I wrote a post awhile ago about how I’ve started practicing yoga, primarily for the mind game benefits. Last winter, due to a combination of snow on the courts and an injured wrist, I had to find off-court activities, and yoga seemed like a perfect one – it’s touted for it’s ability to improve alignment and posture, to balance imbalanced muscles, and to improve concentration and stillness of the mind. All great things for tennis.
I joined a local studio and began practicing various types of yoga, some gentle and some more vigorous, 2-3 times a week. I loved the psychology behind it: the teachers would speak of how yoga could help us to be mindful and, over time, stop reacting to stimuli habitually (think snapping at our kids over spills or cursing ourselves after missed forehands).
I worked on my focus and concentration and felt relaxed and calm after class. But unfortunately, I struggled with on-going wrist pain. I tried modifying poses that involved weight-bearing on the hands (like downward dog and plank) but even though I wasn’t playing much tennis at all, my wrist pain didn’t decrease at all, and I began to notice that it hurt after yoga classes in addition to hurting after tennis.
In my internet searching on wrist pain and yoga, I found some discussion on a specific style of yoga called Bikram. Bikram is a series of 26 postures performed in a room heated to about 104F over 90 minutes. According to the Bikram website, Bikram Choudhury selected these 26 poses from Hatha yoga because they
systematically work every part of the body, to give all the internal organs, all the veins, all the ligaments, and all the muscles everything they need to maintain optimum health and maximum function.
Bikram claims to have used yoga to help heal his knee after it was injured in a weightlifting accident and he was told he wouldn’t walk again.
Bikram yoga is definitely controversial and reading up on it online can actually be quite off-putting since Choudhury, who, according to this Vanity Fair article, is known for teaching in nothing but a speedo and a Rolex and for showing off his Rolls Royces. He’s also more recently been accused of much worse behaviour (sexual harassment and assault). From a physical practice perspective, many accounts claim that Bikram yoga is not the workout it claims to be and sweating is caused only by the hot room, not the yoga.
Having read this, I attended my first few classes with a good deal of skepticism. However, while the teachers at my local studio are “Bikram certified,” I don’t find there is much connecting the experience with Choudhury, and I find my teachers to be very similar in personality to the teachers I’ve had at regular yoga studios. On the whole I’d say my studio is pretty laid back, welcomes beginners, encourages listening to your body and emphasizes going at your own pace and not pushing beyond your limits.
And while Bikram yoga has been great for my wrists, I think there are other aspects of it that are great for tennis players, so I thought I’d share them here.
No weight-Bearing on hands
This is the primary reason I switched to Bikram. No downward dogs to tempt me into holding my body weight up with my hands. Many tennis players suffer from shoulder, elbow and wrist pain and while yoga can be a great cross-training activity for tennis, finding yoga classes at non-Bikram studios that don’t involve lots of poses with weight on the hands is difficult. While I do hope to eventually be able to practice a wide variety of yoga, Bikram lets me do a whole class without having to modify or sit out poses because of my wrists so for now it’s a great option for me.
Spine Strengthening Series
Most people have muscle imbalances in their bodies caused by a variety of factors such as sitting too much or repetitive motions. Hunching over a computer at a desk shortens our hip flexors, weakens our glutes, tightens our chest and shoulder muscles and weakens our upper backs. This all leads to reduced mobility in our hips and shoulder and often pain along our kinetic chains including knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and wrists.
While it’s great to get out on the tennis court and run around, tennis itself actually doesn’t help imbalances too much and can even make problems worse. Tennis strokes are inherently repetitive actions that use some of our muscles more than others. Also, pre-existing imbalances and poor mobility throw off the smooth transfer of energy throughout the kinetic chain and can place excess stress on tissues, leading to injury.
