Perhaps if you think of yoga you imagine something like this. A fabulous, sun-soaked location somewhere exotic, people in brightly coloured outfits, everyone moving as one. Well I hate to let you down but sadly that’s not what this post is about. Come to my rowing club on a Thursday night and you’ll find a bunch of middle-aged women dressed for warmth and comfort rather than style, spread-eagled on mats, grunting, twisting, complaining loudly and laughing riotously. Dignified it ain’t. Fitspo it ain’t. Many of us can’t touch our toes. Most of us are huffing and puffing. And it’s often so cold you can practically see your breath. In fact, as you’ll see from the fuzzy photos below, it’s about as far from the Instagram-perfect version of yoga as you can get. But here’s the thing. Yoga isn’t about looking good. It isn’t even about being super-bendy. And it is, I’ve come to believe, one of the most important parts of my training. That’s why I’m here to tell you why rowers should do yoga.
To row well you really need to have some hamstring flexibility. Stiff hamstrings encourage you to open up too quickly in the drive and make you bend your knees too quickly on the recovery, as well as putting strain on your lower back. Yet most rowers – myself included – have fearsomely tight hamstrings. I demonstrated a hamstring stretch in a recent video, but one of the great things about a yoga class is that hamstring stretches are such a fundamental part of the practice – and you have someone standing over you making you stick at it. Terri, who takes our class, is merciless when it comes to this. “Spark out through those heels… breathe into it… just two more breaths… pause… another pause…” until you’d hand over a substantial sum of money to be released. But it works. Little by little our hamstrings are easing out and lengthening. And I’m hoping it’ll soon show in my stroke.
The first time I went to our yoga class I was getting odd pains in my knees for the first time ever. I couldn’t explain it and it was getting to the point where I was pretty sure I needed to get them looked at. But after just one yoga class working on hip mobility my knee pain vanished. It was, it seems, all tied up with hip stiffness. Yoga is great for loosening up your hips, which in turn helps your rowing: you need a good range of motion in your hips to rock over effectively and maintain good posture.
Having fractured my ankle a few years ago, I know a thing or two about stiff ankles. Basically, they’re not good. If you don’t have proper flexibility in your ankles you won’t get full compression at the catch and will compromise by overreaching. I should know – the camera doesn’t lie and I’ve been caught doing it stroke after stroke after stroke. Yoga poses like the downward facing dog help with the range of motion in your ankles and will directly help your rowing.
I’m always a bit careful in our classes as I have a distinctly dodgy shoulder after a rotator cuff injury a few years ago. But I’ve found that by sticking at the class and working carefully, stopping if it gets too much, my shoulder mobility and strength have all improved. Although of course we’re all about the legs and butt in rowing, our shoulders can take a hammering and we need them to be flexible and strong.
Core stability is perhaps one of the most important bits to work on in rowing. As I learned from Steve Gunn, if you have a weak core it compromises your rowing – you need a strong core to control the force that you’re putting into every stroke, and a strong core helps you resist both leaning back too far at the finish and overreaching at the catch. The problem is we all know we need to work on our core but there rarely seems to be an appropriate moment before or after an outing. Yoga has a strong focus on core stability and your rowing will thank you for it.
What yoga isn’t
Yoga really is for anyone, but there are so many misconceptions about what’s involved – almost as many as with rowing. So let’s be clear what yoga isn’t.
- It doesn’t have to be spiritual. If taking your yoga to another level isn’t for you, find a teacher who takes a more down-to-earth approach. There are lots of them about.
- It doesn’t have to be fancy. Yes, you can go to the Lululemon studio and do your asanas with the glamorous yogarati, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Dusty village halls and primary school gyms up and down the country host classes with normal, non-fancy people in normal, non-fancy clothes. And they don’t charge a fortune.
- It doesn’t have to be super-bendy. Because that’s kind of the point. If you can already twist yourself into a pretzel your need for yoga probably isn’t quite so pressing. Yoga is for the stiff, the hunched, the desk-bound. The less flexible you are the more you need it. And if you find yourself the least supple in the class, just think how great you make everyone else feel.
So go ahead, have a go. I’d strongly advise finding a class rather than learning from an online tutorial. A good teacher will make you feel at ease and, crucially, will correct your pose which will stop you getting injured and help you when you can’t manouevre yourself into the position (oh wait, just me?!) so keep looking until you find someone you like.
Finally, purely for your amusement, here are some pictures of me trying yoga outside last summer and not doing it very well…