Apart from riding, I’ve never considered myself to be an athletic person, or even considered myself to possess the most basic of coordination skills. In grade school, I was the girl who was always picked last for kickball teams. I was the girl who tripped in the cafeteria carrying my lunch tray, splattering chocolate milk and scattering chicken nuggets across the floor. Forced against my will to participate in Middle School Field Day, I joined a relay team of like-minded girls, and we dubbed ourselves “The Slowpokes.” Our team was complete with official jerseys bearing our glorious mascot, a cartoon snail. Good times, y’all.
Anyway, the more time I’ve spent riding and reading about dressage training, the more apparent it has become to me that even the best riders who are natural athletes have to do some time cross-training to maximize riding skills and ability. And as much as I curse working out in practically all forms, I have realized that it is, indeed, a necessary evil. So I set out on a little adventure to dabble in more conventional forms of exercise. I joined two running clubs. I worked with a personal trainer. I tried rock climbing. I went hiking. I did a few CrossFit classes. I went paddle boarding. I did Zumba. Not surprisingly, none of it really seemed to stick for me, but I did discover one thing I liked: Bikram Yoga.
As you probably know, there are many different ways to practice yoga. Bikram Yoga is a specific sequence of 26 postures, selected and developed by Bikram Choudhury from Hatha Yoga. The series of postures is designed to help every part of your body function optimally. To make things even more interesting, the studio is heated to about 105 degrees Fahrenheit and maintained at about 40 percent humidity, which is said to offer increased health benefits. I won’t go in to all of that now, but if you’re interested in learning more about Bikram Yoga, check it out here.
I’m a very far cry from calling myself a “Yogi,” and I don’t attend classes nearly as much as I should. In fact, after a long break, I returned to the mat yesterday for the first in a very long time. As I was bending, twisting, balancing, stretching and profusely sweating, one thing struck me. I find Bikram Yoga tolerable because I’ve discovered so many ways that it relates to riding. Not just from a physical fitness standpoint, but because of the mindset that practicing yoga seems to instill. Here are a few things that crossed my mind during the session:
1. It’s Personal. If you’ve done any form of yoga before, you know that it is considered to be a non-competitive type of exercise. I’ve heard many instructors refer to it as a “personal practice.” I like that phrasing and I wish more people talked about their experience with dressage that way because it takes the focus off external measures of success and makes your riding more about you and your horse. It can be so easy to get caught up in test scores, judges’ critiques, the next horse show, what medal you have, what level you’re going to compete next, etc. While test scores and levels and medals are great tools for goal setting, they are not the end all be all. Let’s get back to the reason why we ride in the first place: our relationship with our horses through our body and mind.
2. Keep your eyes on your own mat (or horse!). As a yoga newbie, I have to remind myself to use the mirror as a tool to center myself and study my poses, rather than to compare myself to the people next to me. Sure, it’s very helpful and sometimes necessary to look to others for a little bit of guidance, but you can’t get caught up in it so much that it takes the focus away from what you’re doing. For example, Standing Bow (see all 26 Bikram postures here) requires refined balance. Having a visual point to focus on to maintain that balance is absolutely necessary. If I let my mind and eyes drift to the person next to me who is doing it “better,” I fall out of the pose. If you’ve ever shared a ring with upper-level riders, you see the application of this to riding.
3. Come as you are. In my most recent Bikram Yoga class, I came in dwelling on how I’d gotten so out of practice and I wondered why even bother. As the instructor began the class, she said “However you have come to this class today is perfect.” Hearing her say that was liberating. What if we got on our horses and began our lessons with that mentality? I don’t know about you, but when I get on my horse, I’m usually flooded with thoughts about how I’m not where I want me and my horse to be and I’m consumed with negative thoughts about what doesn’t feel good. It would be so much more productive to get on and say this is where we are today and it is O.K.
4. Focus on progress, not perfection. If I came to yoga class with the goal of turning myself into a human pretzel, I’d probably not be able to walk the next day. If I came into the ring with the goal of having my horse piaffe like Valegro, she would probably not be able to walk the next day. But if I just focused on stretching a tiny bit more or getting into a pose a smidgen deeper each time, there would be progress. If I focused on asking my horse to give me a little bit more every day, there would be progress. Progress is a realistic goal. Perfection is not.
5. The value of relaxation. If you take a Bikram Yoga class, you’ll hear the word savasana a lot, which refers to Dead Body pose. It’s a restorative pose where you essentially lay on the floor with your arms at your side and your feet slightly apart, letting every part of your body completely relax. This pose is often used as a resting point between many more challenging poses. I learned that I was much more likely to try my heart out for the short spurts of challenging poses when I knew complete relaxation immediately followed. Relaxation is also a basic building block of the Training Scale and so many top riders advocate giving your horse frequent breaks to relax and process their efforts. Relaxation is so important in physical, mental and emotional terms.
6. Expensive equipment doesn’t make up for practice time. We all know that person, whether it’s in yoga class or at the barn. They have the $87 Lululemon sports bra or the $400 breeches and they totally look the part… until they get on the mat or in the tack. Don’t get me wrong, if I could indulge myself in that way, I probably would. But what I mean is that for those of us who don’t have those things at our finger tips, we don’t need to feel pressured to sink a ton of money into our athletic wardrobe just for street cred purposes. Save the money for actual learning experiences.
7. Leave your pride and ego at the door. You have to be brave enough to be “bad” at something in order to eventually get good at it. If you let your pride get in the way, it will only slow you down—in riding, in yoga and anything else.
Just like riding, yoga strikes me as a path to some form of enlightenment. It’s a slow and gradual process, but if it’s as much like dressage as I think it is, it is well worth the effort. Maybe it’s your cup of tea, maybe it’s not.
We’re curious to hear what other activities you’ve tried that you think relate well to your practice (see what I did, there?) of dressage. Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Namaste.