Do you cross-train?
Most yogis don’t. And while I love my yoga, I’ve discovered that for some yogis, like me, just yoga alone may not offer everything that our bodies need.
Before I first discovered yoga, I was basically a sedentary person. Gym class and exercise were things I endured rather than pursued. Yet in my late 20’s I became fanatical about “aerobic” (aka cardio) classes. I think it was because I was energized by the early ‘80’s dance music and was motivated by how well it kept me toned and thin. (My high metabolism was starting to slow so I couldn’t just lounge and stay thin anymore).
Eventually, I tired of this and it wasn’t until I left my corporate job in my late 40’s that I once again committed to a yoga practice. At first, it was a stretching routine after a grueling weight training and/or cardio workout in my attempts to get back in shape after a long hiatus. But when I returned to work, I decided that if I had to make time for some form of physical regime, it would have to be yoga, since I couldn’t imagine my life without it.
At first I thought I would invest in some personal training, get a couple of routines that I could do on my own and use that to supplement my yoga practice, but I found my way to Pilates because my gym was offering a special deal for semi-private Pilates sessions. I had done mat Pilates at my gym, but didn’t really find it challenging enough.
Here was my thinking: maybe semi-private sessions might help me understand Pilates better; the apparatus always looked intriguing to me; Joseph Pilates designed his system to help boxers have more power and better coordination; dancers love Pilates; and some of the moves were reminiscent of yoga.
I discovered very quickly that Pilates is the perfect complement to my yoga practice. Like yoga, it gently allows you to work the whole body without any jarring impact, yet it offers a strengthening component often missing in yoga. After I started a regular Pilates practice (just once a week), my yoga practice became more controlled and graceful and I found my alignment more effortlessly.
How did this happen? Here are some things that Pilates did for me.
Core Stability. Pilates helped me to understand my core (or powerhouse) – how to stabilize it and how stability enhances all complex movements, especially yoga postures. What is the core? All the muscles that surround your torso. Vinyasa was my yoga of choice at that time, but while I was moving very quickly from pose to pose, I found that I wasn’t paying attention to how I was transitioning between poses. Basically, I got there however I could, gracefully or not. When you initiate action by first stabilizing your core, your movement relies less on momentum and more on muscle engagement to ground through the foundation and move freely against the grounding.
Active Dynamic Stretching of the Joints. Much of yoga focuses on stretching rather than strengthening the joints. Yes, we’re taught to find the balance between effort and ease and to engage muscles as we’re going deeper into a pose, but except for our body weight, there isn’t any additional load to our muscles and joints. Pilates, through the use of resistance springs on the apparatus, not only holds the body in the correct position for the exercises, but also puts some additional load on our muscles and joints as we move through our natural range of motion. This dynamic stretching strengthens joints, and ultimately results in more easeful range of motion (not necessarily greater range, which is not really the point.) By the way, Therabands in a yoga practice provide the same dynamic effect.
Strengthening vs. Stretching. Many Pilates positions are similar or even identical to yoga asanas. Swan, in Pilates, is either cobra or locust in yoga; rollover is similar to plow and shoulderstand; teaser is basically boat or navasana; down-stretch on the reformer is a dynamic up-dog; up-stretch is similar to down-dog to plank and back. The major difference is the focus during the movement. In yoga, the emphasis is more on deepening the stretch, while in Pilates, the focus is on the strengthening and movement and less on flexibility. The breathing is often different because of this. In Pilates, we do several (up to 10) reps of each move rather than holding a pose. And the focus is on holding the core or the pelvis relatively stable while we move other parts of our body with resistance springs, moving slowly without using momentum, so that the muscles are truly working.
Exploring Similar Poses with a Different Focus. Because the two disciplines have a slightly different focus, it allows me to look at similar positions or poses from a different perspective. I’ve become less tied to doing things “the right way” and become more interested in exploration and seeing how a slight change in focus can help me better understand my body and its movements. Pilates helped me to understand how to plug my shoulders in and to keep my ribs from thrusting forward better than yoga did, because the springs will pull you around if you’re not properly engaged.
Strengthening Muscles Ignored in Yoga. Yoga works the whole body, but there are certain muscle movements that are often ignored. The best example is strengthening of the hamstrings. Most yoga poses stretch, rather than strengthen, the hamstrings. Think forward folds – Sun Salutation A has twice as many forward bends as it does backbends. How many of us have had hamstring injuries from overstretching and under-strengthening? A Pilates session usually includes hamstring and glute strengthening with the use of the springs on the reformer, tower, or chair. Also, we do a lot of pushing with our arms and upper body in yoga – as in Chaturanga and Plank and any arm balance, but we rarely do any pulling to strengthen pecs and biceps to balance out the tricep and shoulder work. In Pilates, we’re constantly pulling with our arms on the equipment springs.
Slow Controlled Movement and Self-exploration. What I love most about yoga is the slow thoughtful movements. Pilates is the same. It’s less about how much you do as it is about how you’re doing it and the focus you’re placing on the parts of the body you’re moving. What is staying stable and what is moving in the joints, and how does it feel in your body? All this while moving with springs on your arms or legs. Pilates also understands that the feet as our foundation are a key to healthy movement. Pilates is done mostly seated on lying down, but every session includes footwork to work the feet in flexion and extension and to stretch the arches.
My final point is that while Pilates may not call to you the same way it does to me, ultimately, it makes sense to explore other physical disciplines and to find one that helps balance out your yoga practice. It may just be a matter of doing more than one style of yoga to change up the focus. It may mean spending time walking outside to get some more cardio and a change of perspective.
Just love your body in as many ways as you can!
May Louie first took yoga in college to fulfill a Phys-Ed requirement and immediately fell in love. She, unfortunately, did not continue with her practice but reconnected with it when she retired from her corporate job in 2002 and has since become a serious yoga enthusiast. After her second retirement in 2017, she completed her 200-hour RYT certification, studying with Dina Crosta, Ellen Mosko, and Jamie Segal Hanley, with a focus on alignment based flow.
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