Improve Your Riding with Yoga Exercises
by Emily Beasley
We practice physical balance and flexibility so we can achieve mental balance and flexibility. I have instructed hundreds of yoga classes and have repeated that exact phrase, one I often heard from a yoga instructor. Until recently, however, I was never quite able to connect the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of yoga.
I’ve been involved in yoga at some level for over fifteen years (including teaching for the past five) so I considered myself “flexible.” I’ve always been able to touch my toes, do backbends, hold challenging balance poses, etc. However, despite knowing that flexibility (i.e. range of motion around a joint) was more than just touching your toes, I didn’t fully value my own flexibility and balance until I became a rider. Specifically, a rider recovering from a significant injury.
Equestrians know the importance of maintaining a stable center of gravity over our horses. We also understand the concept of “suppleness” for our equine partners. The reality is that horses become our mirrors, taking on our tightness and muscular imbalances. They reflect our physical and mental flexibility and balance, or lack thereof. Tension in our minds is also reflected in our horses’ bodies. I’ve even had a horse develop tension knots in the exact same muscles as me!
The most genuine reflection of personal inflexibility happened on October 25, 2013, the day of my accident. The week before my fall a dear friend passed away. I told myself I was “fine” and that an event was exactly what I needed yet Titan could feel the truth: I was out of balance both mentally and physically. The third jump during the cross country phase was a small one; any other day it would have been a blip on the radar for us. But we were out of balance so Titan tripped and I fell.
I was unable to leave the house for months after the accident and am now part of a small percentage of mild traumatic brain injury patients diagnosed with Post-Concussive Syndrome. During the months following my fall, riding was out of the question and my mental and physical fitness rapidly deteriorated. Five months later I was able to get on Titan and my husband tacked him up and physically helped me climb on. After being lead around for five minutes I had to get down because the vertigo and pounding in my head was unbearable.
Not long after that I began practicing yoga at home, concentrating on balance and spinal flexibility. I also spent quite a bit of time meditating, visualizing Titan and I soaring over cross country jumps. Within two months we were jumping again and the first day back was one of the best days of my life. My form was spot-on and it felt like we were moving in slow motion. For the first time, I could feel what was happening as we were going over the jumps.
Recovery from an injury is never easy. It’s been two years and I have mental and physical struggles daily. Still, I am convinced that the progress I’ve made is due to balance and flexibility training out of the saddle. I didn’t realize it at the time, but months of this type of training transferred directly to my riding. Now, I continue this practice with the intention of improving my health and, most of all, my riding! Here are a few of my favorite yoga poses that helped me ease back into the saddle:
Seated Forward Bend
While seated, reach your arms overhead and inhale deeply. As you fold forward with a straight back, bend your knees and place your chest on top of your thighs. Wrap your arms behind your knees and grasp opposite elbows. Each time you exhale try and straighten your legs a little each time, walking your heels away. Hold for five deep breath cycles.
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Inhale deeply, lifting your arms overhead. Exhale and turn to the right, placing your left hand on your right knee. Each time you inhale grow taller and twist a little more with each exhale, looking over your right shoulder. Hold five breath cycles and repeat on the opposite side.
While standing, shift your weight to one foot. Find a focal point, lift the opposite foot and place it anywhere on the inside of your supporting leg (except on the kneecap). With each inhale imagine growing taller. Hold at least five breath cycles and switch to the opposite side. *This was very difficult and discouraging for me following the accident.
After mounting your horse and walking in a few 20 meter circles, come to a halt and release your stirrups (If you’re comfortable close your eyes). Inhale and lift your shoulders up by your ears, drawing them down your back as you exhale. With each inhale imagine your breath moving down your body and focus on relaxing each of your muscles as you exhale. Imagine you exhale any tension in your muscles and even in your mind. As you begin to settle down, try and match your own breathing with your horse’s breath. Once you become comfortable, try practicing this at the walk. This is one of my favorites because of how much Titan relaxes as well.
Emily is the owner of ATF Wellness and the creator of Bootcamp4Breeches: Functional Fitness for Equestrians. She coordinates the Health & Physical Education teacher education program at Louisiana State University, is past president of the Louisiana Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, teaches Yoga classes, and researches how women of all ages can develop a positive physical self-concept. She spends her free time eventing with her OTTB, Titan, and TB/Cleveland Bay cross, Bean, in Baker, LA where she and her husband share a small farm with four dogs, three cats, and three horses. You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter @DrBLovesPE; or like her Facebook page, Bootcamp4Breeches: Fitness Training and Wellness Consulting.