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3 Non-Yoga Shortcuts to Better Yoga

November 06, 20226 min read

The very heart of yoga practice is abhyasa – steady effort in the direction you want to go. - Sally Kempton

I am sold on the benefits of a daily yoga asana + pranayama + meditation practice. But I don’t eat, breathe, sleep yoga 24/7. In fact, I have found a few things outside the world of yoga that are actually my go-to shortcuts for better yoga.

My first yoga practice was in 2001. Two decades span multiple life stages and oh so many yoga classes taken and taught. Nothing improves your yoga practice like time on the mat, right? “Practice and all is coming,” is the oft quoted line from K. Patthabi Jois. Well, maybe… But here are some true confessions of a yoga teacher: There are three non-yogic things that I do regularly that have drastically improved my yoga practice.

Strength Training

This has to be the #1 thing in my daily routine off the mat that most improves my time on the mat. Sure, my yoga practices are filled with repetition and functional strength training poses – both of which are phenomenal ways to build strength. But it has been my experience time and again that more time on my hands didn’t actually improve poses like adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) for me as much as working with free weights, Gliding Discs™, TheraBand loops, and my Bowflex®. 

Functional strength training. Every. Day.

It feels like functional strength training is a newer buzz word – though it has been around for forever. But if you are unfamiliar with it, check out this explanation here from the InBody blog.

Strength training with free weights can help improve your yoga

Insider tip: if you have been kicking your heart out in class just trying your darnedest to get up into handstand to no avail, then perhaps consider the inherent wisdom of the body. If the body does not feel it is strong enough to hold you upside down, it will tell your brain as much – whether you are consciously aware of the conversation or not – and it will adamantly refuse to let you catch your handstand. Mind you, the body and brain are not trying to be frustrating by thwarting your efforts. They are trying to save you from falling on your face. It is what they are hardwired to do. Who can blame them? (Is lack of strength the only reason an otherwise perfectly capable yogi cannot get into handstand? No. But I see it often enough to suggest it be top of the consideration list.)

Body Work

While I have certainly found that there is an adaptation of every pose to suit everyone, I must also explain that yoga cannot fix everything. 

I have scoliosis. And though the case is slight, it is nonetheless structural. One cannot stretch their way out of scoliosis. I have a repertoire of variations for most poses to either counter-condition my muscles in spite of the curvature, or to accommodate for it. Invariably though, there are those mornings I wake up realizing that I’ve slept poorly, exacerbated my spine’s curves and rotation, and cannot lift my right arm, arch my midback, or twist to the left anymore. And I know – through adamant trial and error – that no combination of yoga poses on the planet will remedy it. Actual, structural manipulation is necessary.

A chiropractor can have me good as new and back to the mat in 15 short minutes. So do you know what I do? I see my chiropractor asap and then get back to the mat.

Chiropractic care and massage can help improve your yoga

I also have sacroiliac dysfunction, which all the functional strength training and slow, mindful yoga flow practices keeps to a relatively minimal disruption of daily life. But still, there are those long days at the end of long weeks that leave me unable to bend, or walk, or sit without pain. And I know – again through adamant trial and error – that anjaneyasana (low lunge), supta virasana (reclined hero), and setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge) to insist that my iliosoas just stretch to release the back of my pelvis and low back… well, it will just end with bodily retaliation. I end up with iliopsoas bursitis. 

A massage therapist can have me good as new in just 30 minutes though. So, do you know what I do? I see a massage therapist asap and then get back to the mat.

Insider tip: It has also been my experience that the more diligently I do my daily strength training – including deep core strengthening – the less frequently I have recurrences of SI dysfunction. Just one more reason to get those workouts in!

Dance Like Nobody’s Watching

I regularly wiggle, jiggle, and bounce around. I am all about embracing my secret, inner-belly dancer. (And if you are an avid yoga practitioner scoffing at belly dancers, then you clearly have never tried belly dancing, my friend. It. Is. Challenging.)

Most yoga practices involve very precise, linear movements, which are great for building healthy movement patterns to take off the mat into daily life. However, the body also needs non-linear, undulating movements on the daily, too. I have found this to be truer the older I get. 

Undulating, bouncing, belly dancing, and foam rolling are all great ways to keep your fascia healthy and happy. Not familiar with fascia and how to give this body part its due TLC? Read this.

Dancing can help improve your yoga

Add my two structural conditions (scoliosis + sacroiliac dysfunction) together with unconscious compensatory patterns, and somedays I’m just a head-to-toe hot mess: stiff, achy, “crunchy” neck and shoulders. Because when one part of the body is off kilter, the whole body feels it. Thank you, fascia.

And the secret sauce for that?! A structural integrationist becomes my new best buddy. Where a massage therapist works to release muscular tension, structural integration focuses on the layers of connective tissue in the body through fascial manipulation.  Not familiar with it? Check out this video. 

Insider tip: There are a number of great tools available for self-myofascial massage (myofascial = muscle + fascia). A tennis ball can work wonders for the soles of the feet and calves, and daily TLC for the calves and feet can make a world of difference your forward folds. Try it! My favorite tool for the bigger, über tender fascial tracts like the IT band and TFL is a massage roller glove. Just remember that myofascial message is not deep tissue massage. You are just trying to get a little hydration and circulation to the superficial layers so there is more slide and glide around the muscles.

While I don’t love all the things about yoga in the West, I do have to extend a shoutout to the information and technology we have available that can enhance our yoga practice – and in some ways, enhance it more efficiently than just repetitions on the sticky mat. What things do you do outside the realm of yoga that enhance your yoga practice?

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