9 Reasons Why Yoga Will Improve Your Skills as an Equestrian
The popularity of yoga seems to slowly spread into the equestrian world. It gains more and more approval. And a lot of riders experience a lot of different benefits from practicing yoga - benefits in their daily lives and in their riding. Some of the benefits are physical while others are mental/emotional/spiritual.
If you have never tried yoga, then you might be a little skeptical about this "hype", but I hope to explain to you why you and your horse could benefit from (you, not your horse) doing a regular yoga practice. If you have tried yoga but didn't think it worked for you there can be several reasons for this. There are a lot of different types of yoga practices and yoga styles. Some are very quiet, with static and relaxing poses and with a big portion of breathing exercises. Others are very energetic and puts a sweat to your face. The instructor is also a big factor for a successful practice. So, if you want to give yoga another go (or you altogether just want to try it out), then keep your mind open and try out some different styles and instructors until you find some that agree with your personality. And I am not saying that yoga agrees with everybody - you can achieve a lot of those benefits in other ways as well. To me it is important that you take care of your own body and mind in any way that motivates you.
I have practiced yoga for many years. I started in a fitness center with 20-30 people in a class. Later on, I started doing yoga in a yoga shala which really transformed my practice. And then later on I went to India to do yoga teachers training to learn even more on top of my education as a physiotherapist. And I am not close to knowing half. But today I would like to share with you some of the benefits that I have experienced myself and also those I have heard my students mention - and all these benefits (except the horse-riding related once, those you just have to take my word for) have also been scientifically proven, if you value that sort of information.
First of all, you will become more flexible
And this happens quite fast - especially if you have spent all your time riding, mucking out and managing your horse and not done any stretches for a long while. Most riders I meet are not able to touch their toes, to open their hips properly or to set their shoulders properly. This affects the posture in everyday life but also the posture on horseback - and this again affects the way in which you are able to interact with your horse. If you are very stiff it can cause your horse to stiffen or have difficulty bending to one side or another.
Tightness in the hamstring and around the hip can also cause back aches due to added stress on the back - when your hips can't bend properly, it will in most cases be the lumbar area that will end up bending out of its natural curve. Tightness around your chest and shoulders can affect your breathing in a negative way and reduce your lung capacity, as well as create muscle pains and headaches.
Therefore, an increase in flexibility will for most people also give other types of benefits like reduced pains. And especially for riders it can improve the posture and the seat.
You might not believe it in the beginning, but you will build muscle strength
A lot of times I hear people say that yoga is not hard. That it looks very relaxing. That it's just breathing exercises. Those are clearly people who have not tried my classes or people who are ready to do an ironman. All I have to say to the first group is: Go and try a dynamic form of yoga on your own body, and for the second group: Well done!
A lot of the yoga poses, or asanas, as they are called in yoga-language, are "all-in-one" poses. By this, I mean that they work on a lot of benefits on the same time. Most of the poses have an element of stretching or work towards flexibility, but a lot of them are also highly strengthening.
While I was studying physiotherapy, I practices yoga about 2 times a week for 1½ hour. At the time I had had a regular practice for about 6 months. I have always found it boring to go to the gym and do exercises on the mat and in the machines. But one day a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join her after class in the gym at our school. She trained there regularly and she didn't have anybody to train with that day. So, I agreed and she led the training. One of the exercises was lying in the plank for as long as we could. After about 30 seconds she was starting shaking really bad (or good!) from the strain. After a minute she had to break the exercise of. After 1 minute and 45 seconds i started to shake a little. I don't remember how long after that I kept going, but the point in this little tale is that it can build up quite a good amount of strength without you noticing at first. I hadn't expected that I could hold the plank, so this experience was really an eye opener to me.
Your body will become more symmetrical
One of the reasons why I recommend either yoga or Pilates to horse riders is that it works towards higher symmetry. Many sports are "unilateral", where you use a preferred leg or hand for throwing or kicking - let’s just take examples like handball, football, rugby, American football or golf. In all these sports you spend a lot of time training an asymmetrical pattern to your body. This is not beneficial for horse-riding. In horse-riding we will do best if we are as symmetrical, as we can.
