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Go on stretch yourself

Go on stretch yourself

Author: Tarquin Cooper
Publication: Telegraph Weekend, UK
Date: November 9, 2002

Introduction: Despite its relaxed, hippie image, yoga can be highly beneficial for athletes, says Tarquin Cooper

I remember the first time someone suggested I try yoga. They came at me with enough zeal to impress a Jesuit missionary and the reticence of an anti-smoking bore. I knew all the benefits of yoga to health, posture and attitude to life but as far as I was concerned, it was about as appealing as tofu.

"No," I replied. This was on principle, masculine, pig-headed principle. There was no way that I was going to sit in a class of cross-legged women chanting strange mantras. I could barely reach my knees, let alone touch my toes. There was room for only one Indian cultural import in my life, and I liked that accompanied by a pint of lager and a couple of popadums.

Curiosity got the better of me though, and I was shocked by what I discovered. Yoga is really tough. This is not a word I use lightly. I've scaled rock faces and run marathons. But after stretching and working my body for an hour, I was longing for salvation. I dripped with sweat. There was another surprise too. Most of the class were athletic-looking men.

This is no surprise to Anne-Marie Newland, a former professional ballerina who now teaches yoga to sportsmen. "A big rugby player came to one class. He was very, very fit, but halfway through the session he went out and vomited. He couldn't believe how hard it was."

Newland says yoga is a brilliant way to boost sporting performance and should be accepted as a mainstream fitness work-out, as it is in America. But here, she says, it still suffers from an image problem, in part thanks to "yoga fundamentalists". This still causes embarrassment for people interested in taking it up.

My session starts with the "sun salutations". We stand with our feet together and wheel our arms up above our heads, pointing to the ceiling. And then we bend down and try to reach the floor with our legs straight. From the touching-toes position, the hands go flat on the ground and we kick our legs back, moving into the press-up position.

We push forward, lock our arms straight and arch our backs looking up; and then arch the other way, feet flat on the ground and head down, pushing the muscles on the backs of our legs. Here we hold and take five long deep breaths before jumping back to the touching-toes position and stand up. Then we repeat the movement, several times.

It's not unlike a burpee, a punishing exercise popular with military fitness instructors. Only this is harder. Everything in yoga is very slow and controlled, so although you're never out of breath, it is very strenuous.

Anyone can do 20 press-ups and 'then rest, but try holding yourself in the press-up position for five minutes, maintaining steady breathing, and then moving into the next position and holding that one. It's like this for an hour.

"Yoga uses the body's own weight like conventional weights to build strength coupled with extreme muscle control," says Newland.

The reason why yoga is such a good work-out is because it treats the body as a whole, not as isolated parts. "The problem with all sports is that they train a specific group of muscles," says Newland. "I get crippled footballers, sprinters who can't move their hips and cyclists with lower back problems. They may be fit for their sport, but not for life."

Her job is to unlock the muscle groups that are causing problems and she claims to have more success than physiotherapists. Doctors are also increasingly recommending yoga to people who suffer common sporting injuries. The reason is that it builds overall body strength and flexibility, making you less prone to injury and better able to deal with it.

Yoga also treats the lung as a muscle that can be strengthened to take more oxygen in. This is a great way to improve aerobic performance. Newland tells how she dramatically increased the fitness of the Leicester City reserve team with a single session of breathing exercises. For this reason yoga is popular among divers, because it makes them more oxygen-efficient under the water.

There is another crucial benefit. "Yoga has a profound effect on the body," says Newland, "but its effect on the mind is astounding." It is this that gives yoga fans the zeal of the newly converted.

The combination of breathing and muscle control that yoga teaches not only improves fitness and strength, but it also equips you with the right state of mind for success at any sport.

It is as applicable to the tennis court as it is to the ski-slope.

Imagine you're about to serve. Coaches always say "relax", and the way to do that is through breathing exercises. Imagine standing at the top of a forbidding ski-run. How are you going to combat your nerves? Deep breaths.

It's the same for climbing and martial arts as it is for football. Breathing helps to relax you and put you in the right frame of mind to perform to a high standard. Add the agility and balance you have learnt through yoga, and you will be even better equipped to achieve just that.

(For more information on taking up yoga, try the British Wheel of Yoga (01529 306851; www.bwy.org.uk): or www.yogauk.com which has details of local classes.

More details about Anne-Marie Newland's Power Yoga classes and videos can be found at www.yogawithanne-marie.com.)

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