Yoga for swimmers

Body position, reach, strength and flexibility in the hips, shoulders and neck – all key features of good swimming. This sequence develops them all.

I started swimming again recently and was surprised at the quality of both my front crawl and breaststroke, surprised in a good way that is. In the past I’ve neglected the kick in front crawl and focused on the arm stroke, but in the pool over the last few weeks I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my ability to kick well in front crawl. I have also experienced a fluid, strong and balanced breaststroke. I put this down to a good overall level of fitness and strength that I put down to my current yoga practice.

This led to some googling of swimming for yoga. There are plenty of videos to watch, but the more I watched the more I saw that they neglected, what for me, are keys features of good swimming:

  • maintaining a good body position in the water
  • being able to stretch and reach forwards and pull back effectively
  • being able to breathe on each side comfortably in front crawl
  • flexible hips to be able to generate a powerful breaststroke kick

The videos also overlooked some asana (poses) which I think are very useful for developing good swimming technique. I’ve written my sequence below:

Grounding

I start my practice sitting cross-legged, taking a few breaths to encourage relaxation and to bring my focus to what I’m about to do.

Limber

Before stretching or asana it’s important to warm-up, first with some limbering exercises:

Bridge (Setu Bhanda) – lie flat with bent knees and the soles of your feet on the floor. Inhale and left your hips, let your neck relax and extend, breathe out and relax your spine back down to the floor. Repeat 5-8 times.

Leg raises – still lying on your back, inhale stretch your arms overhead and push your heels away. As you breathe out bring your knees slowly up to your chest and bring your arms up and over so you can hug your legs into your chest. Inhale to stretch away, exhale to curl up. Repeat 5-8 times.

Hip-openers – lie flat on your back with your arms overhead. Relax. Inhale and bring your right knee up. Continue inhaling and take your knee out to the right, and then back to middle. As you reach the middle start to exhale and continue to take your knee over to the left, until your knee touches the floor on the left hand side of your body. Your hips should roll and your right shoulder might come off the floor a little. Continue exhaling to come back to middle and extend your leg away. Repeat with the left leg, and do 5-8 on each side.

Roll over so you’re lying on your front.

Bhunjangasana (Cobra) – to give your abs a bit of a stretch. Lift your body up and then support yourself on your forearms. Relax your hips but try to lift your abs up, allow your back to arch, though you don’t need to exaggerate it. Hold for 5-8 breaths.

Salabhasana (Locust) – great for developing your back muscles. Have your arms by your side, as you inhale push your hips down, lift your arms and legs and reach back towards your feet. Hold for 5-8 breaths. Repeat but with your arms stretching forwards.

Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (Upward-facing Dog) – place your hands under your shoulders, lift yourself up so that only your hands and the tops of your feet touch the floor. Lift your stomach, let your back arch, look up. Hold for 5-8 breaths. Relax into…

Adho Mukha Virasana (Downward-facing Hero) – stretches the back, glutes and lats. Hold for 5-8 breaths.

170718 adho mukha virasana

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Upward-facing Dog) – from downward-facing hero come up onto all fours then inhale, push down into your hands and lift your hips up. Push your body back towards your legs, straighten your legs and extend your heels down to the floor. Hold for 5-8 breaths.

At this point you could do a few Sun Salutations if you want to warm-up further. Or, from Downward Dog, step forward with your right foot, turn your left foot out a little, inhale and lift your left shoulder, straight both legs and stretch your left hand straight up for…

Trikonasana (Triangle pose) – this is the start of an asana sequence focused on developing key features of front crawl

Trikonasana

This lateral pose stretches the side of the body and helps to develop the flexibility in your neck which is useful for the breath in front crawl. Hold for 5-8 breaths, then come up and repeat on the left. From Trikonasana, widen your legs a bit and come straight into…

Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2) – Stretch the arms away from each other, bend your front knee well, almost to 90 degrees to help develop leg strength, useful for a good kick in front crawl

170718 virabhadrasana 2 away from cam

hold right and left for 5-8 breaths each. When you finish on the left come straight into…

Parsvakonasana (Extended side-angle pose) – to develop good ‘reach’, really stretch the top arm away from your back foot. Keep your top shoulder up and back, look up underneath your arm, in a similar position to taking a breath in front crawl. Hold on both sides for 5-8 breaths, then relax into…

Prasarita Padottansana – (Wide leg forward bend) – stretch the hamstrings, and relaxcropped-170817-prasarita-padottanasana1.jpg

Nearly there, just 2 more asana to go before you can move into a more relaxing phase of the sequence.

