Let’s face it, workouts are tough. We love the feeling afterwards, but struggle during the actual process. Our brain seems to always be looking for the finish line and therefore we become acutely aware of the strain being put on our bodies.
That feeling has caused me to have a love/hate relationship with exercise for many years. I dreaded having to workout and the mental and physical strain that came along with it, but I loved being healthy and the “high” I would get when it was over with. That was until my friend Anna taught me to change the way I thought about exercise. She helped me incorporate meditation in my workout.
I know, it sounds strange, but it has helped me to be conscious of my body while I’m exercising and truly enjoy my workout. Meditation can be applied to most workouts, but I’m only going to highlight the workouts that I have applied it to.
Growing up I was a pretty active kid. I participated in just about every sport, and naturally running was something that I did a lot of. I always viewed it as a type of punishment, for instance if the team performed poorly in a game we would be punished by having to run ladders. This framed my view of running as something that wasn’t supposed to be enjoyable. The notion of “runner’s high” was something that largely eluded me, but by changing the way I thought about running I was able to enjoy it.
To incorporate meditation into your running you need the brain to be present in the moment. This means being aware of what the body is feeling, but not needing to immediately address whatever pain it may be feeling and continuing on your run.
Secondly running incorporates rhythmic breathing patterns, be aware of this and try to breathe deep from the abdominal. Lastly, vary the locations of your run. This helps create the sense of a new and exciting experience.
Swimming, with the possible exception of yoga, could be the exercise that is most conducive to a meditative state. Everything from the color blue promoting a sense of calm and depth, to the way the ebb and flow of an ocean tide simulates deep, relaxed breathing. Water has always helped humans achieve a meditative state and it turns out that our favorite water based exercise does too.
If you think about it, swimming mimics many of qualities of basic meditation. Rhythmic and deep breathing helps put the mind at ease and enables it to be aware of the bodies muscle motions. Immersion in water helps the body naturally relax and the strokes used during swimming allow the skeletal muscles to loosen up, which allows the brain to be aware and present to the exercise at hand.
You may saying, yeah that sounds good, but the water makes me cold and therefore unable to relax. For those more cold blooded individuals, picking the right wetsuit will keep your body temperature up.
Clearly the most obvious choice for this list. Many of us think of yoga as a stretching class that is mainly practiced by women, but this misconception couldn’t be further from the truth. Yoga does involve a lot of stretching, but it’s also an incredibly good exercise. Like the other exercises, yoga, especially when done in a class, promotes a sense of awareness of the body and what it is feeling while your muscles work to hold your body in position.
Simultaneously the deep and rhythmic breathing involved allows your mind to focus on maintaining your pose and receive the full benefit of the workout. If you really want to take your meditation to the next level you can do your yoga in the pool. The buoyancy of the water makes it more comfortable and has less impact on your body.
Working out is never going to be completely painless. There is always going to be challenges involved with exercising, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a painful experience. I’ve certainly changed the way I look at working out. Being present and aware of your body while focusing on your breathing and taking a positive approach into your workout can help you achieve a meditative state while working out!
When we fall into a workout routine, our moves become automatic, and the body quickly adapts. This is called muscle memory. While teaching your body how to properly execute squats, push-ups, or crunches is a benefit, overly relying on these moves to consistently grow gains won’t yield the kind of results you want. That’s because the muscles work in the same way every time.
Simply put, they’re not being “surprised,” so they get lazy.
Supplementing your routine with flow yoga is one way of surprising your muscles, especially if you are new to the yoga practice and have never tried the postures. It’s like taking a new road home when you drive, deviating from your usual route. Science has found that by doing so, you’re creating new neuropathways in your brain. The same is done in your muscles when you try a new routine.
How Flow Yoga Boost Your Gains in Your Workout Routine
Think about your current workouts:
If you lift weights, you rely on external tools to engage your various muscle groups. Over time, your shoulders, legs, or biceps will come to expect the weighted plates or dumbbells, in the repetitive sequences that you remember.
In flow yoga, we use the body as the weight. Add gravity and hundreds of different postures and combinations, and you have a workout that uses the same muscle groups, but in many different ways.
A pose such as plank is a full-body workout, with every muscle engaged to keep the body in one long line. While it’s a stationary pose, it requires muscle control and activation, with no room for passivity.
A Flow sequence, on the other hand, requires your muscle to switch from one pose to another swiftly, providing you with a more balanced and wholesome use of your major muscle groups.
Not only do these poses and routines re-energize the body in a refreshing way, they also allow you to learn something new, which is powerful for the mind.
Bottom line? Complementing your exercise regimen with flow yoga is like hitting the shuffle button on your workouts, using your muscles in ways that “surprise” them, which in turn boost their growth and performance.
Energizing Flow Yoga with Added Cardio
Flow yoga is also known as “Vinyasa.” In Sanskrit – the sacred language of the practice and its Indian roots – Vinyasa is roughly translated to “one breath, one movement.”
This guideline, first and foremost, enhances your breathing, and teaches you how to go from our typical shallow, chest-only breathing, to a more deeper, belly-chest breath that uses the entire lung system.
