For the original blog post please visit Bending Line Designs.
Let me begin this post by saying that I am an anxious individual. Usually I’m adept at disguising my inner foibles, but add a 1,500 pound animal into the mix and they become… less well disguised. Much of my riding education has centered around not being a stiff, paranoid, ball of tension in the saddle.
When I started riding I wasn’t an athletic individual. I was overweight, sore, and physically stiff. My leg muscles were so tight that it was nearly impossible for me to get my heels level in the stirrups, let alone below them. My lower back was a big block and my hips bounced along in a deep seated saddle so that I could pretend to stay in the classically correct position for dressage. Telling me to relax didn’t help. In my perfectionistic mind it only further highlighted the fact that I wasn’t relaxed and made me more tense. At times I wasn’t even sure if I knew how to relax. “Breathe,” in a firm, commanding tone could usually get me to gulp in a lungful of air but it’s frowned upon to ride around with a headphone in your ear having your coach yell breathe every other stride.
Different horses, more riding, more exercise, more cross training; none of it seemed to get me over my issues with anxiousness and tension. I tried taking ballet and belly dancing lessons to loosen up and learn to move fluidly. I tried stretching on my own at home so that I could get more range of motion. I tried switching up my workout routine so that I did more strength training to build the muscles used while riding. I tried taking a pharmacy of supplements to calm down my brain, fight my joint pain, and decreakify my knees. None of it worked. Of course now I realize that it wasn’t just an issue of my body being tense, it was also an issue of my mind being apprehensive and fearful.
I had heard about the benefits of yoga in terms of working the body’s muscles and relaxing the mind, but I always brushed it off as not for me. I struggled in the few classes I attended to get my brain to slow down enough so that I could focus on my breathing, a core principle in yoga. Since I was a bit of a mess, I didn’t like going to classes in front of other people either. As I mentioned earlier I’m a perfectionist, and looking less than competent in front of others wasn’t helping me unlace my tightly pulled strings.
Late last year, after a dysfunctional horse show season and some burgeoning health issues I came back to yoga. I was forced to stop all forms of exercise for three months while stress fractures in both of my feet healed. Working out has been my personal form of psychotherapy and without the constant daily endorphins I fell back into bad eating habits. The bad eating habits and the couch potato routine packed on the pounds and I lost much of the strength and flexibility I had fought so hard for since I began riding.
In some ways this sabbatical turned out to be just what I needed. After my three month layup I knew I couldn’t go back to pounding out 5k runs every other day or doubling up on my gym workouts. I decided to try an in-home yoga program offered by the fitness company I work with. I couldn’t do much of anything else since I still wasn’t cleared for more than standing and walking delicately, with no serious pressure, all while wearing my cushy shoes and arch support insoles.
The first few sessions of yoga I was just glad to get moving again. The added bonus of being able to kick off my granny shoes only made the experience more motivating. The audience of experienced yogis wasn’t surrounding me, so I didn’t feel like I had to perform for professionals either. Designed specifically for those not experienced in yoga, the sequences of daily workouts made me feel like I was able to keep pace with the instructor while still pushing myself to focus on the fundamental principles of yoga: following the breath, focusing on form, and honoring yourself.
Over the course of the three weeks I found that on the days when I did my yoga in the morning I approached my job and riding in a significantly more positive mindset. On the nights when I did yoga I was able to fall asleep more quickly and wake up more rested. Even my Fitbit saw the difference. My restless periods decreased by almost 30% and my overall sleep when up a half hour a night.
On a theory I tried doing the half hour routines right before going to the barn. When I did I found that my hip flexors, hamstrings, and back were much more flexible and I was fluidly able to follow the motion of the horse. No matter when I did yoga, I could tell I was getting more flexible. In downward facing dog my heels found the floor quicker and quicker during each workout. The uneven range of motion in my hamstrings started to become more symmetrical and I was better able to use my legs to ask for lateral movements like leg yields and half passes. The best part was that in situations where my mind used to become tense and stuck, I was able to think through a solution and get myself to execute it much more quickly. In and out of the saddle.
With the daily re-enforcement to honor myself, give myself space to learn, and learn to be in the present I found myself growing calmer. This gentler form of exercise reminded me that it was okay to slow down and approach things from a different angle. And isn’t that a skill that all horseman need to learn?