Yoga & its place in martial arts

Yoga has become a go-to method of rehab for injured martial artists from many disciplines, including professional fight veterans such as ex-UFC champ Frank Shamrock and founder of DPP Yoga and professional wrestler ‘Diamond’ Dallas Page.

yoga-martial-arts
Yoga has become a go-to method of rehab for injured martial artists from many disciplines.

For martial artists who train hard and train often — and may not necessarily have sought treatment for injuries or taken the recovery time they should have — yoga just might be the saving grace, and the answer to the problem of inflexibility, writes strength and conditioning guru Andrew Read.

Martial arts and yoga have much in common. Like martial arts, yoga has been around for thousands of years. Also like martial arts, there are many branches, each with their own unique personality and style. And, just like martial arts used to be seen in the ’70s, yoga is often touted as a one-size cure-all for anything that ails you.

Yoga is believed to have originated around the fifth or sixth century BC. Texts on Hatha yoga, one of the best known forms of yoga, have been found dating back to the 11th century. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that yoga became better known in the West, but since that time many styles of yoga have flourished.

The six main schools of yoga are: Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Laya, Hatha and Raja (which has also come to be known as Ashtanga). You may have also heard of Bikram yoga; however, according to a recent court ruling, Bikram isn’t a style of workout that can be ‘owned’ by one group/method or another, so I have left it off this list.

Like many things, the original goal of yoga has been diluted and changed by our modern perceptions and needs. The original goals of yoga were to use a systematic series of exercises to build self-awareness and develop the body and mind.

Contained within that practice were studies on ethics and introspection with the ultimate goal being kaivalya — a liberated, unified, content state of existence. So far, yoga sounds a lot like traditional martial practices with a focus on living a life following the Bushido code.

But, just like with the martial arts, as the practice of yoga became more widespread and better known, much of its meaning is being lost. While there are many schools that continue with traditional teachings, you’re unlikely to find one of them running a session at Fitness First.

Having been around health and fitness for a long time, I’ve dabbled in yoga in the past. Some of those sessions have been useful and others haven’t been. I even walked out of one when I heard the instructor encourage participants to “stretch the ligaments along their spine”. Umm…no. You never want to stretch ligaments, and particularly not any that border the spine — and being encouraged to do so by anyone is malpractice. I can remember Bikram sessions done in a room that was heated to furnace temperature and smelt like it had never been cleaned (as did the wrinkly old guy in his speedos to my side).

And yet there was still this idea that I had missed something and as a serious student of physical culture, regardless of form, I needed to investigate more. One of the things I am becoming more aware of as I get older is exactly how long I have spent getting beaten up during my life. This was first pointed out to me by one of the world’s best movement coaches, Ido Portal. The more time you spend receiving impact, the more wound up your nervous system will be.

Our nervous system is designed to protect us. When you hear a loud noise, you go through an involuntary flinch that partially curls you into a foetal position. When you get hit, the normal reaction, too, is to ball up. If you’re unfamiliar with shooting a gun, your eyes will blink and you’ll flinch at the recoil. All of these actions, when combined over a period of years, will put your nervous system on high alert. Like a cyclist who can’t stand up straight because of all the time they spend hunched over their handlebars, you will be stuck in ‘flinch mode’.

This is one of the things I see often in my clients: bodies too wound up to even make use of regular stretching. Stretching works, but only when the body is in a state that is receptive to it.

To further compound our problems, many don’t breathe properly. This may sound odd as for many the understanding of their breathing begins and ends with pure inhalation and exhalation. Yet many aren’t using the right muscle to perform this. Last week I performed a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) on a client and watched her go from unable to perform a single push-up to performing perfect push-ups in the space of one minute. What did I do in that minute? I taught her to breathe properly.

So my investigation into yoga has three main things I’m interested in, which I believe all martial artists will benefit from. Firstly, I want increased and improved range of motion. Secondly, by focusing on breathing during practice, I allow my body to behave correctly rather than creating tension in the wrong places. Finally, the relaxed nature of the session should be good to detune my nervous system from all the beatings it has received and encourage it to safely move into a new range. To accomplish this I don’t need excessive heat, strange tantric practices, or to become a vegan.

Finding the right school for martial arts can be tricky. Having the right training partners, the right atmosphere and an instructor who both inspires and educates you is tricky. Yoga is no different. It’s taken me two years to find the school I am now going to and it happened purely by chance. I got lucky to find a BJJ Black-belt who also owns a yoga studio. Knowing how beaten up most BJJ Blackbelts are, and how poorly they move due to all the injuries, I was very surprised to see this yogi Black-belt move so well and freely. To say I was curious would be an understatement.

After only a few sessions at the new school, I knew I had found what I was looking for. What I was looking for, along with what I’ve outlined here, was simple: a professional who understood my sport, my injuries and his own practice. I’ve been to yoga classes that were nothing more than glorified stretching sessions done in a dark room with incense burning. I’ve been in yoga classes where no one seemed to be able to perform more advanced variations of movements. But what I got at Warrior One Yoga was the opposite. (This isn’t a plug for them, but I am grateful to find a yoga school run by one of us — someone who understands both the need for relaxation/ recovery as well as the kicking arse aspect of martial arts.)

As much as I am enjoying my new practice, I have to caution that yoga isn’t a magic pill. Like martial arts, if you expect to get a lot out of it you will need to put a lot into it. As an example, yoga uses inversions towards the end of a class. These could be as simple as lying on the ground and having your feet above your head. A more advanced form could be a plough pose or headstand, and an even more advanced version could be a handstand.

A freestanding handstand done in a crowded room is a skill that will take you a year or more to learn on its own.

Many of the more advanced poses are simply not for us as martial athletes. While increased range of motion can be a good thing, there is also a point where we may end up overstretched and, as a result, unsafe in being potentially unable to cope with the rigours of our training. Many of the famous Instagram yogis have tales of injuries they have caused themselves from overdoing it in challenging poses. One of my friends recently had biceps tendon surgery to repair damage done while bridging (the ‘wheel pose’ in yoga). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because yoga is ‘just stretching’, it doesn’t come without risks. Handstand practice is another that is fraught with disaster. I incurred a wrist injury that took eight months to heal from a mistake during handstand work last year. Luckily, at the time I wasn’t grappling, as it would have sidelined me, as I couldn’t use my left hand properly.

Yoga, like all physical practices, can be good or bad, depending on how you use it and how it is taught. But it has many great things to offer us in terms of focus on breathing, relaxation to undo all the stress and impact of sparring, and creating a more supple body. Just be aware of what it is and what it isn’t when you go into it — and, as with all training, make sure you are there for an appropriate reason.

Andrew Read is the only Australian promoted to Master RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certified instructor) and is also a certified Kettlebell Functional Movement specialist and Indian Club specialist, and an Australian Weightlifting Federation-accredited Olympic- and power-lifting coach. National director of Primal Move and founder of Read Performance Training, Read has lectured in Australia, USA, China and Korea, and has been a strength and conditioning writer for Blitz and Triathlon & Multisport magazines since 2010. Read has also completed the Ironman Melbourne triathlon and trains in BJJ. He can be contacted at readpt.com


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