Is The Road to the Golden Gloves Paved With Yoga?
By Kristin Iris
In 2012 I decided to compete in the Chicago Golden Gloves. It was my first amateur boxing fight and tournament. I rank boxing’s Chicago Golden Gloves in the top 3 most challenging martial arts training periods I’ve had thus far. The other two being black belt tests. I did all the usual pre-fight activities: bag work, mitt drills, sparring, sparring drills, calisthenics, and swimming because I hate to run. The one thing I did different was integrating yoga and Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching into my training regimen. Yoga had more subtle impact on my progress but the effects were equally as important and surprising. Let me delve into three main advantages I gained from yoga that people may not expect.
Most People Breathe Just Enough To Not Die
I always felt like breathing during training and especially sparring was just a little more of struggle than it needed to be. Perhaps it was because I had asthma as a child that occasionally flared up after hard rounds. While I was training for the Golden Gloves I regularly ended my training sessions with 10-20mins of yoga primarily to loosen up my hard worked muscles. A vital part of this routine was the breathing.
The benefit to having a regular yoga practice (even if it is just 10-20mins a few times a week) is that it continuously reinforces proper breathing and your body begins to replicate that outside your practice. For me, regularly practicing yoga at the end of training became a powerful tool for me in the ring. Yogic breathing slows your heart rate, allows your body to relax, and helps clear the mind for quicker thinking. In the ring I was able to recover faster between rounds, keep a cooler head while sparring and move more swiftly with better reaction time. I could sustain high intensity training for longer periods of time and handle body shots better.
One of my instructors, Jill Miller, the creator of Yoga Tune Up says, “Most people breathe just enough to not die.” As a yoga student, instructor and a recovery trainer for martial artists I can attest to the truth of that statement. Even amongst fighters most do not understand proper breathing mechanics or even realize how much they don’t know about breathing. Out of my experience with yoga and boxing training, the breath and its connection to the core are now the very first things I teach when training clients or students.
Speaking Of The Core…
We all know the core is vital to a fighter’s performance. I have seen and done more abdominal and core exercises in my life than I could ever recall. Most of what I see leaves you deficient in core strength, mobility and breath capacity. Most exercises target the upper and side abdominals. Even the exercises intended to target the lower abdominals very often get transferred elsewhere in the body such as the low back or the hip flexors recruiting them to do the work instead. This prevents the lower abdominals from activating and exacerbates low back pain and tight hips.
Of all the exercise I’ve done and learned including those I did as a competitive gymnast, the ones I did religiously in my training for boxing and the Gloves (and still do today) were from yoga. Yes, in team practices I did all the crunches and leg lifts and pass the medicine ball while balancing on just your bum with everyone else. But, when it came to training on my own I skipped those and went straight to 10 rounds of Forrest Yoga abdominals and other yogic core exercises. These exercises strengthened ALL my abdominal muscles while keeping my back very safe, stable and supported.
It’s not all about abs of steel. The thing about steel is that it doesn’t move. Crunches, leg lifts and all the traditional exercises left my abs, back and hip flexors feeling tight and “stuck”. What I did from yoga took my core from feeling “stuck” to spacious. The benefits were numerous. I developed greater mobility in my core giving my entire body better movement in the ring. I gained strength and stability, increased breath capacity and once again a greater ability to withstand body shots.
Can You Feel What Your Body Is Doing?
The third major benefit I gained from incorporating yoga into my boxing training for the Golden Gloves was perhaps the most subtle. I gained a deeper awareness of my body, what it was doing, and what it was supposed to be doing. Most people have shoddy body awareness at best. They have no idea what their body is doing unless their eyes are open and they can see. Even worse they’re often numb and can’t feel areas of their bodies unless they are touching that spot. When was the last time you felt your armpit without putting a hand or a stick of deodorant there?
Athletes have keener kinesthetic awareness. I’ve been an athlete my whole life. Yet, the awareness I have of my body now is in large part due to yoga. The deep focus on proper alignment and longer pose holds helped me build physiological integrity and an understanding of how my body should move, which helped counteract the imbalances that arose from such intense training. In yoga bringing attention to what you feel in the moment builds a stronger connection between the mind and the physical body in particular the areas that you are disconnected from, numb to, or have atrophied.
How did this transfer into my boxing training? When you practice yoga regularly the kind of awareness you build of your body starts to kick in off the mat. How many times have you been caught with your hands down in sparring and didn’t even realize your hands were down? I know I have. I started to feel things like that without having to see myself. I started to catch when I popped my elbow up too early for a punch, or when my back foot lifted too high when throwing a cross. This awareness helped me start breaking some of my body’s habits so I could improve my technique faster than ever for the tournament. I even started to catch such small things as tiny changes in the way I walked which then informed me that something was going on in my hips that needed attention before it got worse.
Yoga has brought many gifts to my life. The impact to my training for the Golden Gloves is a testament to how valuable yoga has been in my growth as a martial artist and competitor. It is one the secrets to my success. I was the 2012 Chicago Golden Gloves Champion in my division. Now that I have been through that experience I take what I’ve learned and use it to help other fighters, competitors and martial artists reap the rewards of incorporating modalities like yoga into their training.