UFC middleweight Dan Hardy uses yoga to take his training to an enlightened level.
Just over a year ago, I began a steady and consistent practice of Bikram yoga. The 90-minute beginning class consists of 26 postures, each performed twice and held for up to 60 seconds. The room is a stifling 105 degrees, with 40 percent humidity, which is much too hot for someone born in a country that gets five days of sun each year (but I do love the British summertime). There is only one thing that would keep me going back into that room over and over: the benefits seen and felt almost immediately in my training camp. This was the first time I had introduced training sessions into a fight preparation that were dedicated entirely to recovery and physical wellbeing.
This particular practice was derived from a selection of traditional Hatha yoga postures. It was Bikram Choudhury who formulated this approach to the practice, before his moral and ethical devolution once his brand was established and he became famous and wealthy. I had tried a few different types of yoga throughout my martial arts career in my endless and seemingly impossible quest for flexibility. Bikram yoga was new to me—I had not heard of it until my friend and coach Alder Hampel suggested it to help with my leg dexterity for jiu-jitsu. We did two sessions (one week apart), and I spent a good portion of the class lying on my mat trying to stop my limbs and abdominal muscles from cramping.
My brief experience had been thrown in the draw with all other yoga that didn’t seem to fit with my training camp. It wasn’t until I spent a couple of weeks in Peru that it came to mind again, and I felt an immediate pull to start back upon returning to Las Vegas. I think I may have left a chunk of my ego in the Amazon because I no longer cared if the 80-year-old woman on the mat next to me was kicking my ass, while I was sitting in a sweaty mess on my sodden towel. Finally, at age 30, I had committed myself to getting flexible, before my joints started to creak when I got out of bed in the morning.
The first few weeks were tough, and I occasionally had to leave the room to let nausea pass or take a few minutes off to stretch out a cramped muscle. Eventually, my diet adjusted, and I knew that the three-hour window before class started was a water-only time. I noticed right away that certain foods couldn’t be eaten on days when I practiced, so they eventually became excluded all together. I was craving a lot more fresh food, fruits and vegetables, and less animal products. I was adding salts to my water and keeping a constant watch on the volume I was drinking. I began to find my rhythm, feeling hydrated throughout the class even after sweating an average of seven pounds each session. I was able to focus on my physical improvements, keeping a mental note of my capabilities in each posture.
BECOMING THE YOGI
From years of keeping my chin tucked, I had developed a slight forward head posture, which made it uncomfortable to sit for long periods or sleep on my back. With the strong focus on back bending throughout the series, my posture began correcting itself. As you can see in Half-Moon Backbend (Photo A), my spine flexibility is starting to improve, allowing me to look at the wall behind me. This was impossible 12 months ago. The key for all of these postures is the movement into them—it has to be gentle and mindful. In Half-Moon Backbend there should always be a lifting out of the waist to elongate the spine. I still have a very ridged mid-spine, so I put my mind in that part of my body during the stretch and try to relax into the posture a little more.
Aside from the flexibility gains, I found that the stability in my knees and ankles improved. For a posture like Standing Head-to-Knee (Photo B), flexibility in your hamstrings is not enough. Entering into the position, you have to extend your leg, while keeping the standing leg locked, then round your back and bend your arms down to place your forehead high on the knee. Although the contracted quadriceps on the standing leg does most of the work, there are a lot of supporting muscles holding steady to prevent any sideways movement in the joints. I enjoy visualizing my standing foot as a magnet that I cannot separate from my magnetic yoga mat, focusing on driving down into the ground and using that energy exchange to root myself.
This is a fairly recent posture for me, as I struggled a lot with balance when I began rounding my back and stretching forward. There is also an emphasis on pulling the toes back toward the head and keeping the extended leg locked. The advancement of this position is removing the hands from the foot whilst keeping the forehead on the knee. It was this posture that taught me about the value of a meditative state during practice. I found that if I wasn’t mindful of my breathing and focus, my balance would only hold a few seconds once my leg was extended. With a calm and focused approach, I can hold fairly comfortably for much longer. Think of being mindful as filling the stretched or unstable body part with your mind. Be present in that space within yourself and learn to support in with your focus.
