Yoga For Yogaphobes

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Magazine by Kathryn Perrotti) - My husband is deathly afraid of three things: spiders, swimming and yoga. The third has most recently been added to his list, after I came home from my first yoga class feeling so relaxed that he feared I'd been drugged. My husband has many athletic interests, including skiing, but he likely won't ever commit to yoga.

There are probably many others out there who feel the same way. And that's fine, because I'm not going to order anyone to find a guru and join a local yoga studio. But I would like to ask skiers to open their minds just enough to hear some of the ways yoga can directly help their skiing. To name a few, nearly every yoga instructor agrees that yoga can increase strength as much as lifting weights and also can improve flexibility, stamina, balance and breathing¿all of which are crucial to athletic performance. Plus, yoga, which originated in India about 5,000 years ago, must be doing something right. According to the Yoga Research and Education Center, some 12-15 million people in the U.S. currently practice it.

The best part is that some of these concepts are easy to apply without doing a full yoga routine. Here are a few ways you can work this ancient practice into your life from the comfort of your living room, during your normal workout routine, and, of course, out on the hill.

How to Breathe
Yoga is based on breath control, or pranayama, a technique that increases concentration and helps the body relax and stretch. Proper breathing also helps on the hill. Says Richard Odom, a yoga instructor of 25 years who works at the Sun Valley Athletic Club in Sun Valley, Idaho: "Yoga opens up the rib cage and relaxes the diaphragm muscles under the lungs, helping you draw deeper breaths." This delivers more oxygen to the vital organs, relaxes the nervous system and slows the heart rate¿all vital for feeling calm and performing well. Taking things one step further, proponents of power yoga¿a physically aggressive style of yoga used by many athletes¿believe it actually increases the capacity of the respiratory muscles. "It improves the VO2 max, the blood's ability to carry oxygen," says Beryl Bender Birch, founder and director of The Hard & Soft Astanga Yoga Institute in New York City and East Hampton, N.Y.

To practice breathing yoga-style, lie on the floor or sit in a chair, and turn all your concentration to your breathing. Inhale and exhale deeply through the nose. Place your hands on your lower abdominals to see if they rise on the inhale. Many people take shallow breaths, bringing air only into the chest. The point of pranayama is to bring the breath down into the abdominals for increased body control and a more efficient use of breath.

Practice this for five to 10 minutes daily. Also practice breathing deeply while you're on the slopes¿perhaps before a challenging run to ease any tense muscles and get your mind focused.

How To Improve Balance
Yoga poses teach you to stand balanced on four points of your feet (two under the balls of the feet and two under the heels). "This helps you be firm and solid in your center," says Jennifer Workman, a sports nutritionist and exercise physiologist and owner of The Balanced Approach in Boulder, Colo. Such balance is the foundation for many yoga poses and also for staying steady on the slopes. A great way to practice finding your center of balance is to do the Mountain Pose (see below).

As you do this, you'll likely see changes in your skiing. Says Eric Lavigne, 31, a recreational skier and yoga believer from Avon, Colo.: "Thanks to yoga, my balance is incredible. On the hill, I know where I am without thinking about it, and I'm in tune with every muscle in my body."

How To Do The Mountain Pose: Stand up straight with your feet slightly separated (or, as a variation, with feet hip distance apart) and your weight equally distributed on each foot. Relax the arms with the lms facing your sides, and keep your gaze steady. Lift the chest, and tilt the pelvis forward slightly. Hold for five long breaths.

How To Stay Aligned
According to Jeanie Manchester, instructor at Richard Freeman's The Yoga Workshop in Boulder, skiers tend to have two basic alignment problems. They get hunched over, and they drop back on their heels. The latter is especially worrisome because sitting back tightens the hip flexor muscles, a classic problem spot for skiers. When you feel like you're losing your center on the hill, slow down, practice your breathing and use the Mountain Pose to come back to middle ground. Being aware of your stance while skiing can help you ski strong.

Skiers also have bad daily habits that throw them out of alignment: carrying heavy bags on one shoulder and hunching over desks, for example. When you feel your posture collapsing, sit or stand up tall, and feel your spine lengthen all the way up to your head.

How to Get Flexible
The U.S. Ski Team has its own yoga instructor, and most members find that yoga helps them stay limber. "Yoga helps relax my body after a workout and also improves my flexibility and awareness of breath," says eight-year alpine team member Sacha Gros. Indeed, while skiers are definitely strong, they're also tight because skiing overuses certain muscles, forcing them to stay contracted and possibly leading to injury.

Hip flexibility is especially important for skiers. "As you begin to open up through the hips, it decompresses the lower back, improving coordination and taking pressure off the knees," Odom says. And don't forget about the feet, he adds. "There are 7,200 nerve receptors in your feet. If they're too stiff especially when locked in ski boots, your brain doesn't get the right messages."

To improve flexibility, yoga experts say skiers need to commit to stretching (yoga in particular) and take the time to do it¿they recommend at least 10 to 15 minutes of stretching before and after hitting the slopes. Practicing yoga's Warrior Pose is a good way to start.

How To Do The Warrior Pose: Lunge with the right leg as far forward as you can or until the thigh is about parallel to the ground, aligning the knee over the ankle. Keep the left leg straight, and pivot the left foot outward. Bring your arms straight over your head with your palms facing each other. As you improve, press the palms together, while you look up at the ceiling. Hold for five long breaths, and switch sides. The Warrior stretches the feet, hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors¿all common tight spots for skiers.

