For the last month and a half, I have been doing a lot of yoga. I’ve found yoga valuable in the past. For instance, when I was just beginning to recover from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, yoga was one of the first forms of exercise that I was able to attempt. I could do it at home, stop any time, didn’t need any assistance, and there was no risk of becoming stranded as a result of fatigue – which could have happened at that stage had a gone for a walk on my own and become too tired to make it back.
It’s quite amazing to think of how weak I had become as a result of being debilitated by CFS. Things like chair pose, high lunges or cobras which I now perform easily as part of an active recovery really tested my muscular strength and endurance back then.
I have used yoga as part of my tapering before competition as well. While reducing training load before competitions helps to prevent injury and allow recovery, it also leaves a lot of time for the mind to wander and fall into anxious and unhelpful thought processes if left unchecked. Yoga was a form of moving meditation for me in those times, giving my mind something to focus on while also assisting in my recovery, helping me to regulate my breathing, and releasing tight muscles and improving my range of motion.
I started making my yoga practice a part of my regular routine when I realised that it was no longer an option or luxury, but an absolute necessity. Towards the end of last semester, I was becoming very stressed, and as is usual for me at times when there is too much activity and not enough recovery, I started to experience a relapse in symptoms.
One of the concepts which helped me in being able to live with CFS and then with its aftermath – that is, the ever-present threat of relapse – was the concept of energy being a finite resource. You can think of it like money – you make money, you can save money, you can spend money, and then via your credit card you can spend beyond your means by creating an “energy debt”. Just like financial debt, energetic debt has to be repaid – usually with interest.
Using this analogy, I have been able to identify over the years the things which make money – that is, generate energy – and the things that spend money, or use energy. I use energy through activities of daily living, like driving, as well as in training, working, studying, negotiating stressful situations, competing, dieting and weight-cutting, and even just being in noisy or crowded environments. I create energy through sleep, naps, yoga, swimming, eating well, being at home, being alone and being in nature. I know how intangible all of this sounds, but I’m well past the point of having rhetorical arguments with myself about how my body “should” and shouldn’t operate. I just accept now that this is the way that I am, and there are certain things that I need in order to continue to function.
And so yoga – along with sleep, good food (which has resulted in me being slightly heavier), swimming and afternoon naps before training – made its way into my regular routine. Recovery is no longer something that I can think of as an automatic process. It’s something that I have to facilitate very deliberately, in the same way that I facilitate increases in strength, fitness and skill-level through time spent training.
Including yoga as a regular practice has helped me to increase my flexibility and range of motion considerably. While I have always had some degree of flexibility – head-kicks and rubber-guard are more than achievable for me, for instance – I have also struggled in the past with some really basic movements – like being able to bend my wrists enough to stand on my hands, having the flexibility in my hip-flexors to get height in my back-bridge, having enough range-of-motion to not need to tap to kimuras the instant they’re put on, or having full range-of-motion at my ankle after a high ankle sprain earlier this year.
The back-bends and twists in yoga are helping to mobilise my thoracic spine, which has meant that my recurring neck issues now recur much less often, meaning far fewer trips to the chiropractor despite the fact that I have hugely increased the demands on my neck through increased volume and intensity of wrestling training.
Practising yoga with mental focus allows me to experience a state in which there is no competition, no striving, no struggle, and to maintain a greater degree of equanimity while in uncomfortable positions – and uncomfortable positions are something that every jiu jitsu practitioner is faced with regularly.
Recently in training, my flexibility has been commented on as an asset, so while I still have a long way to go in terms of skills and strength, at least I know that I am on the right path with this particular attribute!
Being in touch with my own body and exploring different poses through yoga has also helped me to prescribe effective stretches and to teach them more effectively to clients. As with all aspects of fitness, academic knowledge is only valuable if you have the practical experience and the personal empathy necessary to be able to transfer this knowledge to others. In fact, I’ve found the practice of yoga to be so beneficial, not only to myself as an athlete but to my work as a personal trainer, that I’m strongly considering undertaking yoga teacher training in order to increase my understanding and incorporate yoga more formally into my work.