I’ve been a Competitive, Type-A person all my life. If I didn’t have a chance of winning, I didn’t bother trying. Its how I approached CrossFit for the first years I did it. I wanted to be the Top Dog; top of the leader board.
My stance has largely moderated mostly due to Yoga. Even when I did yoga, I was striving to achieve. I wanted to conquer all the poses. I would bludgeon myself into getting what I wanted often ending up in injury. But it was Yoga teacher training that changed all of that. I began to explore the more subtle, gentle, mindful aspects of the practice. It didn’t matter as much to me that I “got” a pose or not. Teacher says; teacher does. I also implore this in the students I teach. I always say, “We are all on a journey and where we are in that journey is just fine.” I mean that. This non-harming attitude should prevail in all of life. It leads to satisfaction, contentment, and feelings of self-worth.
As I apply this to CrossFit, I am starting to learn how this non-harming influence applies. You have to ask yourself, what is your intention for your workout (or yoga practice)? Is it to get your heart cranked up; to apply a technical movement with quality while tired; or to lift something heavy with good form in the midst of a good amount of discomfort. These are all qualities that sharpens the spear and makes you better. But, if 50 toes to bar or Heavy DT with 225 pounds only leads to injury and failure, why do it? We have to peel away the ego and meet the intention instead of padding our masculinity.
Here are a 5 tips to feeling successful in CrossFit:
- Focus on quality, near non-stop action in a 5 to 10 minute WOD (workout of the day); throw in a 20 minute Cindy now and then and keep moving.
- Forget Rx. Scale down as often as you can. Think in 3-6-9 rep ranges and move weight fast and hard. Do some 2 minute blitzes and 30 rep Grace workouts. Use less weight and keep it moving.
- Tabata workouts are our friends. If your intention is cardio, then these are perfect. Use “Tabata Songs” on Spotify and other places. You may do pushups, situps, kettlebell swings, double unders, or whatever. Its the perfect (scientific) solution.
- Mix up your sequence. Routine kills. Sometimes, do your WOD as a warm-up for an Olympic weightlifting session. Or add a heavy Powerlifting movement into an AMRAP (as many reps/rounds as possible). And anything Strongman is the ultimate CrossFit.
- Plan for success. Instead of feeling terrible after a workout, leave a little in the tank. Then you’ll be straining at the bit for more. Finish with a 1K Row or a run and you’ll feel just fine.
Leaving a little in the tank also means you aren’t hobbling with soreness for a week without working out or risking injury. You might find you can workout nearly every day if you want to. But you still get the benefits of strength and stamina that high-intensity workouts provide. Honestly, you don’t have to kill yourself to see progressively better results.
Last night, I was inspired to teach a class that largely used sandbags throughout. I had plans for specific movements, but as I was going along, I was able to create other spaces to play with them as well. I’ve seen pics and video of CorePower yoga and other such styles using weights. Sandbags in a studio with cork floors is much safer. And, you can double or triple sandbags when you desire more effect. Here are a few juicy postures we explored:
- Utkatasana – chair with sandbag at the chest
- Parsvokonasana/Trikonasana – side angle and triangle pose with the sandbag in one hand with arm extended directly over the shoulder.
- Skandasana/Goddess Squats – side lunges and goddess pose holding sandbag at the chest.
- Janu Sirsasana – one-legged head to knee stretch while seated. I had them drape the sandbag across the middle of the extended thigh to create extra pressure, much like what is done is restorative classes. You can do this for many seated postures.
- Rocket Abs/plow – that’s what I call laying on your back with legs up lowering to a straight legged hover. I had them use the straps of the sandbag into both big toes hanging toward the shins. We lowered to a hover for 5 breaths and then slowly went back to a plow pose.
- Viparita Karani – This is the classic legs up with wall with sandbag across the soles of the feet. So scrumptious. We finished practice like this in lieu of savasana.
At home, instead of sandbags, you can use a dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a milk jug. Instead of feeling cumbersome, weighted poses create a different sensation and really nice grounding. I also recommend doing the pose without the weight directly afterward for a “contrast” effect.
As you roll out of bed, you engage your abs and hip flexors to rise to standing. You walk to the toilet, and if you sit down, you use your strong quads and glutes to get back up. You reach down to pet your dog or pick up the newspaper, which uses your lower back and hamstrings. You open the cupboard and reach for a coffee mug on the shelf. These are all the basic movements in life. When you can no longer do these things, its a downhill progression to your existence. As healthy people, we take this for granted. But as people who know what this feels like to have these simple things taken away, it is devastating.
