Being Flexible: Insights from Yoga

January 2014 marked my official one year anniversary as a student of yoga.  Our instructors (at 3 Bridges Yoga in Durham and Portsmouth, NH, and York, ME) are kind enough to call us “yogis”, which I have always understood to mean someone who is a master of yoga—and I am far from that!  But for simplicity’s sake I will use the term “yogi” in this blog when referring to myself and fellow students at our studio.

“But we thought this blog was about horses, and riding, and all of that,” says You the Reader.  “Why are you talking about yoga?”

Well, because the more I learn about yoga, the more I like it, and the more connections I can make to the pursuit of equestrian interests.   In fact, some people (and especially my ex) have told me for years that I really should try yoga.  “Yoga would be so good for your tight hamstrings.”  “Yoga can really help you to relax; you are always so wound up.”  “Yoga is a really good work out, not like going to the gym at all.”  But if you know me at all, pretty much the best way to guarantee that I WON’T do something is to tell me it is just the thing I should do.  I thought yoga would be a bunch of overly positive and bendy people sitting on mats, breathing and sweating.  What I found is that there are in fact lots of positive people at yoga, as well as bendy ones, and you do breathe and sweat.  But yoga HAS been good for my tight hamstrings, and to help me relax, and to cross train muscles that I don’t use in other aspects of my life.  Gosh darn if my ex wasn’t right…wonder what else he was right about…but I digress!

There are many physical benefits to the body from doing yoga.  For equestrians in particular, yoga improves flexibility and suppleness across the board, but especially in the hips, shoulders and spine.  You will expand your ability to center and balance.  You can increase your core strength and stability.  And yoga is low impact, so it doesn’t wear out important joints like your knees or jar your back. For these reasons alone, yoga is good for equestrians.

But what especially surprised me was how much you can learn about the psychology of riding effectively through the practice of yoga.  So, here are five important insights I have learned from yoga, and how they relate to my world as an equestrian.

Insight # 1:  Be Present

One of the best things about yoga is its emphasis on “being present”.  I have often seen this phrase printed on t-shirts and stickers and thought “that’s a good sentiment, but who has time?” When you come to the yoga studio, ‘being present’ is a real and actual thing which you strive to do.   I can get so busy, sometimes it feels like I am just frantically running from one activity to the next, valiantly trying to extinguish one fire before it ignites something else.  My mind is always racing, full of random thoughts about this and that, to the point that I have taken to carrying around a “Take a Note Notebook”, where I can at least jot down the random thoughts which pop into my head while I am doing one thing that have nothing to do with that thing at all.  In this way I can let go of the thoughts and try to focus on what I am supposed to be doing.

In the practice of yoga, the best teachers acknowledge the fact that we all have a stream of thoughts running through our head that has nothing to do with what we are doing and which draw our focus and attention away from the moment at hand.  So while you are reading this blog, you might also be thinking, “oh, I needed to pick up some bread” or “gee whiz, I never got the laundry done”.  Another example, and more significant:  how many times have you been in conversation with someone, and all you are doing is thinking about your response to what they are saying, rather than listening?  Our yoga teachers would just tell us to acknowledge those random thoughts and then send them on their way.

Yoga practice at our studio begins with a few moments of “arriving on your mat”.  We sit in a comfortable seat, close our eyes, and send those miscellaneous thoughts out of our minds.  Instead, you concentrate on your breath, and on how your body is feeling that day.  Now, I used to think that this was all yoga was—sitting still, breathing in and out, occasionally doing a movement.  But this quiet and focused breathing is just the beginning— and also the essence, as when the practice becomes too much or you have lost your way, you return to the breath.

Unfortunately, this same mental chatter follows me onto my horses when I ride.  For me, riding is the best part of my day—getting to the barn is the first thing I want to do, and I would always prefer to ride early in the day, when my energy is highest and my focus most clear.  But it is not always possible.  When my mind is busy, and I do not focus on what I am feeling in the horse, the quality of my communication immediately deteriorates.  Riding with a distracted mind is probably as unsuccessful as when we ride with a strong agenda.   The Dark Mare (Lee) is especially sensitive to my lack of focus.

Yoga has increased my ability to send those extraneous thoughts out of my mind.  I realize that now, when my mind starts to get distracted and I have circled the ring without focus, I am more quickly aware of the fact and able to return to the present moment.  In riding, it is also easy to only concentrate on the long term goal, and in so doing, we miss all of the present moments which help us to get there.  But even more significantly, if we cannot learn to focus on the minute to minute of the day to day, we may be less likely to get to the ultimate goal we are aiming for.

The Dark Mare at a dressage clinic, 2011
The Dark Mare at a dressage clinic, 2011

Insight # 2:  Find your Edge

Yoga is an individual practice.  We are encouraged to keep our focus on our own mats, meaning that you are not letting your eyes wander around the room to see how and what everyone else is doing.  By maintaining focus on your own mat, you become more aware of how a pose or posture is feeling within your own body, and you are able to focus on your own breath.  When I am able to maintain this focus, the rest of the room sort of disappears, and I am able to acknowledge how I am feeling that day and at that moment.

Each pose has variations.  Each pose has levels of difficulty, which is a uniquely personal quality to define.  What I find easy you may find quite difficult. It is up to each yogi to find her or his “edge”.  This is the place where the pose becomes a little bit challenging but is not unattainable.  The goal is never to outdo your neighbor or to reach/stretch/bend/twist until you are in pain.  The goal is to find that place where it is a little bit hard but you can still challenge yourself to focus on your breath and stay present in the moment and just be.  A powerful and related concept is that our minds will give up before our body does.  So when things get hard, that pesky voice starts up again, saying “you can’t do this”.  It is a practice to learn to silence that voice, or to teach it to say “this is hard but I can breathe and I can do my best” instead.

