Hot Yoga Will Make You a Better CrossFitter
Hot Yoga and CrossFit are two of the fastest growing physical practices today. Both are also designed to test us mentally and physically. Both are very controversial, and both have their fair share of people who love them and those who detest them. Both have cult-like followings with members who either want to get you to the next class at all costs, or who’ll do anything to stop you from doing them. Both practices, when done incorrectly, can lead to major physical issues. But when done the right way and consistently, both can give you life-changing results.
This, however, is where the similarities end. CrossFit is a new practice. It represents the peak of our modern understanding of what it takes to become a great all-around athlete. In contrast, yoga is one of the oldest physical practices that we know of. Most people either do hot yoga, or they do CrossFit. And whichever one they do, they are fiercely loyal to it. The settings are usually very different. The culture is very different. The music is very different as well. Rarely are people doing sun salutations to DMX barking like a pit bull and yelling that he’s going to kill you. But somehow, in CrossFit classes, not only does it work, it leads to PRs.
But differences aside, could the combo of the two be the perfect match? Could the extreme differences between the two be exactly what we need? Will an active yoga practice actually make you a better CrossFitter? I personally have found that the answer is yes. These two practices are a perfect complement to each other, and when paired together, they create a well-rounded athlete. Here’s why.
For the sake of this article I’m going to be talking about hot yoga. While yoga will give you some of the benefits that we’ll be addressing, the intense heat/humidity of hot yoga adds a whole other element, and one that can be very useful in training ourselves to be better CrossFitters. We’ll get into this a bit later. Likewise, it isn’t just CrossFitters than can benefit from yoga. Yoga can be beneficial for all forms of exercise that blend strength, power, and cardio together, but CrossFit is the most popular iteration of this idea, so we’ll stick with it.
Let’s jump right in. Most of you will probably assume that I’m just going to talk about the benefits of getting more flexible from yoga (and we will talk about that), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s start there though and get it out of the way.
CrossFit workouts tend to tighten up the body. In order to perform such intense compound lifts, the body has to be able to function as one tensile unit. This generates a lot of tension in the muscles. And while most CrossFit gyms make it a regular practice to do mobility work either before or after classes, it’s not the same as what you get from an hour or 90-minute hot yoga class.
Hot yoga exposes areas of tension in the body, and it allows us to address them. Between the heat of the room (muscles and tendons work optimally at a slightly higher than normal internal temperature), the poses, and the breathing techniques, we can really do some good work in opening up the body.
Along the same line, hot yoga allows us to really home in on any asymmetries that we may have in our bodies and in our movements. Many times these small shifts and asymmetries are masked by the intensity and sympathetic stimulation that takes place during a CrossFit workout, and we miss little side-to-side differences in our hips, shoulders, ankles, etc… Often these small asymmetries and imbalances lead to injury when tested under heavy load and heavy fatigue. In hot yoga, we’re balancing sympathetic stimulation with parasympathetic stimulation, and we become very in tune with our bodies and sensitive to these imbalances. We’re able to work on them while only supporting our own bodyweight.
This brings me to my next point. Anybody who lifts heavy weights should make it a practice to learn how to move effectively using only their own bodyweight. While many trainers and coaches out there will tell you that this isn’t necessary (“Just lift heavy weights and you’ll get good at it”), that mentality is what gets you into the clinic to see me, and out of training/competition until you’re healed. I’ve adopted Gray Cook’s mentality of “First move well, and then move often.” Hot yoga gives us a chance to “first move well”. It’s amazing how mastering the half-way lift during a vinyasa can translate into good deadlift form.
And this isn’t just for beginners. Even once you’ve got the Olympic lifts and kettlebells down, the movements of yoga will be helpful to you. Hot yoga becomes the testing ground for movements and a motor control classroom, all of which directly translate into the gymnastics and powerlifting that we do in CrossFit. Can’t do a handstand pushup? Try mastering the full wheel in yoga first.
Oh yeah, I’m supposed to say that you’ll get more flexible from all the “stretching” that you do in yoga right? Yeah, that happens too.
Now let’s move on to what I think is the most important way that yoga can help you become a better CrossFitter. As it’s a general principle of yoga, it makes sense that it all goes back to the breath. For me, this is where the real benefits lie. Learning to control your breath and use it as an anchor, even when you’re exhausted, will serve you well in even the most intense WOD.
Once you start to develop a solid yoga practice, you’ll start to realize that it’s all about controlling the breath, and then using the breath to control your body. While for some of you this may be where it’s getting a little too “woo woo”, but stick with me.
Learning to breathe correctly is the first step. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing” is important to learn not just for workouts, but for everyday life.