I, personally, suffer from major imbalances caused at least in part from hunching over at a desk for 8 years. Bikram yoga has a series of 4 postures, called the “spine strengthening series” that is designed to strengthen the muscles all along the back side of the body. Cobra, half-locust, full-locust and bow pose leave the front side of my body feeling open while the back side feeling exhausted, which is exactly what I’m looking for.
Photo Credit: Alive in the Fire
Same 26 Postures Allows Better Understanding by Teachers and Students
One of the most common complaints about Bikram yoga is that the same 26 postures are performed in every class, and this can get boring for the students.
I agree that part of the appeal of any fitness class is the variety – not knowing what’s coming next keeps your mind interested. However, I feel that there are some big advantages to doing the same postures every time.
- The teachers only have to know 26 postures, which allows them to have a really solid understanding of these 26 postures. Much like tennis, small changes in technique, good or bad, can have huge impacts on both our results and bodies. Bikram teachers know the 26 postures inside and out and constantly give cues to teach or remind you how to do them properly. Kind of like having a coach stand on the sidelines while you’re hitting forehands reminding you to keep your head down, move your feet, hit the ball out in front of you, etc – annoying, perhaps, but useful for sure if you’re trying to improve your technique.
- Once you become familiar with the basics of the postures, you can really focus on the small changes in technique that need to be made, and in doing the same postures each class we really get to see our gradual improvement over time.
- Repeating the same series of postures each class is a good exercise in staying in the moment. By knowing which postures are coming up it’s easy to look forward to some and to dread others, but part of mindfulness training is learning to focus on what you’re doing at the moment, and I find that when my mind starts wandering forward in class it’s a good chance to practice bringing it back to the current posture. Very similar to the idea in tennis of playing one point at a time.
Bikram Yoga, Like Tennis, is Uncomfortable
One of my instructors, Johnny, often says something to the effect of the purpose of Bikram yoga is to put ourselves in extreme discomfort (i.e. legs burning, hair on fire, drowning in our own sweat) so that we can learn to remain calm in uncomfortable situations.
When I practiced “regular” yoga I always found it enjoyable and looked forward to every class. Honestly I don’t often feel the same about Bikram classes, which I find so much more physically and mentally challenging. I once told Johnny after a particularly difficult class that I spent the whole time resisting the urge to leave early, and to my surprise he said that these classes are the most beneficial.
Some classes feel easy – when we’re well rested, have little on our to-do lists and all is going well in our worlds it isn’t difficult to focus on the poses and the class seems to fly by. But when even being in the room is a struggle – because we’re hot, uncomfortable, tired or anxious to get on with our days – this is when we get the chance to learn to overcome the struggle. This definitely reminds me of tennis: it’s easy to be relaxed and focused (and play well!) when things are going our way but much harder when they’re not. By intentionally putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations we learn how to manage them.
Short savasanas between poses help us learn to relax between tennis points
For anyone who doesn’t practice yoga, savasana (or corpse pose) is the one where you essentially just lie on the floor (there’s more to it than that, but this is the basic physical posture). In the yoga classes I used to go to, savasana was practiced for 5-10 minutes at the end of each class. It’s often called the most difficult pose, since the idea is to relax the mind and body, which for many people can be very difficult. According to this Yoga Journal article:
When you first start practicing Savasana, it can be a struggle to relax in the pose; you may lie there feeling tense and staring at the ceiling. Or, like some students, you might fall asleep the moment you lie down. The essence of Savasana is to relax with attention, that is, to remain conscious and alert while still being at ease. Remaining aware while relaxing can help you begin to notice and release long-held tensions in your body and mind.
I’m pretty sure that being relaxed while remaining conscious and alert is exactly what we want in between tennis tennis points.
In Bikram yoga, savasana is practiced for about 5 minutes halfway through class, and then for about 20 seconds in between all of the poses throughout the second half of class. Students can choose to stay for another savasana at the end of class if they wish.