Now let’s crank up the quality of life part of our world. Now you pick up your 40 pound toddler and play. You grab the groceries from the floor and take them to the counter. You twist under the sink to check a leak. Maybe you help someone move that refrigerator or sofa down the stairs. You don’t really want to fail or get injured doing any of these things.
So here are the functional movements to life. If you don’t do anything else, at least do these.
- Sit-ups – Most movements in real life involve engagement of hip flexors too. The fitness community went away from sit-ups long ago because they didn’t think it isolates your six-pack abs as much. But realistically, hip flexors play a huge role in life and your core abdominals assist in the process. Maybe you also do leg raises of some sort as well. But we shouldn’t neglect sit-ups anymore. Hernias and lots of back issues arise from having weak abdominals.
- Squats – Simplistically, this may mean sitting on a chair and then standing up. We all should be able to do this. Honestly, if you can no longer get off the toilet on your own, life won’t be very good for you. Better yet, put some weight on your shoulders. When men and women can squat 1 to 3 times their bodyweight, there is nothing in life that can get in their way. Keep the flexibility there too. Old school “Starting Strength” people live off of flawed science that’s all been debunked. The “don’t let your knees go past your toes” idea is long gone. If you look at pictures of people from developing countries, they do everything in a deep squat from cooking, cleaning, to going to the bathroom. Today, Olympic weightlifters lift huge weights after first dropping to Ass-To-Ground squats with knees far past their toes. Keep your ability to move by including deeper variations of squats. So, either keep it simple and use the chair. Or find more information on variations. You can’t ever get bored with squats.
- Deadlifts – Again, there are many varieties of this lift. My latest infatuation has been doing trap bar deadlifts. It is a huge mass builder and you can vary your knee bend and back tilt to the nth degree. But you can do forward folds and rises (good mornings) just as easily with wonderful results. You can grab jugs of water or maybe a sandbag. There is no excuse for not doing deadlifts. Learn good form. Gain some grip strength. It will pay off greatly in your quality of life.
- Overhead Press – Ever seen a baby laugh when Daddy lifts them overhead. They smile and squeal with joy. Lifting overhead has so many benefits. Think if you were pushing a lawnmower or a friend’s car down the driveway. Think of putting that 5 pound bag of sugar on a shelf. Again, this can be as simple as pressing a jar of peanut butter overhead. Or it can be doing handstand pushups. The varieties of this movement are endless. They work not only shoulder strength, but torso, core, hip, and leg strength. There is also the element of balance.
- Ambulation – There is so much written about walking and running. When I was into ultra-marathon running, I didn’t even think twice about being able to run to work, or even from one city to another. If you read in historical texts and even the Bible, people walked all over the place. Research says that the speed at which you walk has a direct correlation with longevity of life. The slower you walk means your end is near. Stride length also has a relationship with life. If you can imagine someone stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, you can see how unhealthy it is to be restricted in balance and muscle lengthening with shortened steps. This is something that I’ve come back to myself. An injury 3 years ago took running away from me. But now that I feel healed, I will be back on the trails enjoying runs through nature again. We should all find more time to exercise our heart, balance, muscles, and enjoyment of the outdoors.
Like I said, if you don’t do anything else in life, at least do these 5 things. Find time to explore this and grow. If you lose any one of these functional movements, you’ll start to lose your ability to live.
As a yoga teacher, I continually have to consider my activities outside of teaching in order to demonstrate poses effectively. I have certain days and times plotted out to workout really hard. This usually involves heavy lifting and a CrossFit WOD (workout of the day) or two. Then I would have a few days to recover and allow the soreness to subside. I am no use to my students if my triceps cramp when I’m doing upward facing dog or my hammies seize during a forward fold.
I listen to a lot of podcasts and it makes me think about what I’m doing. Lately, I’ve felt the strength in my lifts has fallen. It all comes down to the squat for me. People like Travis Mash and Cory Gregory talk about squatting every day, and I’ve done that effectively in the past. So I’m back at it again. But its not only squats, its other exercises too.
Travis talks about younger athletes full of vigor and testosterone. They are able to get after it day in and day out. They still need a lot of rest and nutrition, but its easier for them to recover. For older athletes like myself, he actually says we should rest less, which is counter to current thinking. Instead, we need to do something every day. Maybe we don’t push the same intensity in a single workout, but we do heavy work every day. Its more about maintenance than actual growth.
