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The Dark Side of Yoga for Mountain Bikers (and How to Avoid it)

Article by Gene Hamilton

I have written plenty of times about the many benefits of my on-again, off-again yoga practice but failed to mention the dark side (and why my practice has been sporadic over the last 14 years). I have stressed going to a yoga studio with dedicated yoga teachers, not doing what I call “gym yoga” with 30 students and one teacher with limited experience, but even well meaning, dedicated teachers are human and make mistakes.

My first yoga experience was in 1998 in Boulder, Colorado. My friend Rusty was getting into yoga and he convinced me to go to a class at the YMCA. He used the, “not only is great for you, there are a lot of pretty girls there” approach that tends to work on single men. Well, there were a lot of pretty girls there and an instructor who sat way at the end of the room and basically did his own yoga practice while explaining to us what to do (not what I would call a good instructor). He never walked around the room watching and correcting our form, which is fundamental to yoga. Men, especially when there are four or five of them in a room with 25 women, are rather competitive so I wanted to do everything the teacher and my friend Rusty were doing. Unfortunately, I was cheating, rounding my lower back when I should of been hinging at the hips and various other ways to allow my unflexable body to bend like the instructor’s (in my eyes). Since the instructor did not walk around the room and observe us I never knew I was doing poses incorrectly. One day I found out just how incorrectly I was doing things when I heard an audible pop in my lower back and felt a sudden pain there. Long story short,  I stopped doing yoga that day and spent two weeks getting massage therapy and visiting the chiropractor to fix my back.

Two years later when I lived in Fruita, Colorado I discovered a wonderful yoga studio ran by a woman in her late sixties. She had studied under B. K. S. Iyengar, founder of Iyenger Yoga and was, as described by a  friend of mine “old school” in how strict she was (my nickname for her was the Yoga Nazi, after the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld). After three weeks of doing four to five yoga classes a week I was really feeling good and was starting to really enjoy yoga. Then one day in class we were focusing on twists to open up our hips and backs and she came up behind me and in her Austrian accent said, “Why are you so stiff Gene, you are too young to be so stiff!” and then she powerfully twisted me further and again, snap, a muscle let go in my back. Another round of chiropractor and massage therapist visits. This time I tentatively returned to yoga just didn’t take classes that she taught, but often still felt more back pain after yoga than before, I honestly thought this was part of the process, no pain, no gain.

I repeated this on-again, off-again practice for the next 11 years or so until last winter when I started doing yoga regularly. This time, with a little investigation I found more enlightened yoga instructors. They would say things like, “find the softness in the pose”, “relax and breathe, don’t strain” and perhaps the best thing to tell students, “it is your practice, go only to the edge of discomfort where you can still breathe”. This was amazing, as I found that if I stayed at the edge of discomfort and used my breathe  I could slowly open up my body much deeper than when I tried to force it! I was also fortunate enough to get a few private lessons with BetterRides’ Communications Director who had just gotten back from yoga teacher training in Thailand. She explained some really basic concepts of how to stand correctly and hold poses correctly as well as the goal of many common poses (why we are doing this pose, and how it will look and feel when I am able to do it really well). Then one day I showed up to yoga class and I was the only student! Rather than cancel the class the instructor gave me a private lesson and really focused on how I could and could not move. She was the first instructor to tell me to only go so far in certain forward folds and to bend my knees in forward folds (that are designed to be done with straight legs) where I was curving my lower back instead of hinging. She also told me to sit on a folded blanket to tilt my hips forward when doing seated forward folds (just like tilting my saddle forward so I can hinge at the hips better on my bike!). When I went to Bali this summer many of the instructors reinforced these same techniques. Being able to bend my knees a little and focusing on bringing my chest to my thighs made yoga completely pain free for me! This allowed me to really open up my body!

Unfortunately, my favorite yoga instructor, here in Tempe moved away so I have been searching for some new instructors. My search brought me to a Yin Yoga class after a short, but great ride on South Mountain. As a matter of fact it was last Wednesday, the day after I published my “Mountain Biking and Back Pain: How to Prevent it and Cure it” article. Also, a few days after I aware of my breath throughout an entire yoga class (a huge breakthrough for me). Halfway through a great class while blissfully meditating in a seated forward fold the instructor starts pushing on my lower back to deepen my stretch. My first thought was to yell “STOP!”, but I didn’t want to interrupt the others in the class and thought that maybe with all the classes I had taken recently my back was actually hinged (instead of bent) and he was helping me hinge further. Nope, after the class my lower back was starting to hurt and by the time I rode my bike home it was really hurting!

Well, I knew this was a muscle pull, not tight myofasica, but I figured some light foam rolling would help so I spent 20-30 minutes working on getting my lower back to relax. Then I had to continue boxing up my bike for my flight to Austin the next day. As you can imagine sitting on a plane for two hours and hauling my bike box around airports, into rental cars and into my hotel wasn’t the best therapy for a pulled muscle, but there were eight eager students excited to be coached the next day. After Friday’s coaching my back didn’t feel any worse, still hurt a little from the pulled muscle but not too bad. I rolled on my tennis balls for a half hour and it felt a little better. Repeated the same routine on Saturday and felt great on Sunday morning. The Students were stoked, it looked like the rain was going to hold off and I was looking forward to coaching. Then I bent down to tie my shoe and wham! That pulled muscle lit up and still hurts like heck today, two days, one massage and one chiropractor visit later.

How can you benefit from this cautionary tale? Take your time to find good, supportive yoga instructors and if you don’t want harsh physical adjustments tell the instructor before the class (the best ones will usually ask first but many, like mine the other day don’t ask). I still love yoga and will continue to do it but I won’t think twice about telling an instructor to get his hands off me, even it disrupts the whole class. I know he meant well but he should of asked and regardless I should of told him to stop. My failure to yell stop is going to cost me a week or two of lost work and a week or two of not enjoying my life and losing what little fitness I regained this fall. Oh, and hundreds of dollars in chiropractor and massage therapy bills. Please learn from my mistake!