How ISN’T this concept relevant to us as equestrians? If you hope to develop new skills, increase your feel, better your timing and coordination—you have to find your edge.  This is the place where the demands are high but the outcome is still attainable.  You have to learn new skills and gradually push yourself out of your personal comfort zone.  We have to pay attention to our own riding, and not compare our progress to those around us who are on their own journey.  We have to stay attuned to our own horse, body and situation, and use our strengths to help support our weaknesses.

No one finds all aspects of yoga or riding to be easy or simple.  Some poses will be easier and some will be harder.  Some parts of being a horseman will come smoothly and others will take time.

“When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.”  The Buddha

 

Photo by Purshi
Photo by Purshi

Insight # 3:  Return to the Breath

So what happens when we get to our edge?  Well, if you are like me, you begin to tense up both mentally and physically.  You think, “This is hard.  Can I do this?  I can’t do this. But I want to do this. I have to try to do this.” And so many of us manifest this mental resistance with physical—we grit our teeth, we tense our muscles, we hold our breath.

Vinyasa yoga (the style which I have been practicing) is a Sanskrit term which essentially means “breath synchronized with movement”.  So when you move through the poses, generally there is an inhale phase followed by an exhale.  Coordinating your movement with this steady breath allows you to flow through the postures.

When a yogi finds their edge, they focus on the breath.  In. Out.  You quiet your mind of all of the negative thoughts.  And you breathe.  We breathe something like 28,800 times a day—we ought to be fairly good at it.

When we find our edge as riders, we too should return to the breath.  This could be as literal as that simple action—remembering to breathe in and out, allowing our nerves and tension to leave the body and permitting the body to return to its neutral and ready state, so it can do those physical movements that we have worked so hard to master.  Or if we consider that breath is the foundation to yoga, we could think about a rider returning to the basics of correct riding and training—remaining balanced over the horse’s center, the Training Pyramid, or even just the concept of taking things down a notch and returning to a skill that we have mastered when things start to not go as smoothly as we had hoped.

Visiting the ocean and taking time to breathe.
Visiting the ocean and taking time to breathe.

Insight # 4:  Honor your Body

There are days where I have to drag myself to yoga.  I know I should go, but I am feeling tired or overwhelmed with other obligations; sometimes I am just being lazy.  Most of the time, I can motivate myself when I feel this way, and I am glad for having gone to practice.  Sometimes I go anyway, but I don’t push myself as hard as I might on another day. And, I am still learning that it is okay sometimes to acknowledge that some days it is just too much to ask of yourself to always push through; on those days I just go home.

There is a pose in yoga called “child’s pose”.  The yogi is close to the ground with bent knees pressed wide.  You reach your arms forward and press your forehead to the mat.  Its name is well suited, as you can easily imagine a small child positioned in this way.  It is a pose of rest, and you are encouraged to come here when you lose your breath, when the practice has become too hard, when you just need a break.  There is no judgment, only encouragement to ‘honor your body’ when it tells you that it needs to be in child’s pose.

A yogi demonstrating a child's pose variation.  Photo credit to English Wikipedia user Daniel Case
A yogi demonstrating a child’s pose variation. Photo credit to English Wikipedia user Daniel Case

Shouldn’t we all have permission to take a “child’s pose” when we need it?  To acknowledge that today was a hard day, and I am physically and mentally tired, and so in my ride tonight, I will need to listen to that and not push too hard?  Or to give ourselves permission to do what we need to do to be comfortable: stretch, to take a walk break, to go for a hack instead of work in the arena.  You don’t have to train for the Olympics every day.

I think our horses need permission to be in ‘child’s pose’ as much as we do.  They are beings too, and they do not feel the same from one day to the next.  The day all of the snow is sliding off the roof might make them be jumpy and nervous and unfocused on your aids, and so you cannot demand as much from them in the work.  The ride after a hard school or one where they learned a new skill might need to be lighter, easier or emphasize things which they do well.  Horses cannot be expected to be the same from day to day any more than we can expect that of ourselves.

We can’t all go at 110% all the time.  We have to honor our bodies and respect that each day is different.

Insight # 5:  Find Gratitude

At the beginning of class, while we are still settling our minds and trying to become present in the moment, our teachers often ask us to take a moment to set an intention for class.  The intention could be a goal (today I will stay present), it could simply be to honor your body and all that it does for you or it could even be to focus on a person or other special element of your life to which you wish to send energy.

Maybe this last statement sounds a bit “out there” and is too touchy feely for you, and if so, that’s okay.  But what I find comes to me, over and over and over, is to have gratitude for the good things going my way.  For how lucky I am to have my horses, and the freedom and time to ride them.  For how lucky I am to have a body which allows me to still do the things I love to do.  It is so, so easy to focus on what we don’t have or where we are wishing we were, and in doing so, we lose sight of the awesome things we all have around us in the here and now.  Okay, that sounds super cheesy and Hallmark card worthy, and I realize that sentiments like that are expressed all the time.  I guess we all need to come to our own realization of that fact, and the practice of yoga has helped to do that for me.

Lee and her friend Lefty at the beach, 2008
Lee and her friend Lefty at the beach, 2008
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