My routine has really been working for me. I start with a warm-up, usually rowing, ski erging, or running. Then I go to squats. They may be back squats, front, overhead, Zercher, with chains, or any other variation. I don’t kill myself. I may do singles up to a max lift and stop. Or it may be a lighter weight for a set of 30. It may be a 5×5 of pause squats. The variations are endless. In between sets, I work on handstands and muscle ups on the rings. Then, I may do Olympic weightlifting or bodybuilding and try to finish with pulls, mostly with a trap bar.
The next day, I’m nicely toned but not really sore at all. I can jump right into it everyday. And I’m adapting to more volume each time. I’m learning I don’t have to kill myself and get sore all the time. Realistically, life gets busy at times and I take a mandatory rest day. But I don’t plan for rest days anymore. I just live instinctively. Try out this plan. But don’t sandbag your workouts. You can’t just go through the motions and expect to grow. You have to do the hard work.
Someone once said “Yoga is for everyone, but Ashtanga might not be for everyone.”
There may be a little truth in that, but I mostly disagree. Ashtanga CAN be for everyone.
We are in a modern age of yoga. There was a time when you had to qualify or apply to study with a yoga teacher. The dynamics are a bit different today. If you want to practice yoga, you can. It is completely up to you. And I’m not just talking about beginner or gentle yoga classes. I’m talking about Iyengar, Ashtanga, or some other seemingly advanced practice. You just have to try and give it a chance. Here are my 3 tips for venturing into Ashtanga Yoga:
- It’s YOUR Practice
For most yoga studios, we want you to practice with us. We aren’t going to push you away. We love that you try your best. Teachers love nothing more than to see progress. YOU make the choice to come to class and allow the teacher to guide you. Yes, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini,… are specific yoga styles with nuances specific to their practice. We are going to show you the style of THIS practice. But it is still YOUR practice. We facilitate and you do what your body says you can do. Eventually, you’ll find WHY we say to do things a certain way. But you should follow your own path to finding what works for you.
- Modify Everything!
I have been practicing yoga for a while now and teaching for several years. But there is still a lot I can’t do and may never do. But I get the same benefits from the practice whether I modify a pose or not. So if you are new to yoga or to Ashtanga, your body will not be used to certain positions. But don’t judge yourself or be discontent about your place in your journey. You do what you do and all is fine. Nobody will judge you. A yoga teacher never judges you if you can’t touch your toes or bind yourself like a pretzel. They’ll help you wherever you are. Modify every single pose if need be. Just do what you can and have fun.
- Make It Enjoyable!
I used to run track in high school and 5K/10K races since I was in the 6th grade. I knew exactly what to do, what to wear, and how to train. But when I began running ultra marathons later in life, everything changed. It seemed what I knew for 20 years was only about 10% similar to ultra marathons. It blew my mind. Ashtanga might blow your mind too. Ashtanga Yoga is different from anything you’ve ever done before. It is a very different culture. The “breath” is the first thing that jumps out at you. But as you delve into it, you realize how important it is. There are so many things that by your 5th or 50th class, a little light goes off and you say “Oh, that’s why!” But you find your way in your own time. Meanwhile, have fun. Be amazed by what your fellow yogis can do and don’t let it bother you if you aren’t there yet. I’m the last person who will get frustrated by not putting my feet behind my head. My body is different and that’s OK. What matters is that I’m growing in both mind and body.
Please don’t be afraid to go to Ashtanga and make it your own practice. You don’t have to do everything. Try out the poses and have fun. Ask the teacher for modifications or find something that works for your body. If you need to take child’s pose or just sit for a few breaths, do that. Soak up the experience and have fun. Its ok to laugh and feel the moment. You came to class and that’s what matters.
Historical Note: In the early days in Mysore, India, ayurvedic doctors would send people with debilitating diseases to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga. The Primary Series, or “Yoga Chikitsa”, is called the healing series. If someone had a disease where they could barely move, he would help them into a pose and then have them breathe. That was their practice.If you are sickly, overweight, are weak, have scoliosis or diabetes,..then Ashtanga IS for you. Ashtanga wasn’t made for elite, uber qualified yogis only. It IS for everyone. It often healed them; and it may heal you too.
Yeah, when something major happens to you, to your body, to a loved one…old habits are easy to break. When you value your life and those around you, its not all that difficult.