We want our horses to be equally good on both sides. May I ask how you do brushing your teeth if you had to use the opposite hand that you normally do? If you haven't tried it, then go and give it a try. I can tell you that I feel like a 3-year-old learning to keep the pencil on the paper. And this is just one little function, mainly ruled by our coordination. Imagine how the horse must feel if you a tighter on the one side of the hip? Or if your right arm and hand is stronger than your left? I can tell you some of what happens...
If there is an imbalance with one side pulling more than the other, the horse has to create a tension somewhere to keep some sort of symmetry for the both of you. So, you will be out of balance and your horse will be out of balance - but together (if you are lucky!) you will cancel out the asymmetry. But there will be added tensions, which will restrict the movement patterns of your horse and in the long run the extra tension can develop pain and injuries in both of you.
Many of the yoga poses/asanas are designed to work on one side at a time, after which you switch to the other side. In this way you have a good opportunity to become aware of side differences in yourself as well as adjusting your practice to take these difference into account. And after some time, you will achieve greater symmetry in your own body, which will help your horse achieve greater symmetry in his body.
You will build a stronger posture with better alignment
As with the symmetry, most poses/asanas are designed to improve our alignment. Yoga will help your spine find it's natural curves and balance your head properly on top of your spine. The right "setting" of the bones, gives the muscles the freedom to work as they are meant to - in a dynamic way.
A lot of tightness and muscular pain can come from bad alignment of the skeleton. When something is out of balance a lot of the muscles, normally responsible for movement, have to work in a static way to keep the body upright. This hinders your movements and will make you a stiff rider. When you achieve a better alignment, you will be able to ride with less effort and follow your horse’s movements better.
Also, a very interesting aspect of a better and stronger posture (and many of the yoga poses) is that a good posture will help increase your self-esteem. If you don't believe me you can try and research "power poses".
Coordination and bodily awareness will increase
Since many of the yoga poses are a little different from the poses we do in our every-day life (I wouldn’t want to exaggerate) you will become a little challenged. Mentally. On your coordination. And especially on your senses and bodily awareness. And this will push you to develop a better coordination and a higher awareness of there your body parts are and how you can move these around.
When working on horseback to improve your posture and your seat you will have an advantage after learning some of the tricky yoga poses since your mind will have learned more options in which to move. Your mind will also become better at handling more tasks at once when having to control and align movements several different body parts at once. And I can think of quite a few situations in which this ability could be beneficial on horseback - for example for separating hands and legs.
Makes you better balanced and centered
When wriggling your body in and out of strange positions and standing on one leg or on your head you are bound to improve your sense of balance and your core strength, which makes up a big part of your center.
The really effective riders I know - those who seem to ride effortlessly with very willing horses - have a very good connection to their center. This is intuitive for our horses that you cannot practice it too much or become too good at balancing or centering. It is about finding you inner strength and riding from your own core instead of with your hands or legs. It is about transcending learned signals to flowing through the movements together. I know, it sounds very fluffy, but when you experience it, you will know.
Helps you keep focus and calm
Many yoga practitioners experience a bigger inner calm and greater relaxation allowing them to become better at focusing. There are several reasons for this. Some of the practices in the classes are meditative practices in which you practice stillness of mind and these give a lot of people increased focus and calm. For some it is the physical aspect of the exercise which releases endorphins and creates a happy feeling.
All these benefits of thinking clearer, being able to hold concentration for longer, sleeping better and tuning in on yourself and the task before you will benefit you in your horse bubble as well. What you practice is what you will become better at, and it will seep into all parts of your life.
Gives you control over your breathing
A big part of yoga is awareness and control over your breath. There is a big spiritual part of yoga with breathing exercises and life energy - pranayama - which is very interesting to delve into but can seem quite strange to some. It isn't a big part of my own yoga practice and in the classes we usually have only a very little concentrated pranayama practice of a few minutes. But none the less, these exercises can give you an amazing control over your breath and instill a special kind of calm in your mind, releasing bad tensions and clearing your mind.
In a lot of my practices the asanas or poses are also matched with a breath rhythm, so your breathing will become integrated into your movements. For riders of stressed or spooky horses this can be a very good thing to integrate into your riding as well, as your breathing can help your horse a lot.
Makes you happier!
If you find a yoga practice which you love, you will get all those benefits - and you will get to feeling happier. And I believe that we are at our best when we are happy. Then we create a better world around us - and this will also reflect onto your horse and make him happier (which will in turn make me happy)!