What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient mind/body exercise that originated in India. Literally, it means ‘to unite’, regular practice unites the mind and body. When we are riding, we have to unite not only our own mind and body but the horse’s mind and body, and our own with theirs!! A rider who is in united in a strong, supple body and a calm, focused mind is in a very positive position to achieve harmony with their horse, before they even put their foot in the stirrup.
Yoga promotes strength, flexibility, mental focus and wellbeing. There are a variety of different types of yoga, to suit all levels and ambitions. However, the general aims of improving breathing, calming the mind whilst strengthening and aligning the body are present throughout the various different types. A strong, long, lean body with regular, considered breathing are all things I promote when I am coaching riders, which makes yoga fit so well.
Why is yoga good for riders?
Various forms of exercise are good for riders, including swimming, cycling, Pilates and yoga. Each have their own benefits and drawbacks from a horse rider’s perspective, but work best as part of a balanced exercise regime. Yoga specifically, may be useful for riders who sit for long periods at work or are tight in their hips. Tight hips cause riders to grip with their knees and make it difficult for the lower leg to hang long and around the horses’ side. At a more advanced level, hip opening exercises can really help to improve the sitting trot and prevent bouncing, and thus increase flow and harmony.
Riders often treat their horses – to regular training sessions, to physio, to the latest gear. We rarely, however, treat ourselves, often because of the cost. Yoga is a great and cheap way to treat a rider to a good workout, and a well-being session. Contrary to popular belief amongst the people I speak to, yoga is a great workout, and excellent to improve core stability. It is also fantastic for improving flexibility, especially in the hamstrings, shoulders and hips.
One of the key advantages to yoga and Pilates, is the focus on the breath. Focus on breathing is very important during riding because it helps to improve the mind/body connection, and reduce any mental chatter that may exist from a long and busy day. The best riders practice mental focus, thinking only about the horse, his way of going and their goals for the session.
Horses pick up on subtle changes in our mood and having a focused mind allows us to communicate more clearly with our horse and make our partnership more harmonious. As our body acts as a whole unit, our pelvis and diaphragm are linked; when the breathing is shallow the hips will be tight. The horse’s way of going will mimic the posture of the rider. If the rider is gripping and tense, the horse will not be ‘through’ and flowing, will tense its back and take short, choppy strides. This can have long term implications, not only on performance, but also for the soundness of the horse.
Basic yoga to try at home
Low lunge - What it does
This stretch really opens out your hips and stretches your groin, hip flexors and quadriceps. Flexibility in this area is essential to have an open and supple seat for dressage. Flexible quadriceps and hip flexors allow the leg to lengthen and your seat to become deeper. The low lunge in particular helps to counteract the effect that long periods of time sitting down has on shortening your hip flexors and quadriceps, for example in riders that work in an office...
How to do it
Start on your hands and knees. Extend your right leg out in front of you, resting your right foot on the floor so that your right knee is at 90 degrees to the floor and your weight is between your right foot and left knee. Make sure your knee is not over your toe, otherwise you can damage your knee. Engage your core muscles and push your pelvis forward until you feel a good stretch along the front of your left leg (as in the picture), without the stretch being painful. Hold for at least 30 seconds, breathing deeply throughout. Change legs and do two sets each side.
To make it harder
Once you are accustomed to this stretch, you can try the more advanced version. Once in the low lunge position, Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale bring your arms into the air and behind your head. Open up your chest and feel a good stretch along your chest as well as in your hips. Continue to breathe whilst you enjoy the stretch that this position provides along your whole body.
Pigeon - What it does
The pigeon stretches out your gluteal muscles (your buttocks), which get tight from riding and can compromise your leg position and can cause lower back pain. It is also great for relieving tension in the hips, which can be caused by spending long periods of sitting, and also stress related tension is stored in the hips, so the pigeon pose enhances wellbeing.
How to do it
Start on all fours, with your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Bring your right knee forward until it touches your right wrist, then bring it across the midline of your body. Gently and slowly straighten your left leg out behind you, and lower your torso down so that your weight is over your bent right leg until you feel a stretch in your right buttock. Try and make sure your hips are pointing forward and you aren’t leaning over to the right. Hold for 30 seconds and change sides. Repeat until you have completed two sets on each side.
Cobra - What it does
The Cobra position helps to simultaneously strengthen and elongate your spine and stretches across your chest, to help improve your posture. Stretching your back and chest in this way is particularly beneficial if you spend long periods of time slouching, for example over a computer or mucking out.
How to do it
Start by lying on the floor, face down. Keep your feet together. Bend your elbows, tucking them in by your sides, and rest your palms on the floor under your elbows. Contract your abdominals and your buttocks to protect your lower back, and exhale as you lift your torso up, so that your bodyweight is resting on your palms and pubic bone (as in the picture). Keep your head facing forward so that you don’t strain your neck. Take at least 5 deep breaths in this position and return to lying. Repeat twice.
If this stretch is too much for you, or you experience pain in your back, you can rest on your forearms, and only come up as far as you can whilst your bottom rib is in contact with the mat and floor. This is more suitable if you suffer with lower back pain, and is still a very beneficial stretch without risking damaging your back.
How do you find these exercises? Are you more flexible in some joints than others? Answer in the comments below!