For me, it was a heart attack, only it wasn’t a heart attack since it was on the wrong side of my body. I woke up in the middle of the night and it felt like someone stabbed me under my right shoulder blade. I laid there uncomfortably and decided to get up and take a Tylenol. When I stood up, I dropped to my knees and then to the floor seized in pain. I painfully groaned to my wife for help. She helped me get going and opened the hatch in the car and I laid in the back. We rushed to the Emergency Room. ER’s aren’t fun at all. The staff there seemed to be numb to pain since they see so much of it. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for someone to help me. I was triaged as a lower priority I suppose. I can’t imagine if I was really having a heart attack. I’d probably have to pass out or writhe on the floor for help. I was finally admitted to a room and waited even longer. The doctor came in and looked at my history. I have had chronic back pain, so he didn’t even really diagnose me. He just gave me something for back spasms.
So I followed up with my own doctor and I was diagnosed with a gall bladder attack. My wife had already had hers taken out, so that’s the direction I was headed (only I kept it, more on that later). They ran my blood work and I had lipids out of control (not the good kind) and fatty liver disease.
What is strange about this is that I was active. VERY active! I ran ultramarathons. I was doing CrossFit on my own. I did powerlifting. I felt I had all my bases covered.
What I didn’t have covered was my diet. I figured, I ran 6 hours at a time; I could eat what I wanted. I was benching 315 pounds and squatting 405. I was the epitome of health for my age. And I thought I had good genetics. My grandpa drank and smoked all his life and lived to his late 80’s. When we had chili at his house, it came wrapped in butcher paper and looked like a slab of fatty meat. Then it melted in the pan as you cooked it. I was rebellious in thinking that I didn’t need to diet.
So my reason for writing is not to tell you what I changed. I am trying to tell you that I needed to change my way of thinking about diets. I see others in the same predicament. I see some who only diet and don’t do exercise. The two go together. Before something bad happens to you, please make the changes in both diet and exercise. The right changes. I saw this commercial yesterday for a device that you stand on and twist side to side. I see juicing diets and other fads. Believe me, that’s not that way to go. Educated yourself and do the hard work of finding what really works.
More to come on my journey. I keep learning and this process keeps changing. Do something for yourself before the Old Habits are broken for you.
When I was a wrestler in high school, I could cut weight pretty easily. Not that it was easy, but I could do it. I kept my 6-pack through my 20’s without any trouble and I ate what I wanted. But skip ahead a few decades and let me tell you, it ain’t easy. I could fast an entire day and still gain a pound. For aging men, testosterone isn’t there at the levels that it used to be. And I empathize with many women post-pregnancy. Its a battle for sure.
I listened to a Barbell Shrugged podcast this morning. I haven’t even listened to the whole thing and I’m super stoked! They talked all about metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and other sciency things. They mentioned a study with women athletes where they found doing cardiovascular (aerobic) work following a heavy lifting session showed no positive effects. The podcast guest (sorry need to look up his name again) suggested we should split aerobic and heavy lifting sessions apart. This is true even for CrossFit athletes who tend to want it all in one fell swoop.
The reason is due to our use of energy systems. If we are using an ATP/CTP rich system that lasts only 10 seconds, we need to focus on carbohydrates to fuel the work. If we are doing low-intensity endurance work, we should focus more on a long-lasting, fat-burning system. In CrossFit, we do mix the systems, but it works differently from how you would think. Yes, the glycogen pathway is used for the heavy lifting part, but when you rest or lower intensity, this is when the fat-burning system takes over. But our bodies don’t adapt well to mixing the two together.
So then we come back to fat. I realize I’ve been doing it wrong. I eat BIG usually later in the evening thus abiding by my Warrior Diet (mostly Paleo) concepts. Then I do intermittent fasting most of my workday. However, this often fails because I run out of energy doing heavy lifts or CrossFit WODs in the morning or I start to get so hungry that I feel I need to eat lunch. So I probably undermine the benefits of fat-burning through intermittent fasting. To tell you the truth, as I get older, its harder to move faster and lift heavier earlier anyway. I’m much more mobile later in the day. So here is my new plan:
- Dinner at night – protein- and fat-rich to encourage recovery, growth, and sleep
- Sleep – monitored by my Sleep App for quality
- Wake – walk dogs, coffee, & news; cardio (run, bike, ski erg, rowing)/yoga
- Work Day – intermittent fasting, maybe having some coconut oil or peanut butter
- Late afternoon – Carb/Protein shake, maybe rice, 1+ hours before workout
- Heavy Workout – Powerlifting; CrossFit WOD; Olympic weightlifting (no cardio)
I look forward to seeing how this works for me. I think it will solve my fat-burning issues and will encourage more strength and growth.