Trail Talk: The Benefits of Yoga for Trail Riders
Balancing the Mind And Body
The holidays are over but you are still in the stress mode, overwhelmed with agendas and chores and a schedule that is short on time. Typically, riding enables you to escape and relax, but even that doesn’t seem to be working lately. While meandering down a snow-covered forest trail, your mind drifts to the tasks waiting at home. As a result, your anxiety builds, your horse picks up on it and decides to take full advantage by acting up, and your relaxing ride suddenly morphs into a palm-sweating, heart-racing adventure that can’t end soon enough.
The sport of trail riding alone helps many to de-stress but if your outings sound more like the scene above, it may be time to consider adding another element to your riding routine. We could all stand a less distracted mindset, whether we are in the saddle or not, and yoga just may be what it takes to bring your stress level back to normal status. Licensed yoga instructor Yeong Chang explains how yoga can not only markedly change your stress levels, by increasing relaxation, but can also change your body by maximizing stretching, encouraging toning, improving posture, and increasing breathing capacity, thereby perhaps even changing your life. Relax, exhale, and take a moment to focus on this article.
Yoga was developed thousands of years ago in India and is still popular today. Literally, yoga, in Sanskrit, means to unite or join together. According to The Yoga Handbook, by Sumukhi Finney, “[yoga] unites the body, mind, and spirit so that all aspects of the individual function in a harmonious way.” It continues by stating that it “has been proven to bring health to the body, increased vitality and calmness to the mind, and a greater sense of peace.” Yoga combines postures (asanas), relaxation, breathing (pranayama), and meditation techniques to reach this desired state.
The effects of yoga balancing the body and mind can become a significant bonus to riders. With consistency, perks can include relief of joint pressure; improvement of posture; an increase of physical flexibility, strength, and endurance; an expanded range of motion; greater mental focus and body awareness; and improvement and strengthening of the respiratory system, while also helping to ease and control anxiety. Yoga can benefit all who practice on a regular basis.
For Everyone, Including Equestrians
Yeong Chang of Smiling Circle Yoga, has chosen poses that specifically target areas most used by riders. According to her, “there are core muscles that riders need to maintain, specifically pelvic floor muscle and abdominal muscles,” and yoga can help to achieve this development. “Strong core muscles help riders to balance and stabilize when riding and are also essential in maintaining a healthy back,” which is imperative to equestrians. She continues by stressing that “riders need to be sure that they stretch their hip-flexor (the quadriceps and ilio-psoas) muscles and adductor (inner thigh) muscles” due to the position a rider’s body takes when mounted. Also, “chest opening poses are important to encourage the proper riding posture.” These areas are covered among the ten poses Yeong recommends to trail riders who wish to integrate yoga into their riding schedule.
There are many books that illustrate yoga poses that can be done while mounted on a horse, but Ms. Chang feels that being grounded and completely balanced is essential in yoga. Because of this, she prefers that riders do a series of poses prior to getting on their horses. The twenty minute series can be added to any pre-ride routine.
Quiet the Mind
She suggests using the time in the saddle to quiet the mind, concentrate on breathing, and initiate positive thoughts.
Focusing on breathing, anytime and anywhere, helps to focus a distracting mind and to reduce anxiety and stress. Even thinking to yourself: “I am breathing in… I am breathing out” helps to redirect the mind. One main goal of yogis is to strive towards peace.
Yeong reminds us of the basic laws of Quantum Physics. “Positive thinking helps with everything, including riding. When one has a positive outlook, the person attracts a positive outcome.” Consider your riding time as a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with your mind.
Yeong explains that there are three principles that form a foundation to the postures she recommends. “First is called Mula Bhanda, which means base lifting. (The Kegel technique is similar except that it releases the muscle engagement then re-engages. In Mula Bhanda, one holds the engagement and keeps on holding.) It is natural to drop the engagement, so the riders need to remind themselves to engage often.” She stresses that “Mula Bhanda engagement is recommended while practicing yoga as well as during riding.”
The second principle that should accompany each posture is breathing. To encourage the body to relax, one should expand the rig cage by breathing in through the nose and out through the nose at evenly spaced inhale and exhale intervals. It is called audible breathing, or Ujai Breath. As time progresses, gradually increase the duration to increase lung capacity.
The third rule to practice during these poses would be Drishti, which means focal point. Yeong explains that “each posture has a direction where one would look towards to help ground one’s mind.”
The Joy is in the Journey
In the bestseller memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert makes a spiritual journey by traveling to three countries. With animal ownership, we all know how hard it is to get out of the state, never mind travel to another continent! Instead, yoga offers a practical way to escape without going anywhere, except maybe for a jaunt on your horse. And who better to share your journey with? Happy travels — both on the trail and in your mind. Namaste.
Thank you to Yeong Chang for the help with this article and for providing the photos. Yeong teaches gentle to vigorous flow of yoga classes focusing on breaths and alignments. She specializes in Regional Massage Therapy and Positional Release Therapy and is founder and director of Smiling Circle Yoga and Massage Therapy Studio, LLC, serving the Brookfields and the Greater Worcester Region. Yeong can be reached at 508-868-8940 or visit www.SmilingCircleYoga.com.
Beth, along with her husband and son, lives on a farm in Southern New Hampshire. She is a Bay State Trail Riders member, Barre Riding and Driving Club member and former director of the Waters Farm Trail Ride Weekend event. Trail riding in the great outdoors serves to renew her spirit and nourish her soul.
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