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Strengthen Your Core to Integrate Balance and Build Riding Confidence

By Theresa Zenner

When I first rode a cutting horse, the only reason I was able to manage the fast moves and turns was because of my strong core. Without my core strength, I would at the very least been way out of balance or more probably on the ground.

Core strength allows your limbs to flow independently—on the mat, in everyday life as well as in the saddle. A strong core takes unnecessary pressure off your lower back. A strong core is the key to an independent seat and allows your other body parts to flow with the horse while maintaining a solid anchor centered on the horse.

Breathing is Key to Riding Confidence
Do you have fear or anxiety when you ride? Do you have students that do? Do you have friends that do? How about in your everyday life--do you have stress with work or family or just driving to work?

At the 2011 CHA International Conference when I led a workshop with instructors, they said that the number one issue that caused their students to not flow with their horses was fear or worry. When we’re in a state of fear, worry or stress we naturally hold our breath. Controlled breathing is an integral and important part of Vinyasa Flow Yoga. The practice of breathing while moving through the Yoga positions will enable you to use your breathing in stressful situations—effectively eliminating the negative emotions in those situations.

The method of breathing that I use is Ujjayi Pranayama breathing. Deeply inhale and exhale through your nostrils with a slight constriction in the back of your throat. It sounds like an ocean as it’s an audible breath. As you practice better utilizing your breath on the mat, you’ll be able to begin to engage the breath in harmless, yet stressful situations. If you find yourself holding your breath while driving in traffic or if you’re running late, concentrate on your breathing and notice what happens to your body and your mind.

In each of the Yoga postures described below, using your breath is an integral part of the practice. Because you are moving and breathing through the positions, you’ll be able to more readily utilize controlled breath. Connecting with your breath enables you to stay more focused in the moment. This state of body and mind reduces anxiety, stress and fear. Practice your breathing in calm as well as stressful everyday situations. Notice how well your horse responds to you when you relax and remove tension from your body.

Child’s Pose – the Place to Come Back to
In Child’s Pose, bring your knees to the outside edges of the mat, reach your arms forward, palms facing down, reach your hips back toward your heels and bring yourself into full body rest with your forehead resting on the mat. In this relaxed position connect with your breath. Try longer breaths, shorter breaths and become one with the breath. Ignite your Ujjayi Pranayama breath to stay in the moment and be present in your practice.

Because Child’s Pose slows your heart rate, it’s the place where you can connect to your breath and your body. It’s a platform to rest and also the place to come back to at any time during your practice when you start to feel stressed or lost. I encourage you to use this posture and breath to reduce tension, stress, anxiety before you ride your horse.

Downward Facing Dog – a Warm Up Before Riding
Start in a table top position: feet stacked under hips, hands under shoulders. Lift your hips up and back for downward facing dog. Feet are hip distance apart, hands shoulder distance apart, fingers are wide pressing into the mat, heels are pressing back toward the mat. Your heels may not meet the mat at first, so realize that this is a process. Your body is in an inverted V position. Relax your neck and gaze at the back wall.

This is one of my favorite postures. It opens up and engages my complete being, decompresses the spine, tones and strengthens arms, sculpts and lengthens thighs, opens the shoulders and calms the nervous system. Once you are in this posture feel free to awaken your body by taking a few bends in your knees, sway your hips from side to side, take an alternating bend in each knee and maybe rotate your head right and left in the opposite direction of your alternating knees. Do this as long as it feels good.

Before you ride, this is a great way to get your muscles more relaxed including your neck. As some beginners may experience wrist strain, be patient with yourself as you build strength in your back, forearms and shoulders. If you have wrist strain in this position, triple fold your mat and set it under the base of your palms. The folded mat will shift weight onto your knuckles and fingers—avoiding your wrists. See more modifications for wrist strain at ZennerYoga photos on Facebook.

Core Strengthening
Because core strength is integral to riding, I incorporate these exercises in my Yoga practice. The first exercise is sit-ups. Lie back on the mat with knees bent, bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open to the outside of the mat. Interlace your hands at the back of your neck, keeping your elbows to the side walls, chin pointed to the ceiling, so you’re leading with your core. Keep your head light in your hands to ensure that you’re leading with your core. Exhale into a crunch position, inhale as you go back down bringing your shoulders to the mat. Go at your own pace and during the last 15 seconds change the pace to faster or slower than you were going.

The second exercise is abdominal twists or bicycles. From a full body stretch, bring your knees to your chest, interlace hands behind neck, bring your right elbow slightly past your left knee as you straighten your right leg at a 45 degree angle. Exhale back to center. Inhale and twist to bring your left elbow slightly past your right knee as you straighten your left leg at a 45 degree angle. Try to keep your shoulders off the mat. To challenge yourself and build more strength, you can hold the twist position—opposite elbow to opposite knee for three seconds. Remember your breath: inhale as you twist and exhale back to center.

Samasthiti – A Time for Setting Intentions
Bring yourself into a standing position. Hands come to heart center, feet are together, quadriceps are engaged, core is engaged, straighten and align your spine, palms are together creating equal resistance between them. Open your chest and relax your shoulders while slightly tucking your chin to elongate the back of your neck. Lift through the crown of your head for a beautiful posture.

During this posture, close your eyes and set an intention for your practice. Your intentions during your practice are very powerful, so dedicate your energy to others who may need more than they have.

I always take time in my personal practice and when I teach to set an intention. I dedicate my practice and give blessings to others that need my energy. Yoga is a selfless act. You are giving your energy and love during this practice. Often times, I have dedicated my practice and blessed a person on a daily basis with whom I have had conflict, and the conflict magically resolves. When I dedicate my practice on a regular basis to someone whom I haven’t spoken to for awhile, it never fails—the person calls me after months of disconnection.

Yoga – A Practice of Physical, Mental and Emotional Fitness
We know that exercising our bodies brings strength and coordination. In addition to the benefits for our bodies, Vinyasa Flow Yoga helps us to focus our minds and ground our emotions in the moment. This grounding can become life changing because we can focus on positive thoughts and feelings instead of letting the negative overrun our lives. When I started changing my negative energy into positive energy, I began to lead a life of mostly positive thought and feelings. I hope that Yoga can add that positive aspect to your life and that you can share it with your students.

About the Author: To learn more about the author you can go to: www.fluidridingthruyoga.com. To watch Theresa in action visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVXlo3ZYR_o
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