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Becoming a Yogi

By Natalie Kirchhoff | Sept. 12, 2012, 12 a.m. (ET)

For almost a year now I've been doing yoga regularly. I must say, I now consider myself a "yogi." I have felt the benefits of including yoga into my regular training regimen. It has helped me physically and mentally step-up my game. It has provided another way for me to train away from the pool, track and road. I feel like I am stronger and healthier because of it.
Natalie Yoga
Now there are many different types of yoga out there and I say this with emphasis: you should do some background research before engaging in any yoga class. The number of certified yoga instructors has significantly increased in the past 10 years and also the number of people getting injured at a yoga class has risen. You should research the credentials of your yoga instructor and the yoga studio before going. The instructor and studio can make or break your experience!

With that said, you, the "yogi," also need to be mindful and aware of what your body is capable of doing. Many people take the practice of yoga as a "not so serious" form of exercise and think: "If I can bike 112 miles and run a marathon off that, I can do this!" BUT you may not be as flexible as you think you are. You need to take it easy at first and assess where your body is at. Yoga can be an excellent addition to your regular training if done properly! It can help with spinal alignment, muscle imbalances, injury prevention and increase your overall flexibility, not to mention the mental benefits it has too.

Mentally I have become stronger through the regular practice of yoga. My focus and ability to concentrate for long periods of time have definitely improved. This is a key component for endurance athletes. We are out there training and racing for hours at a time. We have to be able to take control of our thoughts and channel our mental energy to our advantage. In a race when something goes askew (and it always does! Something always happens that is unexpected!), we need to be able to re-focus and bring our thoughts back to the task at hand. Yoga has helped me practice this.

Natalie YogaFor example, when I balance on one leg, kick my other leg out in front of me and hold that position, it is easy to totter, lose balance and fall out of the posture. And I've done that more than once! However, as I've practiced that pose, I've learned how to focus on specific things and maintain mental and muscular control over my body.

The type of yoga I do is called Bikram, named after it's creator, Bikram Choudhury. It is a form of hot yoga, done in a room at 105℉. It consists of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. It lasts for 90 minutes and has the same routine and dialogue every class. Some people do not like the intensity of this type of yoga or the predictability of it. However, others love the fact that they can travel across the world and find a Bikram studio doing the same postures in the same format they are accustomed to. The same routine has helped me improve on different postures week to week and also made me aware of when I'm losing mental focus. I'm able to see where I'm improving and areas I need to work on. 

In addition, Bikram yoga has helped me increase my foot and ankle stability; lessen muscular imbalances; improve my core strength; and mix up my training. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and have met many other people who are avid fans. At the studio I’ve met other professional athletes, retired NFL and NBA players, full-time moms, people with weight loss goals, business executives and everyone in-between. The diversity is wide in the yoga world!

Natalie Yoga
Stretching after yoga with rope assistance--come across the body to stretch out the IT band.
Remember: training is hard, but it should also be fun. If you find yourself in a rut and feel like you’re getting stuck, think about doing something new and different. Sometimes exactly what our bodies need is a break from the swim/bike/run routine. I encourage you to check out the yoga offerings in your area. Yoga just might be the thing to take your training to the next level!

And for any obsessive compulsive, type-A endurance athletes out there, remember this: it’s not called yoga perfect. It’s yoga PRACTICE! It’s a good opportunity for us to turn off our watches, take a break from interval training and get out of our comfort zones like standing on one leg! Yoga will exercise your mind and body in new ways!

To read more about the benefits of yoga for endurance athletes, check out another recent article from USAT here.