As for my husband and me, I'm still going to my weekly yoga class, and he isn't. But just last night when we were out for walk, he heard a strange noise coming from me and somehow knew to ask, "Are you practicing your yoga breathing?" "Yes," I answered, and there wasn't another word. He's learning¿and he's starting to get curious.

For more yoga exercises, visit skimag.com, keyword "yoga."

Fitbits

Fly Loose
With airports more secure and travelers more insecure, this year's ski trip will likely be more stressful than last year's. Long lines and other travel tensions can cause fatigue and tight muscles, which are a drag on ski performance. To ease tense muscles, try "progressive relaxation." Focus your attention on one group of muscles, starting with your feet. Contract the toe, foot and ankle muscles, and hold for five seconds.

Relax them for 15 seconds, and then contract the calf muscles. Continue up the body, through the legs, glutes, back, chest, shoulders, neck and head, tensing each group of muscles for five seconds and relaxing for 15. Target even smaller muscle groups such as the jaw and eyebrows. For extra credit, keep your eyes closed throughout the exercise and visualize your favorite slopes. Just be sure to stay awake: Missing a flight is bad for stress levels.¿Kellee Katagi

Know Your Food
Foods and drinks spiked with natural supplements sound like a good way for skiers to sneak in extra nutrients. These so called "functional foods" can boost immune systems and increase energy for the ski day. Or so the labels say....

Some companies take advantage of a loophole in the FDA approval process by adding supplements such as herbs, amino acids and plant extracts to products, and then claiming unproven health benefits¿without mentioning possible side effects.

For example, Odwalla's Think Drink label claims that the added ginkgo biloba stimulates the mind, but doesn't mention that the supplement, in rare cases, can cause allergic skin reactions and headaches. Ben & Jerry's Tropic of Mango smoothie offers to help fight colds with echinacea, which occasionally can cause fever, nausea and allergic reactions.

Consumer groups are pressuring the FDA to better regulate the marketing of supplements. Until they succeed, your best defense is to educate yourself. Check out supplement guides at www.altmed.com or www.herbalgram.org. Also, let your doctor know if you are taking supplements. ¿Elizabeth McCulloch

Behind Closed Doors

So maybe you're convinced that yoga can help your skiing, but the thought of attending a class makes you squeamish. Here are two videos you can check out in your own living room¿and easily kick under the couch when your buddies swing by.

Cross Training With Yoga is a straightforward, slow-moving video that focuses on yoga's athletic benefits without the ethereal New Age music. It's led by Argie Ligeros, a former champion gymnast, along with Prisca Boris, a former Pro Mogul Tour skier, and Peter Lange, a ski-racing coach and hulking guy who proves that strong men can be flexible too. There aren't many breaks in the workout, so hit pause whenever you need one. $20. www.y4a.com; 888-942-9642.A.M./P.M. Yoga For Beginners wakes the muscles in the morning and relaxes them in the evening (20 minutes each), a formula that can fit nicely into the ski day. The poses are easy to follow, and the feel is meditative rather than athletic. Shot on the beaches of Maui and the sand dunes of Death Valley, A.M./P.M. is a feast for the eyes. $18. www.gaiam.com; 877-989-6321. -K.K.od
Foods and drinks spiked with natural supplements sound like a good way for skiers to sneak in extra nutrients. These so called "functional foods" can boost immune systems and increase energy for the ski day. Or so the labels say....

Some companies take advantage of a loophole in the FDA approval process by adding supplements such as herbs, amino acids and plant extracts to products, and then claiming unproven health benefits¿without mentioning possible side effects.

For example, Odwalla's Think Drink label claims that the added ginkgo biloba stimulates the mind, but doesn't mention that the supplement, in rare cases, can cause allergic skin reactions and headaches. Ben & Jerry's Tropic of Mango smoothie offers to help fight colds with echinacea, which occasionally can cause fever, nausea and allergic reactions.

Consumer groups are pressuring the FDA to better regulate the marketing of supplements. Until they succeed, your best defense is to educate yourself. Check out supplement guides at www.altmed.com or www.herbalgram.org. Also, let your doctor know if you are taking supplements. ¿Elizabeth McCulloch

Behind Closed Doors

So maybe you're convinced that yoga can help your skiing, but the thought of attending a class makes you squeamish. Here are two videos you can check out in your own living room¿and easily kick under the couch when your buddies swing by.

Cross Training With Yoga is a straightforward, slow-moving video that focuses on yoga's athletic benefits without the ethereal New Age music. It's led by Argie Ligeros, a former champion gymnast, along with Prisca Boris, a former Pro Mogul Tour skier, and Peter Lange, a ski-racing coach and hulking guy who proves that strong men can be flexible too. There aren't many breaks in the workout, so hit pause whenever you need one. $20. www.y4a.com; 888-942-9642.A.M./P.M. Yoga For Beginners wakes the muscles in the morning and relaxes them in the evening (20 minutes each), a formula that can fit nicely into the ski day. The poses are easy to follow, and the feel is meditative rather than athletic. Shot on the beaches of Maui and the sand dunes of Death Valley, A.M./P.M. is a feast for the eyes. $18. www.gaiam.com; 877-989-6321. -K.K.