Come up and stand in Tadasana, then step forward well with your right leg. Bend your right knee well for…

Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1) – with your leg straight, you can either be up on tip-toes or have your foot flat. Keep your shoulders and hips square, in line with the front edge of your mat. Inhale and reach up and back with the arms. This pose develops leg strength, stretches the front of your hip and your abs. Hold for 5-8 breaths and repeat on the left. Come back to Tadasana. Go into the pose again, but only briefly as preparation for…

Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3) – which is basically the body position for front crawl, but balancing on one leg! From Warrior 1, with your right foot forward and right leg bent, bring your left foot in a little. Bend at the waist. Then start to straighten your right leg. Lift your leg and stretch it back as you reach straight forwards with your arms. Your body should be flat and your right leg should be straight. Hold for 5-8 breaths. Come back to Warrior 1, then repeat on the left. Come back to Tadasana.

Relaxation

First some shoulder stretches. You may have a preference, the stretches below are just a guide. But it’s useful to kneel in Virasana, it stretches the quads a bit and helps develop flexible ankles. I usually stretch my shoulders using the arm positions of Gomukhasana and Garudasana.

After stretching your shoulders, with or without a belt lie back in Supta Baddha Konasana to help open your hips, useful for a good kick in breaststoke.

And then finally, relax in Savasana.

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

I’m sat on the floor, legs straight out in front, and I’m reaching forward to hold my feet and develop a good stretch in the back of my legs, when the yoga teacher slowly lies down on top of me and forces my face much closer towards my legs and I’m thinking to myself “This is a yoga class?”

Personally speaking, the intensity of the practice is a key feature of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (Ashtanga). A class starts gently with the group breathing together, using a form of yogic breath known as Ujjayi Breath to help you to focus on the practice. After 10 breaths the physical practice begins and doesn’t stop for (usually) at least an hour. During that hour practitioners perform numerous physically demanding poses, flowing through Downward Dog, Chaturanga Dandasana and Upward Facing Dog into various standing, seated and twisting poses. It is physically demanding and, at times such as when your instructor is lying on top of you pushing you into a deep forward bend, intense.

You may be familiar with the idea of “runner’s high”, which can be described as “a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a reduced ability to feel pain”. Although this response to exercise is not yet fully understood it is known to occur during long-duration rhythmic exercise, which is a fitting description of an Ashtanga class. I certainly experience moments of joy, usually when I’m having to push myself to continue rather than sit back on the mat and take a rest.

The physical contact between student and teacher is another key feature of Ashtanga and one that surprised me at first. My background is mostly in Iyengar Yoga, so I’m used to getting hands-on corrections from teachers, but not like an Ashtanga correction. An Iyengar teacher might correct the placement of a limb in an asana such as Trikonasana, or pull your hips up and back to encourage a ‘good’ Downward Dog. But an Ashtanga teacher may well get much closer than that and push you to places that you perhaps couldn’t reach by yourself. Trust is very important.

From an historical perspective, the practice of Ashtanga developed at around the same time as Iyengar. The person who originally codified Ashtanga, K. Pattahbi Jois and the originator of Iyengar yoga, B.K.S Iyengar, where both students of Krishnamacarya in the early 20th Century. Whereas Iyengar, who suffered with ill-health through much of his early life, developed a style focused on the precise practice of asana supported by the use of props, Jois developed the flowing vinyasa style which he eventually called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

If there is a criticism to be made of Ashtanga, it is perhaps that it often overlooks the ‘proper’ form of an asana. However, I should make it clear that I’ve practiced Iyengar yoga for nearly 20 years and simple believe that there is a right and wrong way to do poses. Seek out a good Ashtanga teacher and you should still receive instruction about how to do your standing poses, just don’t expect to hold them for 3-4 minutes at a time. It may be the case that Ashtanga yoga is focused on ‘doing’ yoga, whereas Iyengar yoga is focused on ‘learning’.

Ashtanga is a great style of yoga to practice if you’re looking for a physical challenge and a way to improve your strength, flexibility and cardio-vascular fitness. It would be very challenging to start a class with no previous experience in yoga, but a good teacher will take into account different levels of ability (not simply related to experience) and support the development of your yoga practice. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have found such a good teacher (Christine at Bristol Yoga Centre) who helps make the practice of Ashtanga such a joyful experience.

 

First you breathe in

It started with Guy Martin in Russia, or at least a programme about Guy Martin in Russia. Rather than being suspicious of Russian people Guy got on really well with them, which got me thinking. Specifically about Systema, a Russian martial art I’d read about years ago.

After a spot of googling I came across the website of a guy called Matt Hill, a Systema instructor based in Wiltshire. I watched a few of his videos and they totally flipped my idea of what a martial art is and what Systema is all about. A lot of Matt’s videos focus on breath. It made me think about yoga from a different angle.

So, it actually starts with Sukhasana. Just about every yoga class I go to or teach starts with sitting cross-legged. This is usually followed by instruction to “sit up straight” and “pull your shoulders back”…

But, I thought, what if I just try to create the pose from the breath? After repeatedly starting my practice like this I find that it really helps me to bring my focus to my practice straight away. And it’s a focus and awareness that remains throughout. I start by sitting cross-legged but without any conscious effort to do anything regarding posture. Instead, I start yogic breathing, deep down into my abdomen and allow my ribcage and chest to fill with air. This action naturally extends the spine and lifts the chest. A few repetitions asserts the extension and then I focus on using the exhalation to relax my shoulders, neck, groin, hips, knees… As my next extends and my chin comes towards my chest I feel a good connection to and awareness of my breath.

