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Yoga for Action Girls

Words: Cordelia Brabbs

Photos: Charley Smith and Neilson

Poses modelled by surfer Sarah Bentley wearing Roxy

Photo of Valerie Cowie by Kirsty Maguire

With thanks to Columbia (www.columbia.com)

When the ancient Indian yogis developed a system of postures and breathing techniques to help with their meditation, they’d never have dreamt it would be used 5,000 years later by action girls like surfer Rochelle Ballard to give them the edge in their sport. Yet in surfing circles, and increasingly in other action sports, the practice is now widely recognised as a means of increasing strength, flexibility, grace and fluidity, along with total mental focus and inner stillness. All pretty handy when you’re dropping into a barrel, charging the mountain or tackling a steep bike trail.

Many action sports yogis also find that yoga helps them tap into the same sense of inner harmony and balance that freesports can bring. ‘Both are about being fit and feeling free,’ explains Peggy Hall, creator of the Yoga for Surfers DVDs (featuring Rochelle Ballard and Taylor Knox). ‘They each demand absolute concentration and commitment and totally complement each other.’

Freeride snowboarder Bibi Pekarek, who placed third in this year’s O’Neill Verbier Extreme, believes the increase of yoga’s popularity in the action sports world is down to recognition of the physical benefits. ‘People are seeing that yoga not only makes you fitter, but also helps you relax after an exhausting day on the mountain or in the ocean,’ she says. Most of us might see yoga as a fitness session of flexing and stretching on a brightly-coloured mat, but in its traditional form it’s an holistic system to create benefits for body, mind and spirit.

Each pose or Asana (often given the name of an animal, like dog, crow and cobra) was designed to bring an internal or external physical benefit, including stimulating the lymphatic system for immunity, massaging the internal organs for a detox effect and releasing blocked energy from the muscles. The posture sequences were supplemented with a healthy vegetarian diet, chanting, breathing exercises (pranayama) and philosophical study, all to support the main goal – deep meditation practice.

Yogic Trends

We might not all chant ‘Om’ as we try and make like rubber bands, but we’ve got seriously hooked on yoga – in the US more than 15 million people now incorporate some kind of practice into their exercise regime. Much of this staying power can be put down to the variety of options that are available to yogi-wannabes. Looking for a gentle class that ends in a relaxing meditation? Head for a session of Hatha. Want to get super-strong? Opt for Ashtanga. Fancy sweating while you stretch? Head to a hot room for a blast of Bikram.

Yoga has also stayed fresh with a constant stream of adapted forms and yoga-based exercise systems. One of the most interesting new developments for action girls is Sun Power Yoga (www.sun-power-yoga.co.uk), developed by British yoga instructor Anne-Marie Newland to create a system designed to help prevent sporting injuries. The challenging postures, a combination of Hatha, Sivananda, and Ashtanga, have helped professional surfers, snowboarders, skiers and footballers to reduce injury and improve performance.

Another new form in Europe is Jivamukti Yoga, which already has a huge following in New York and Germany (the London centre has only been open for eight months). A revamped version of traditional Ashtanga practice, Jivamukti comprises 75 minutes of unbroken flow from pose to limb-wrenching pose, and 15 minutes of traditional chanting and meditation (www.jivamuktiyoga.co.uk).

Not all the new types of yoga involve stretching on a mat. Gyrotonics is a yoga-influenced method that involves working out on a pulley tower against even resistance weights, a system originally designed to help dancers lengthen and strengthen their muscles without adding bulk (it was originally named “Yoga for Dancers”). And just heading over from the States is Budokon (“Way of the Spiritual Warrior”), a hardcore combination of martial arts moves, yoga poses and mind-focusing meditation that celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox have been quick to endorse.

All Action Asanas

With all these new breeds of yoga available, athletes and sporting associations are increasingly acknowledging the benefits of bending, and everyone from tennis champ Maria Sharapova to the Manchester United football team are shaping up with sun salutations.

But according to Anne-Marie Newland, Europe is well behind the US. ‘A lot of my clients, especially footballers, are still reluctant to say they do it in public, while in the States even the most macho of sports like American Football are open about it,’ she says.

The same couldn’t be said about the action sports world – any surfer girl could tell the footballers how much yoga helps with focus and fitness. Turn up half an hour before a surf contest and chances are you’ll find the pros dotted around the beach limbering up in downward dog pose. ‘Yoga and surfing go hand in hand,’ says Irish surf champ Easkey Britton. ‘I see people practising it on the beach before a session, and at our Animal surf camp in Morocco there were post-surf yoga classes every day.’

‘Training camps for sponsored surfers incorporate a lot of yoga now,’ agrees Robyn Davies, O’Neill and Extreme Channel surfer. ‘It’s recognised as an essential part of the sport.’

The physical benefits include increased strength, stamina, flexibility and balance – all essential for board sports. ‘The poses will make your general posture and balance so much better, and your body will become strong and supple, leading to less injury and better performance,’ explains Rodney Yee, yoga expert and creator of Gaiam’s Yoga Conditioning for Athletes DVD (www.yeeyoga.com).

‘Yoga is a great compliment to more active cardiovascular workouts or extreme sports,’ adds Diane Lee, a yoga instructor who runs Neilson’s Yoga Weeks. ‘The posture-based forms build endurance, strength and postural awareness.’

‘Yoga is so great for surfers because it is core strengthening, keeps you limber and less prone to injury, and allows you to use your power with softness instead of pushing too hard with strength,’ adds Ballard.

