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Incorporate Yoga for Improved Strength and Flexibility

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This months fitness makeover request is from 38-year-old Chris Rudin of Silverlake, Calif.

An avid fitness buff who enjoys weightlifting, swimming, and jogging, Chris’ main concern is that he’s feeling less overall flexibility than he did in his early 30s.

"I used to be able to lift weights one day and swim comfortably the next," he writes, "but more often than not these days, I’m really tight when I begin my swim and I feel totally inflexible throughout my workout."

An additional problem is that Chris finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his overall strength — he notices this in the weight room, where he does the same amount of reps as he did years ago, but with slightly less weight before "maxing" out.

Loss of flexibility and the gradual loss of strength are facts of life as we age, but there are ways to slow the process and perhaps even stop it. Recently, I’ve been facing similar issues — it’s been months since I’ve felt really good in the water, and in the weight room I struggle to lift the same amount of weight as I once did, while losing patience and motivation.

I have a solution that is currently improving my flexibility and strength, and while it’s still too early to tell how yoga will affect my athletic performance in the long run, I have a hunch it will help me greatly because it is doing wonders for me now.

I was initially a skeptic. Only a few months ago I was turned on to the yoga craze by a friend; a former swimmer who was now a yoga enthusiast. She claimed it was a great workout, strengthening her entire body while making her muscles pliable. More out of politeness than keen interest, I agreed to try a beginner’s class.

For someone who thought yoga was not really a form of exercise as much as a state of New Age mind, I was in for a rude awakening (and a pleasant surprise). Not only was the class challenging and difficult, but it left me feeling euphoric and relaxed. The next day, I had the best swim workout I’ve had in a long time. Something was definitely up with this yoga business.

I began taking classes more regularly and reading up on the subject. I found that yoga is basically defined as the uninterrupted flow of movements combined with a system of meditative breathing. This combination of movement and regulated oxygen intake creates increased body heat. It is this heat that is used to heal, tone, and strengthen a body full of tight, sore muscles.

Just as an artist uses heat to soften metal and glass into artistic forms, so an athlete can use yoga to soften and strengthen muscles to achieve athletic improvement.

In addition, the benefits of yoga extend to other areas. As your muscles expand and contract during a session, blood flow increases to areas that have formerly been blocked with accumulated toxins (toxins that build up from overuse and overtraining). These toxins are flushed out by the rush of blood that enters the blocked muscles, resulting in that euphoric endorphin-flooded "high" you feel at the end of a class.

Mental concentration and balance are required during yoga as well, elements that count toward overall athletic excellence. The more you can clear and center your mind, the more likely you are to remain focused and calm prior to an important competition.

The more capable of good balance you are, the stronger your "core" strength will be, improving your overall body position (regardless of your sport).

What follows is a very basic series of poses that you can try on your own as a warm-up before getting into the pool or going on a run.

While it is definitely recommended to learn these positions from a certified yoga instructor in a studio-class setting, the poses below serve as introductory yoga exercises that double as pre-workout stretching drills.

Some of them may even seem familiar if you are disciplined about stretching prior to athletic activity (and you should be, to avoid injury!).

1. Beginning pose: Sun Salutation
Begin by standing with your legs shoulder width apart, arms at your sides. Breathe in, and bring your arms up over your head by tracing a circle from your sides until your palms come together.

2. Folding Pose
Exhaling, bend forward at the waist and reach toward your feet. If you can't touch your toes, then touch your shins. Remember to keep a long spine, relax your neck so your head hangs, and keep feet firmly planted in the ground (heels and balls of feet support equal weight: concentrate on balance!).

3. Body Raise
Inhale and bring head up slowly, lifting your chest up so that it is parallel to the ground. Stretch your spine keep it long. Bring your chest and arms back down and touch the ground. Bend your knees if you have to.

4. Pre-Downward Dog pose
Exhale and walk or jump your legs back, lowering your body to the earth as if you were doing a push-up. Stop in the down position with your elbows bent but tucked in at your sides; your body should be as straight as a plank while parallel only inches from the ground.

5. Upward-Facing Dog pose
Inhaling deeply, push the upper body upward while pointing your toes (you can flatten the tops of your feet along the ground now). Your hips should be square and elevated a few inches from the ground so that your body is perched on your palms and the tops of your feet only (in non-yoga terms, this pose is also known as a "seal-press").

6. Downward Dog pose
Exhale, turning your toes back into "push-up" mode and bring your waist up towards the sky as if there is a string attached to the small of your back and someone is slowly pulling you upward. Your body should now be in an upside-down "v," feet shoulder-width apart, head hanging relaxed, palms firm and centered. Take several deep breaths.

7. Body Raise 2
Walk your feet back up toward your palms and reassume the Body Raise position (#3).

8. Folding Pose 2
Exhale deeply and fold downward into the aforementioned Folding Pose (#2).

As you inhale deeply again, slowly raise your body up into a standing position, arms at your sides as you bend up from the waist. When you are standing upright, circle your arms over your head again, clasping the palms together. Exhale.

Repeat this series of poses slowly and methodically three to five times.

Try to reach, or stretch, a little bit farther with each sequence. You may find that on the first round you are unable to touch your toes or reach the ground, but that by the fourth or fifth cycle you are making progress and doing poses you found impossible just minutes before!

I am finding out that mastering yoga takes time and patience. But for you instant-gratification junkies out there it's also a quick fix for sore, tight, and injured muscles. The more you do it, the more flexible and strong you will become. Even a 15-minute unsupervised session like the one above, practiced once a week, will provide the results our fitness makeover subject is looking to achieve.

My advice for Chris is to look into taking a beginning-level yoga class at least once a week from a certified instructor. It should have an immediate effect on his flexibility and he should feel the difference the first time he swims after taking a class.

In time, his strength will also increase, in ways that are simply not possible with consistent weight training. By introducing a new form of exercise into his long-established routine, Chris will use existing muscles in different ways, resulting in greater strength and improved overall flexibility.

Finally, yoga will help motivate, rejuvenate, and instill discipline by way of concentration and balance; traits any athlete should welcome with open arms — or in this case, with a Sun Salutation pose.

If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

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