Tree Pose (Photo C) and Triangle Pose (Photos D) have been very useful in opening up my hip muscles. I always think of these as the “guard” muscles—the ones that have to do so much work to control an opponent in your guard. All of the grappling arts demand strong and powerful hips, but the danger is that it can lead to a tightening of those muscles if they aren’t stretched a lot. My hip flexors have been tight from years of kicking and kneeing, even to the point where sitting cross-legged can be uncomfortable.
Tree Pose (Photo C) is much more gentle and didn’t take too long to improve my front and inner hip muscles (adductor brevis and longus, pectineus, and iliopsoas). I started by holding my foot high on my thigh and driving my hips forward, until my flexibility allowed me to remove my grip without the foot slipping at all. Once I have my balance and my foot is high on my thigh and my hands are in prayer, I role my hips forward and lengthen my spine like a child trying to appear taller than they really are. The following posture in the series is toe stand, which I am still struggling with. It is basically the same posture except the base leg is bent so it seems like you are sitting on your heel.
Triangle Pose (Photo D) opens up the whole body, from the foot of my straight leg to the hip and glutes of my supporting leg. The simultaneous upward and downward reaching elongates the muscles in the torso and creates a twisting stretch that lengthens the hip flexors and adductors.
Photos E, F, and G are some of the advanced 84-posture series, most of which are a real challenge for me at the moment. Finger Stand (Photo E)—and thanks to Bruce Lee I did hundreds of fingertip pushups over the years—is fairly comfortable for me. Keeping your legs locked and strong makes a huge difference here. After that, the effort is predominantly in the core, keeping the whole body tight and the legs raised.
Peacock (Photo F) requires more core strength and muscular endurance than flexibility, whereas Upward Stretching (Photo G) requires good core strength, but also a fair amount of suppleness in your hamstrings. I found that this posture needed less effort from contracted muscles as my hamstring flexibility increased.
Fortunately, the popularity of yoga is widespread now, and in many cases there are several options of styles and studios. I enjoy the Bikram style because I feel it’s a little easier to stretch in the heat. Other styles of yoga aren’t quite as uncomfortable but will still be very beneficial. If you can’t get to a class, there is a wealth of information online to draw from. Try taking a few minutes each day to stretch out and reconnect with yourself. Even if it’s just some basic stretches, be gentle and explore your body’s capabilities. For me, yoga is about awareness of self, appreciation of the vehicle you have for this human experience, and understanding the potential and adaptability of the body. After these practice sessions, I feel lighter, motivated, and focused. I have been a lot more productive, healthier, and felt more alive than ever before.
I know that a lot of people, particularly at the start of their practice, will find the heat to be too much. One of the flaws in Mr. Bikram’s attitude toward teaching, and something that has been passed on to some teachers, is this ego about the heat of the room. The benefits of the heat are that your body will naturally be more supple and it will be easier to stretch to your maximum in the postures. However, if you find that the heat is causing you to spend a lot of time on your mat feeling nauseated, then it is counterproductive. Ask the teachers at the studio where the cooler spots in the room are. Your practice will only improve if you can do the practice. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself with a heat miser for a teacher, use the cooler spot or find a studio with less ego.
Food for Thought
Since beginning yoga, I primarily avoid dairy, pork, processed foods, and fast food. I usually have one animal product each week, but only in the evening, and never before practice. The last time I ate fast food was January 2. I ate lemon chicken from a Chinese takeout, and in my next yoga session (which wasn’t for another week because of travel), I lay on my mat for most of class feeling nauseous and reliving every bite of that meal.
I’ve developed some kind of new internal sense that tells me what is and isn’t welcome in my diet. I don’t even crave that stuff any more. I know that the immediate gratification is not worth the stress it puts on my body.