Practicing savasana, or calming and relaxing our minds and bodies, for 20 seconds in between poses is so similar to what we need to do in tennis matches (this is about the same amount of time we get between points). Also, in end-of-class savasana I find it easier to relax since I know that the class is over. It’s much harder to relax the mind in between poses, particularly when you know an upcoming pose is challenging for you. The longer middle-of-class savasana is right before the spine strengthening series, which I find very difficult, so it’s a good challenge for me to not think about the upcoming stress and to just focus on my breath. This seems similar to how relaxing after a match is over is a lot easier than when you’re facing break point.
Bikram yoga gives us a chance to exercise in high temperature / high humidity
If you follow health and fitness trends, you might have heard of people using hot and cold therapies, like saunas, ice baths and nitrogen chambers, for fitness gains. When I started Bikram yoga I did suspect that sweating profusely a few times a week would be a good way to help my body acclimate to the heat and humidity and this might help me play tennis in hot, humid conditions.
And yes, based on this article, by regularly sweating for 90 minutes at a Bikram class, I’m becoming more efficient at cooling my body, improving my cardiovascular function, and losing less salt and other minerals in my sweat, all of which should help me perform better in the heat.
Heat Shock Proteins
But I’ve been hearing about Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs) and I think it’s possible that the heat in a Bikram class is doing more than just helping me play in the heat – it might be helping me play better in any conditions, and could also be a major factor in helping me overcome my serious wrist pain.
Heat shock proteins, also called “stress proteins” since they are now known to be activated by many different stressful events (not just heat), are an example of a hormetic event. Hormesis is the the body’s adaptive response to low, usually intermittent, doses of something that at higher doses would be problematic. Exercise itself is hormetic – done at the right dose it causes us to become stronger, but too much of it causes damage.
I highly recommend reading Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s post on Tim Ferriss’ blog, here. In it, she discusses research on sauna use and it’s many health benefits for health and performance. While Bikram studios aren’t as hot as saunas, classes are longer, and anyone who has practiced Bikram can attest to it being uncomfortably hot. It is likely increases our core body temperatures and has a similar effect to a sauna.
According to Dr. Patrick,
HSPs can prevent damage by directly scavenging free radicals and also by supporting cellular antioxidant capacity through its effects on maintaining glutathione…[and] HSPs can repair misfolded, damaged proteins thereby ensuring proteins have their proper structure and function
Also, Dr. Patrick says that regularly inducing HSPs, for instance by sauna use, increases baseline HSP levels (your level while you’re not under stress) and increases your HSP production when you do expose yourself to stress. So while everyone has “stored” HSPs that are ready to act when the alarm is sounded, and they will produce additional HSPs on alarm, people can essentially up their HSP storage and their ability to produce more.
So I think it’s possible that my wrist, which has seemingly healed over the course of this summer (even while playing tennis 5-6 times weekly) has benefitted from my body producing heat shock proteins during Bikram yoga that have gone to work on my damaged tendon and cartilage. Further, being able to play this much tennis consistently without incurring any other injuries is very unusual for me. I’ve always thought of myself as “injury-prone” and even if I’m not actually sidelined, I’m typically suffering from various ailments like soreness in my shoulder, low back, hips, shins or feet. I can honestly say this has been a nearly pain-free tennis season – maybe I have a larger army of HSPs that work to repair the damage I’m doing to my body when playing tennis before any real injury occurs and make the tissues stronger than they’d otherwise be.
While there are other methods that can be used to increase mental toughness and focus, develop balanced strength and mobility, and induce heat shock proteins and heat acclimation, the great thing about Bikram yoga is you can do all of these simultaneously. This summer I essentially replaced all of my off-court work with Bikram yoga, and while I’ll likely add some other cross-training once winter comes and I’m forced off the tennis court, I’ve found that the combination of tennis and Bikram yoga has made me feel fitter than ever, injury free, and (at least a little more) calm and focused on court.
Any other tennis players out there also Bikram yogis? I’d love to hear your thoughts.