Recently, a young student asked me, “Miss Jaclyn, do you think yoga will improve my riding?” Suddenly the earth shifted beneath me and I was given a soapbox. It took almost 30 minutes to explain each way my riding has benefitted from practicing yoga. Here goes:
1. Body and Muscle Awareness. Riding requires advanced control of your body mechanics. Have you ever been asked to change your position on the horse while in motion, and found yourself struggling to command your body into action? As a dressage instructor, I have learned to accept that individuals have strength, mobility and awareness limitations that can prevent proper riding. If you are required to alter your position and movement in a particular way while riding your horse, you may need practice while dismounted. If riding is the only time when you are asking your body to perform certain positions and movements, then you will find it harder to succeed. Yoga provides postures that make you aware of your muscles and skeleton and how to control the mechanisms of movement.
2. Breathing. We are all continuously breathing. Practicing several different types of yoga breath trains your body to control the tempo and depth of your breath. In ujjayi breath, you breathe slowly through the nose into the back of your throat, creating a snoring sound that lifts the throat, making your neck and chest expand and become warm. This breath is an ideal warm-up for exercise. Alternately, pranayama deep breathing flows into the bottom of the lungs and stomach, helping to slow and calm the body. This breath is ideal during times of tension and promotes relaxation of the rib cage and shoulders. As you perform hours of yoga each week, your body’s awareness of the breath improves, giving you control. There are many physical and mental benefits of controlling your breathing.
3. Core Strength. If you were asked to stand properly with your body straight and in alignment, would you know how? Yoga promotes the same core position as riding. Practicing yoga strengthens the muscles that elongate the spine and allow us to stand straight. The core muscles are constantly at work when the body is seeking balance and are vital for balance while riding. Without control of this musculoskeletal system, it is very easy to stress and injure your body and spine while riding.
4. Flexibility. During the sitting trot, the rider’s hips, if lacking flexibility, prevent movement of the seat, pelvis and lower back. Do you have trouble stretching your leg back away from the knee block of your saddle? Do you experience pain and popping of your hips during your warm-up or ride? Do your horse a favor and get supple. Many riders sit at a desk or in a car for hours each day, creating tension, that works against proper riding position and relaxation. The deeper muscles of the hips and back need time to relax and open up. A few hours of stretching each week will change your ability to sit properly.
5. Mental Focus. Riding requires intense mental concentration, feel and focus. Awareness of your horse’s movement, breathing and mental/emotional state is easy when your mind is calm. Alternatively, it can be very dangerous if you lose your cool when your horse needs you. As the brains of the operation and leader, the rider has a responsibility to remain mentally flexible. Training your mind to remain free of distraction is an important skill for everyday riding. Having control of your thoughts and emotions during a stressful event or moment can be crucial to staying safe. Perhaps the greatest gift of yoga is this training for your mind.
If you stayed awake for that list you are a definite candidate for yoga practice. It’s true that the postures, vocabulary and practice of yoga will greatly improve your riding, and it’s important to me that I fully explained those benefits to my student and to you. But please don’t imagine me staring at the ceiling while my yoga instructor chants away. My favorite yoga practice comes in the form of an hour and a half 26-posture class in a crowded room heated to 105 degrees at 30 percent humidity in front of a large mirror. There are more styles of yoga than there are riding disciplines. Find the one that is right for you. Now I am getting down off my soapbox and I suggest that you hit the mat.
Jaclyn Sicoli is a USDF bronze and silver medalist and a USDF “L” Education Program graduate with distinction. She trains equine athletes from starting under saddle to Grand Prix and coaches dressage riders at every level. Sicoli runs her training business, Peace of Mind Dressage in Maryland, where she also hosts a variety of dressage events and camps (peaceofminddressage.com).