I try to maintain this throughout my practice to see what it brings. It’s certainly brought new insights into Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). And it’s brought a new appreciation for Balasana (Child pose) and Adho Mukha Virasana (Face-down Hero pose).

In Balasana I focus on breathing into my back and minimise any expansion of my chest, which I monitor through the pressure between my chest and thighs. Likewise, in Adho Mukha Virasana I focus on expanding my ribs sideways using the pressure between my ribcage and inner thighs as a guide. I also like to come up onto fingertips of my hands as they extend forward as it helps my thoracic spine to extend.

The ability to controlling my breathing and direct into different areas of my body has done wonders for the development of other poses. By breathing into my back ribs I have found a much improved ability to go deep into forward bends. It also helps with twists like Parivrtta Parsvakonasana where breathing into the front body becomes very compromised and spending anytime in the pose very difficult without being able to use the back to breathe.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring Sun Salutations through breathing, any insights from which I’ll be happy to share.

Let’s get back to work!

Well, it’s been quite a summer. Hopefully you’ve all enjoyed the beautiful weather we’ve had.

Yoga classes at Avonmouth Community Centre will start again on Monday 10th September at the same times as before; 6.15pm- 7.15pm.

My own practice has changed a bit of the last couple of months, currently I’m focussing much more on mobility and relaxation. Classes will start with some gentle exercises and build up to the Sun Salutation sequence, after which we’ll do some standing poses and stretches before relaxation. It’s a routine I’m really enjoying at the minute, I hope you will as well.

Back to normal

Class will start up again tomorrow – Monday 7th May. Class starts at 6.15pm and lasts for an hour. It is run on a drop-in basis so there’s no pressure to sign up for a minimum number of classes, all equipment is provided.

New Year – New Class time

Happy New Year!

There’s a change to the class time for 2018. Class will now run on a Monday evening, 6.15pm – 7.15pm, but the class format is the same. Each week we’ll practice poses and sequences with a different focus each week. Some weeks it might be core strength and balance, some weeks it might be flexibility and other weeks we’ll focus on relaxation.

Classes run on a drop-in basis. Everything is provided but please feel free to use your own mat if you prefer.

Class news

We now have only one class left this year, Friday 22nd December. There will be no class on Friday 15th December or Friday 29th December.

There will be a new class time for 2018, with class moving from Friday afternoon to Monday evening. Class will start at 6.15pm and finish at 7.15pm, the cost per class will be £6. The style of the class won’t change, each week we’ll continue to practice a range of poses with a specific focus (forward bend, backbend etc) and allow time at the end of the class for relaxation.

Be passive – be active

A few months ago I wrote a short entry about using intuition in your yoga practice. Sometimes it can useful to simply put your mat on the floor and start doing some yoga, and see where that leads you. Respond to your body and your mind and let them direct you.

I’m often surprised by what I end up doing when I take this approach, rather than determining the course of my practice consciously at the beginning. If I set myself a conscious direction, then I may end up focussing on particular poses (standing, forward bends) or I may try to deal with something that’s a source of frustration, such as a lack of flexibility in my quads. I think this is mostly influenced by the classes I go to.

The yoga classes I go to are almost exclusively Iyengar. So they’re quite physical and focus on correct alignment in asana. That’s not to say they’re not relaxing. I often find that I’m physically tired at the end of a class which helps me relax deeply in Savasana. But my yoga journey didn’t start with Iyengar. It started with Hatha yoga and Sivananda Yoga – echoes of which continue to resonate in my practice.

Hatha yoga is really a term that covers all physical yoga. Iyengar, Ashtanga, Viniyoga – they are all physical disciplines and so they can all be considered Hatha yoga. Sivananda would come under this heading as well, but Sivananda is really very quiet and gentle compared to Iyengar and Ashtanga.

I think that yoga is a mixture of being active and being passive. The practice of asana is there to help develop the physical strength, stamina and control to help the practitioner to sit comfortably for periods of time where the breath and being quiet is the focus.

When I decide to approach my home practice without any conscious intent, other than practising yoga, I now find that I start and end with a few minutes sitting cross-legged, head bowed forward, relaxing and trying to just focus on my breath and connect with the present. When I get it right (I’m not sure if the idea of right and wrong is really appropriate here) it’s a wonderful feeling – a clear, still mind which isn’t distracted by external or internal events.

Hatha is a word made up of two terms from Sanskrit: Ha which can mean Sun – think activity, physically demanding poses and; Tha which can mean Moon – think passivity, restful and recuperative poses. If you practice a phyiscal form of yoga it’s important, I think, to include elements of both in your practice, whether that’s a conscious decision or not.

170718 Grounding