Not only is this beneficial for a myriad of healthcare reasons (combat allergies, eliminate toxins, reduce stress, ease anxiety), it also greatly impacts our muscles, and therefore our workout.
Flooding your muscles with rich oxygen will only keep them healthy, while the cardio benefit will get you warmed up to take on the more challenging postures in a flow yoga class. This prevents injuries and cramping.
The best example of energizing cardio in flow yoga is the Sun Salutation sequence. Each pose is completed on an inhale or an exhale, until the sequence is finished. One full sequence may be repeated several times, encouraging you to take fuller and deeper breaths. The cycles warm up and loosen the body and prepare the muscles for stationary poses that are held longer.
Here’s how to do a Sun Salutation Flow:
Due to the Sun Salutations, the muscles are not thrown into a challenging workout, but rather primed and prepared with energizing breath.
Why is this important, you ask? Because happy muscles are warmed-up muscles.
The Best Thing About Flow Yoga
The best thing about practicing flow yoga? You’re building strength and flexibility.
Strength and flexibility are like the Mecca of a wholesome workout routine. Before we get into why this is important, let’s break these two down individually to see how they stand up on their own:
Meet Strong Stan
Strong Stan is at the gym, doing bicep curls with massive dumbbells. His muscles have peaked in size, and he proudly displays them.
While he loves to lift weights, Strong Stan often skips stretching or warm-ups. He just doesn’t see how that could help him continue his muscle gains, so he jumps right into a heavy workout.
While it’s not evident to a passerby, Stan’s muscles are hurting. Without sufficient flexibility or deliberate stretching, Stan’s muscles are shortening and getting tighter. This eventually leads to joint injuries, because un-stretched muscles have limited range of motion.
Big muscles are a sure indicator of strength, but here’s the kicker – choosing not to prioritize flexibility will keep them inherently at risk.
Meet Flexible Fiona
Flexible Fiona is in a flow yoga class, easing herself into a backbend. She effortlessly gets into the pose, and “hangs” out there for a few breaths while the teacher cues the class.
Even though the teacher instructs the students to engage their glutes and be mindful that this is an active pose, Flexible Fiona opts otherwise, and relaxes into the posture by sacrificing the strength she ought to be building.
To many in the class, Fiona’s execution of the backbend would be a success – maybe even something to envy. However, what Fiona doesn’t realize is that her excessive flexibility is actually a detriment to her joints.
Flexibility has been defined as the “absolute range of motion” by Tony Gummerson, Martial Arts instructor. For people who are naturally flexible, that line of absolute range is often blurry and, in practice, overlooked.
It’s very easy for Fiona to go above and beyond her range of motion, since her flexibility parameters are much wider than what Strong Stan may experience in a similar pose.
Because she doesn’t feel the stretch in the same degree of motion as other students in class, Fiona has to push the envelope of her flexibility. This puts too much pressure on the joints that are already overworked, and it overstretches the muscles that are now prone to tearing.
Your goal is to create muscle and joint balance and wholeness.
What Strong Stan and Flexible Fiona have in common is that they’re both missing vital pieces of muscle awareness.
In Stan’s case, heavy and tight muscles crave flexibility. Without it, not only would Stan hit a plateau in his gains because of a sure injury, but he would miss out on having the lean and toned muscles that we all want to have.
In Fiona’s case, her overstretched muscles are not getting a workout at all. Rather, her excessive flexibility is resting on her joints, which leads to definite injury.
So what can you do? It’s quite simple.
You have to give your muscles the opposite of what they’re used to.
If you’re a Stan and hate stretching, focusing on your flexibility is key. You will lengthen your tight muscles, and you’ll create new muscle memory by practicing routines that are new to you and your muscle groups.
If you’re a Fiona and hate strengthening, focusing on this priority is vital. Your muscles are used to being passive as you stretch, so shaking up the usual and putting them to work will not only keep you injury-free, but that much closer to the muscle gains you’ve been looking for.
Fortunately, flow yoga is the whole package, and can be the one-stop-shop for both Stan and Fiona.
If you’re serious about using flow yoga to supplement your workout routine to boost gains, sign up for a class at your local gym or yoga studio. There are a number of styles of yoga to try, but as we’ve discussed in this article, the Vinyasa style is your best bet to complement a moderate exercise regimen.
Many studios offer beginner-style Vinyasa classes, where the instructor will explain the basics, and break down the sequences in a pace that is suitable for entry-level students. From here, the student can build upon their practice, and opt for more challenging, fast-paced classes, such as Power Flow or Ashtanga.
Working out is a lesson in teaching your muscles. The gains that we grow are the result of that experience, and it all comes down to conditioning our body in a way that is healthy, efficient, and balanced.
With a practice like flow yoga, we can offer supplemental training to our current regimen that will work our muscles in ways that are new, refreshing, and “surprising.” This method will keep our muscles toned and lean, as long as we prioritize the balance between strength and flexibility to ensure that we’re meeting both of these needs. Our muscle gains and body health depend on it.