Once you can control basic breathing patterns, then you can explore different methods of breathing. While it takes a long time to learn to do correctly, yogic breathing (or pranayama) can actually be used to control your physiology. The way that you breathe can influence everything from your heart rate to your blood oxygen levels, to your body temperature, your energy levels, and even your muscle tension. And yes, there is science to support this. Most of it seems to takes place through control of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Once you begin to understand some of the basic breathing styles and patterns, you can begin to learn how to use them to influence your body. Overheated? Change your breath up to remove some heat from the body. Heart racing too much? Slow the breath down and deepen it. Feeling a little tired or lacking energy? Switch to Ujjayi breathing and build heat and energy in the body. Once you understand these concepts, you won’t look at breathing the same way again.
Another big aspect of yogic breathing is learning how to breathe with different movements. By syncing your breathing to your movements you gain the ability to transmit force better. For example, If you’re taking a breath in, it’s much more difficult to brace your abdominals correctly than if you’re breathing out. This may not make a difference, until it does. All it takes is one clean & jerk without bracing correctly to cause a debilitating disc issue.
How many times have you found yourself in the middle of a “Hero” workout or one of “The Girls” and you’re sucking wind and can’t even remember your name. You couldn’t care less how your form looks; you’re just trying not to pass out. Or how many times have you been in the middle of a hot yoga flow class and you’re overheated, dehydrated, getting lightheaded, and losing the ability to breathe through your nose and/or breathe with your movements. The struggle is real in both cases. The difference is that in Yoga there’s a practice of coming back to the breath, controlling it, and calming the body down. In CrossFit, it usually ends with hyperventilation, sometimes vomit, and a finish-at-all-costs mentality.
Let’s break this scenario down a little further. What’s happening physiologically is your body is experiencing a stress that it’s not used to and/or doesn’t have the ability to handle. The natural response is to freak out and get massive amounts of adrenaline to try to rise and overcome the stress. The problem is that it usually ends up in us burning out, losing focus, and then collapsing into a mess that usually takes a couple of days to fully recover from.
Now let’s look at an alternative option. What happens if, during this time, we are able to calm the body down, let it know that it’s ok, and that we don’t have to freak out? We are able to bring ourselves back from the brink of hyperstimulation and return to a place of comfort… all through learning to control our breath. Yoga teaches us to balance the nervous system- go to the height of sympathetic stimulation, then start firing the parasympathetics and bring it back to a calmer level. We’re also able to bring our mind back from that freaking-out place and back into focusing on what we’re doing. This is incredibly important.
This control of the body and mind can be applied directly to CrossFit or any other intense athletic activity. By learning to not go over the edge into hyperstimulation, and maintaining control over our breath and our physiology, we can stay more present in what we’re doing. And by maintaining focus, we’ll perform better and be less likely to injure ourselves. If you watch the best athletes in the world, CrossFit or otherwise, they already do this. Hot yoga gives us the ability to train it in ourselves.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t something that you can learn overnight. One, or ten, or a hundred yoga classes might not get you there. It’s a practice. But just practicing it gives you an advantage. It certainly has for me, and for others who’ve found the balance between yoga and CrossFit.
Now after reading this article you might think that hot yoga is the greatest thing under the sun. Maybe you even want to give up CrossFit, or whatever workout you’ve been doing, and become a full-time yogi. I would advise against this. Hot yoga has its holes as well. You aren’t necessarily going to improve your cardio a ton by doing yoga. You aren’t going to put on mass or get jacked from doing yoga. And you also aren’t probably going to develop great speed or power from yoga.
So, it goes both ways. CrossFit workouts, mobility drills, and WOD’s will help you with your yoga practice as well. Having strength and power in your body translates nicely to your mat. And, knowing mentally that you’ve conquered The Murph will help you when things get tough in the yoga studio. Bottom line, they both are incredible physical disciplines, and each has unique mental and physical advantages.
Let’s recap with some key takeaways:
o CrossFit and Hot Yoga are an awesome complement to each other.
o Hot Yoga allows you to address motion restrictions and open up tight tissues that can be masked in your CrossFit practice.
o Hot Yoga gives us an opportunity to better connect to our bodies in a number of ways, and we can use it as a practice ground for movements and motor control.
o Hot Yoga allows us to become better at maintaining good form and breathing while being exhausted.
o Hot Yoga teaches us to be present (focused) even while fatigued. This training will allow us to perform better in CrossFit and maintain better form, leading to better performance and less injuries.
Really, the point of this article is the importance of finding physical practices that complement each other. Unless you’re getting paid good money to only do one sport or exercise, diversifying your routine is the best way to go. Hot yoga and CrossFit are a great complement, but there are many other types of practices that do the same thing. Maybe QiGong and kettlebells are the right combo for you.
It’s all about what works with your own body/mind, and what you’re looking to achieve. If you’re totally happy with your physical practices, and you’re getting the results that you want, stick to it. But it’s also not bad to try a new physical practice and see what it can provide for you!
Oh, and in case you’re skeptical, here’s a bit of support for some of the claims that I’ve made about yogic breathing and physiological control:
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