Written by Jennifer Pool, Co-Founder & COO
Before anyone thinks I’m some peace-loving, Namaste-saying yogi writing an article to promote yoga to martial artists, let me first admit that up until February of 2014 I thought yoga was ridiculous. I’d gone to a few classes at different studios and had some bad experiences combined with little-to-no exercise or challenge. If you’ve read my bio or know me personally, you know that I’m a bit of a challenge seeker. When I do something physical I want it to both sweat and stretch my brain. Yoga just didn’t do that for me, and it wasn’t until I had my second child and was trying to physically and mentally recover from a hard pregnancy, post-partum depression, and general life-stress that I even considered stepping a toe into another yoga studio.
A good friend of mine swore by yoga, but wasn’t pushy about it; she answered all my weird questions about it, and was gently encouraging about checking out the studio that she’d been going to for the past couple years. The stars aligned, and I ended up going to a class that over an incredibly sweaty, yet relaxing, hour and fifteen minutes, made me fall in love with yoga. As I got back into practice for Gaia Chuan, I started seeing more parallels between the two, the balance each brought into my own life, and how yoga complimented martial arts, and vice versa.
Having been a martial artist first, the skills that I learned from being a student in that art also helped to make me a better yoga practitioner. Little things such as being aware of my body and what it was doing, the importance of breath and proper breathing, and the idea of being disciplined in mind, body and spirit had all been previously instilled me. The reminder that patience is required to succeed was a great reminder as I didn’t even have the flexibility to put my heels near the yoga mat while in a basic downward dog position in those first few classes. But, I remembered that with both consistent practice and discipline like I’d had while I’d been pursuing martial arts years prior, I’d eventually be able to reach the goals I wanted to reach with yoga. And reaching those goals with yoga would help me reach the new goals I’d developed for my practice with Gaia Chuan.
All this being said, how, especially for those of you who are like how I used to be, and have little to no belief in the power of yoga, could yoga possibly help with my practice of Gaia Chuan? Here’s a little list I’ve compiled over the past year:
I am not one of those graceful people who glide through life. I trip and stumble my way through most things, and with feet and ankles that have been permanently damaged because of injuries I sustained in the Marine Corps, it’s about 10 times harder for me to retain any semblance of balance. In fact, I figured before I started doing yoga, that I’d never be able to do martial arts again because of my lack of balance.
In yoga, poses like tree pose requires you to stand balanced on one leg for a period of time. With continued practice my internal equilibrium became more balanced, and in doing so built up not must my weak muscles but my mental focus which contributes to the ability to balance. When in a difficult pose, the yoga instructor would encourage the students to find one spot in the room to focus on. The less you thought about the pose, the more you’d allow your body to do what it needed to do. Being able to focus and just allow my body to do what it needed to do without the clutter of my expectations (or, frustrations), is something that can only help improve your ability to learn martial arts.
DEVELOP AND IMPROVE FLEXIBILITY
Yoga poses work by stretching your muscles, which in turn helps your body to feel less stiff and tired. If you’ve ever practiced martial arts, you know that being able to feel less stiff and tired really helps in aiding with recovery time and improving practice. Being able to stretch farther due to flexibility greatly increases kicking distance and power, which is important to do if you want to continue improving your training and ability to defend yourself.
INCREASED ENDURANCE AND FOCUS
Endurance of both body and mind is also very important to a martial artist, and as a yoga student, having to hold different asanas (or “posture”) for long periods of time has helped to increase both my physical and mental stamina, and become more focused. Being able to push through physically demanding workouts when my (first two) knuckles were bleeding and/or my leg muscles were threatening to quit, required both the physical and mental toughness that yoga with it’s gentle, but persistent, requirement of endurance helped instill in me.
Core strength is important as it helps to stabilize your entire body. In yoga practice you’re constantly being reminded to engage your core while in your different poses, and if you do, you find your posture changes and your pose strengthens. The ability to stabilize your body is essential to proper self defense and martial arts in general. A strong core means having better balance and stability, stamina, offense (as punches and kicks require rotation), defense (increased protection from strikes to your internal organs), and power (speed + rotation).
Performing a yoga asana post martial-arts workout can help the muscles relax and recover more quickly than normal. Many yoga poses have actual health and healing benefits to them, and as someone with a lot of issues, particularly with my back, I’ve seen lasting improvements that nothing else I’ve ever done or tried in my life has helped with. Because I’m able to recover more quickly, and address aches and pains with particular yoga postures, my ability to practice Gaia Chuan has increased (despite pulled muscles, fractured toes, a sprained ankle and a variety of other ailments.)
Well known fighters such as Chuck Liddell and Diego Sanchez have espoused the benefits of yoga to practitioners of martial arts; particularly those that require a lot of grappling and ground fighting for many of the same reasons I’ve listed above.
Both yoga and martial arts are different from other “sports” or “fitness” programs as neither require or celebrate points or goals. Both take their students on a personal journey that can last a lifetime if one so chooses. There is no finish line, just practice and personal improvement.