Discovering the health benefits of yoga | VailDaily.com

Discovering the health benefits of yoga

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com

As the owner of a Vail Valley athletic club, exercise physiologist and cycling coach Rod Connolly sees all kinds of recreation enthusiasts, from weekend warriors to serious competitive athletes. There's one exercise he thinks all of them could benefit from — a regular yoga practice.

"A regular yoga practice helps other types of activities more than you may think. If you develop better posture and mobility, you will be safer, stronger and have less incidence of injury during other workout sessions," said Connolly, who owns Dogma Athletica and Live It Cycling in Edwards. "I continually recognize that people with optimal mechanics are the ones who have a regular yoga practice."

Most people know that yoga has ties to meditation, deep breathing and can increase flexibility — but many people aren't aware of the deeper effects that a regular practice (that is, at least three times a week) can bring.

"A routine yoga practice translates to better core strength, economy of motion and assimilation of oxygen (this is especially important for endurance athletes). A yoga practice helps create awareness of your body's mechanics and movement. Without this, many people build fitness upon dysfunction, which often leads to imbalance and chronic injury," said Connolly.

Build strength

Avon resident Janet Huntoon has been doing yoga for nearly a decade. Before discovering yoga, she practiced martial arts. She said she thinks she's stronger now with yoga as her main form of exercise than she has ever been.

Recommended Stories For You

"You definitely build your strength and flexibility through yoga. I used to do some martial arts, but I was always getting hurt," she said. "My issue is strength, and yoga really addresses that. People don't usually think about that, but yoga is lots of balancing. You're holding plank or popping up into a handstand. The poses are not easy."

Huntoon works with a lot of kids at the Vail Valley Academy of Dance, which requires her to squat down and get up often. At the age of 59, Huntoon said she thinks yoga has helped her stay strong and injury-free.

"One of the things you hear about in discussions about aging is the loss of balance, which can lead to falls and injuries. Yoga is all about balance. I feel like I'm taking out an insurance policy by practicing yoga that it will continue to help my balance as I age," Huntoon said.

Lose weight and keep it off

Connolly said that people with a regular yoga practice have been shown to have the healthiest body mass index of people in their age group — and the reasons may be surprising. Often it's less about the calorie burn, and more about healthy eating habits and lowered stress levels.

"I've seen (the weight loss effect) in myself and my clients," said Julia Clarke, yoga studio director at the Vail Vitality Center. "One reason is because yoga helps lower overall stress and anxiety. When you're stressed, your body is in fight or flight mode, and your body shuts down all systems that aren't completely necessary. It means that your body isn't digesting or absorbing nutrients properly."

Kevin Pillifant, an athletic trainer with sports medicine specialist Dr. Steven Singleton, said he started practicing yoga a few years ago, and dropping some extra pounds was among the benefits he experienced.

"I was more conscious about what I was eating because I could tell a difference in how I felt on the mat," he said. "I didn't feel so good the next morning at yoga when I eat a big burger the night before, so I started making some different choices."

Become a better athlete

Yoga can help build strength that will directly benefit many of the body weight exercises that are popular in the mountains, such as skiing, biking or running. Many of these athletes don't even know what they're lacking until they try a yoga session.

"It's not uncommon for a person who outwardly looks strong to practice yoga and find that many basic yoga holds are very challenging," Connolly said.

Pillifant, who spent years as a trainer for the Chicago White Sox, said he's seen yoga help everyone from pro athletes to patients recovering from surgery.

"There are numerous ways you can incorporate yoga into recovery," he said. "Athletes can still achieve the work they want on the muscles and joints, yet still have the sense of recovery. I also see significant improvement in using yoga in rehab. I'm currently developing a program to incorporate yoga into a rehab protocol for any post-operative patient."

Live happier

Yogis will often bring up the mental and emotional benefits that regular yoga practice brings. Clarke said that she and her clients often find that overcoming physical and mental challenges on the mat can translate to real life.

"In life, if you come upon an obstacle you don't like, you can kind of ignore it sometimes. But in yoga it's just this rectangle and you, and you get to navigate the obstacle, such as a challenging pose, in a very controlled setting. Then you can apply that in other areas of your life."

Huntoon said she likes the meditative aspect of yoga, adding that it provides a great escape from the stress of daily life.

"You have to be concentrating on every part of your body, and everything else falls by the wayside. When I'm in yoga, that's all I can think about, and I really like that," she said. "It gives me that hour or hour and a half of total escape from daily life, like a moving meditation."

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.