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and keep your gaze down to the earth or just a little in front of your hands so your neck remains long.
Hold plank for successively longer periods of time as you make it a part of your routine. Start with 5-10 breaths and add a few breaths each time you explore the pose.
If your arms or shoulders need more support: Keep the long line of plank from your head to your tailbone, but drop your knees down to the ground. Focus on maintaining core engagement.
If your wrists need more support: Try elbow plank. Find this same long spine and core engagement, but put your forearms on the ground. While elbow plank takes the pressure off your hands and wrists, it is more challenging for your core.
If you want more challenge: Try lifting your leg. Or try lifting and drawing circles with your leg. Or try lifting your leg AND extending your opposite arm. Or try any of these in elbow plank.