Even the hybrid forms of yoga like Gyrotonic have massive physical benefits for action sports. ‘You develop very strong core muscles with Gyrotonic, as you’re constantly working from the centre of your body,’ explains Penny Withers, Gyrotonic instructor and director of the Penny Withers Studio in Glasgow (www.pennywithers.co.uk). ‘This really helps with core-centred sports like surfing and snowboarding.’

You won’t have to wait long to see the benefits either. Commit to practising yoga regularly and within a month you will notice your balance, flexibility and core strength improving. Roxy team surfer Sarah Bentley, who modelled our workout, noticed the change in her performance within weeks of starting. ‘My turns got more fluid, because I began using my whole body and not just my legs and feet,’ she says. ‘I felt totally in tune.’

Robyn Davies got hooked on yoga with a surf trip to Australia, where she flexed and flowed for three hours a day. ‘It made an unbelievable difference to my surfing,’ she says. ‘It gave me so much confidence and I felt like my body was able to do so much more.’

Combining yoga and actions sports is something that ice climber Valerie Cowie knows all about. She runs her own company, Leadhership (yogaval@btinternet.com), in which she teaches personal development and yoga, and mastering key yoga techniques has helped her to conquer the mountains. ‘For me, remembering to breathe is where yoga and ice climbing meet,’ she says. ‘The ability to focus with the elements around you and continue to climb with strength and mental focus through breathing, has, over the years allowed my climbing to become enjoyable, confident and not a strenuous chore. In the midst of the ice, rock, spindrift, cold and steepness, my ability to not be flustered and stay calm has given me the enjoyment of true climbing. ‘When you reach the bottom of a climb, Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) is especially good for balancing your body and hormones,’ she adds. ‘Finish off with an easy twist Sukhasana Parivritta (sitting crossed legged and twisting to each side) which allows your spine to stay supple and prepares your body for food!’

Fighting Fear

As any pro will tell you, performing well on the waves, in the park or on the rock-face is about so much more than sheer physical strength. Mental focus is crucial too. If you drop into a wave or the halfpipe feeling fear, thinking negatively, or not concentrating, you increase your chances of crashing out.

Sports psychologist Andy Barton insists that our minds and bodies are inextricably linked, and we are more likely to achieve things -like that backside 360 – if we believe we can do it.

The yogic practice of Pranayama (breathing) helps to slow down your mind and take your focus beyond what’s happening around you to bring your awareness deep inside your body. Part of the traditional system also includes a daily meditation practice, where you work on stilling your mind to the point where you feel deep peace and relaxation. This means that you’ll have enough control over your mind to visualise a positive outcome to your ride, rather than getting caught up in fear.

‘The meditation side of yoga can help you calm your mind to focus on positive mental rehearsal techniques, which always work better when you’re relaxed,’ he says.

‘You learn to stay calm and focused no matter what is going on, so you can flow more effortlessly on the waves or slopes,’ agrees Hall. ‘You stop second-guessing yourself and instead tap into the deepest part of yourself where you are always grounded and free.’

Give Yourself an Edge

Stress levels before competing can be excruciatingly high, whichever sport you’re involved in. Anne-Marie Newland has worked with sportsmen and women across the board, from surfers and snowboarders to runners and golfers.

‘I’ve seen people become physically ill and even mentally deranged because of the immense pressure on them,’ she says. ‘And if your mind doesn’t switch off then you’re wasting energy and tire more easily. Yoga gives athletes an edge because it’s so absorbing that they get mental rest before they compete.’

The snowboarders she works with have found they have been able to recognise when their breathing is getting shallow at high altitude. They are then able to consciously slow down their minds, adjust their breath and take in more oxygen.

‘When I’m waiting at the top of a mountain, I tend to get really nervous and breathe badly. I used to get out of breath after a few turns which can be fatal during a freeride contest,’ says Bibi Pekarek, who uses yogic breathing to help on her big mountain runs. ‘Now I take conscious deep yogic breaths to help me breathe properly and stay calm.’

The same benefits go for surfers: ‘Your breath is key to how you process things and respond,’ explains Ballard. ‘If you are breathing through your stomach with your diaphragm, it means your body can process more efficiently with less tension and stress.’

Even just a simple combination of a muscle-warming pose with some deep breathing can help combat pre-comp jitters. ‘When I get nervous I get shaky legs, so I’ll do the warrior pose to get some strength and focus back,’ says Davies. ‘It really calms my nerves.’

Om Your Way to a Size 10

While yoga can get you fit, flexible and focused, those aren’t the only benefits. Scientific studies have revealed many advantages, including improvements in stress levels, back pain, arthritis, asthma, ADHD, injury rehab and even weight loss.

Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle recently revealed that yoga can help overweight 45-55-year-olds to shed pounds and help normal-weight people avoid middle-aged spread. And boffins at Hampton University in Virginia found that in a group of obese teenagers, those who practised yoga for 12 weeks lost an average of 6lbs.

Yoga also creates a feel-good feeling, and can go as far as lifting depression. ‘First of all you are increasing the feel good hormones oxctocin and prolactin, while reducing the stress hormone cortisol,’ explains Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression (www.yogafordepression.com). ‘Second, you are increasing oxygen to the lungs, and third you are stimulating the vagus nerve with some of the breathing exercises, which is known as a treatment for depression.’

You will only reap these benefits if you commit to regular practice though. ‘You wouldn’t take an anti-depressant medication once or twice a week and expect to feel good all the time,’ points out Weintraub.

Even if you don’t need to beat the blues, you can reap incredible lifestyle benefits. ‘Yoga is just as powerful off the mat as on it,’ believes Britton. ‘The ancient teachings and practices can be applied to daily challenges in life and help you overcome obstacles.’

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