Guest Post: Chuck Naughton on Yoga and Living with Atrial Fibrillation

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

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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.

DSC_0263I 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 (dirgha pranayama, 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!

IMG_0097There 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, dirga pranayama. 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.)

Jai Bhagwan,
Chuck

Props: Yoga Blocks for Better Yoga

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 yoga block, 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.

Align

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.

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Chris Mason, 57, explores triangle pose as a counter balance to cycling

Strengthen

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.

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A block between your thighs will make mountain pose spicier

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.

Use a block for stability and play your edge!

—Alexandra

Basics: Build Better Balance

Here are some simple tips on how to build better balance.

Why

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.

When

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.

How

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.

—Sage

Just One Pose: Plank

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.

Donnie Barnes, 42, holds plank before a run

Why

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.

How

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.

Variations

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.

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For sweeter, put your knees down

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.

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For spicier, lift one leg

—Alexandra

Match Your Practice to Your Season

P1000453If you compete in a sport, your training follows a cycle that should build in progressive stages to your peak competitions, then allow for downtime before reaching a new crest. In exercise physiology, we call this periodization: the training progression has distinct periods. As you consider how to include yoga to support you as a masters athlete, keep this training cycle in mind. The closer you are to peak competition, the more mellow your yoga practice should be. I outline this approach in detail in my book The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga, and again in The Runner’s Guide to Yoga.

Keeping the intensity of your yoga practice in inverse proportion to the intensity of your sport training is especially important for aging athletes, because we require more recovery time between challenging workouts. If you slot a vigorous yoga practice into your already-rigorous training week, you’ll have to factor extra time to recover, which means the more challenging styles of yoga should generally be ruled out during your most active peak period in your sport. This means you can enjoy hot yoga, Ashtanga, and power vinyasa styles in your off-season, but keep them away from other major demands on your body.

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Maybe your competitive days are over, but you enjoy getting out to play on a seasonal cycle: golf in the summer, skiing in the winter. The same principle applies, even if your activity isn’t expressly periodized. Use your off-season—if only the one determined by the weather—to choose a more strength-building yoga practice. While you’re more active off the mat, dial back the intensity of the practice so you have time to recover between sessions.

This balance is the key to longevity. Use your energy wisely, where it is best spent. If you’re targeting an athletic goal, most of your hard efforts should be in your training sessions, not on the mat. Use gentle and restorative yoga, and shorter home routines like those Alexandra and I offer on YogaVibes and those in my book Everyday Yoga, and you’ll be best balanced to perform at your personal best.

—Sage

Basics: Core Engagement 101

In our “Basics” posts, you’ll find quick overviews and tutorials for basic ways to stay strong and healthy. Let’s start with the most basic of basics: core engagement. In the short video below, you’ll learn how to engage your core. Since movement needs to originate from the core whether you’re picking up your grandchild or swinging a golf club, this overview is a great place to begin.

Why

You need to engage your core because if you don’t, your back is going to be doing the work your core should. In the long run, this is detrimental—and may even result in back pain or injury.

When

You should be engaging your core all the time! Okay, okay: not all the time, but most of the time. You need to engage your core whenever you are starting a movement: standing from sitting, picking up a grocery bag, swinging your tennis racket, etc. Good movement patterns originate from the core space.

How

Core engagement is best accessed standing, so start there. Then imagine that your core engages from three places: first, pull your low abdominals in and up, as if you were sliding on a pair of extra snug pants. Next, pull your belly button straight back to your spine, as you might do when you’re trying to look good for the camera. Finally, tuck your low ribs down, as if you were starting a little crunch. And then relax a little. And breathe.

—Alexandra

Welcome to Yoga for Aging Athletes

Welcome to Yoga for Aging Athletes—a resource to help keep you in the game. Here, yoga and Pilates teachers and athletes Sage Rountree and Alexandra DeSiato offer advice and answer your questions about how yoga will keep you active and balanced through the decades.

Sage (left), Alexandra (right)
Sage (left), Alexandra (right)

Use the links at left to read about us and get our tips—we post new content weekly. Visit us in person at the Carrboro Yoga Company in central North Carolina, and virtually by streaming our yoga and core-strength classes online anytime at YogaVibes:

Just One Pose: Standing Pigeon

Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” We’ll kick off with one of my favorites: standing pigeon.

Wes Rountree in standing pigeon
Wes Rountree, 45, in standing pigeon

Why

This multitasking pose builds balance in space, balance between the hip and lower portion of the standing leg, and balance between strength and flexibility in the glutes—the standing leg glutes have to work to hold you steady, while the bent leg’s glutes get a stretch. You’ll get a lot of bang for your buck, making this a go-to when you have the time or energy for just one pose.

How

Stand tall, shifting your weight into one leg as you cross the opposite ankle over your standing leg’s thigh. Lower your hips back and down until you find a natural stopping point. This could feel like stretch in the bent leg’s glutes or inner thigh, or like work in the standing leg’s foot or hip. Make sure your standing leg’s knee points straight forward over your toes. Keep your spine long and use your arms for balance. Hands can be in prayer position, as shown here, or off to the sides.

Hold the pose for 5–15 breaths, and repeat on the other side.

Variations

If it’s tough to balance: rest one or both hands on a wall, table, or counter. Take off your shoes and try the pose in bare feet on a hard surface. (Conversely, to up the challenge, stand on carpet or a folded yoga mat.)

Tree pose, an alternative for those with bum knees or hips
Tree pose, an alternative for those with bum knees or hips

If your knee or hip won’t bend this way: substitute tree pose, shown above, instead.

For a bonus chest stretch: Reach your hands behind you. Use a belt or tie to help them connect, or interlace your fingers if you can.

—Sage