Walk it off: Yoga life lessons from the baseball field

Once it’s spring, if I’m not at the yoga studio on the weekends, there’s a good chance I’m at the baseball field watching my son play (personal note: If he wasn’t playing, I would most definitely NOT be at the baseball field!). Even though I was away from my mat and was cheering rather than teaching, something happened that connected back to some yoga thoughts I had been mulling over recently.

One of our players got hit by a pitch.

 The crowd immediately responded with lots of “ouch”-es and sympathetic “oooh”-s and, after it was obvious the player wasn’t seriously hurt, the “walk it off” shouts and “shake it off” encouragements followed. In this case (and in most of the cases of getting pegged by a wild pitch at this level of play and speed of pitching), the player did a combination of those actions and made it to first base, was checked out by a coach and proceeded to play through. While there is sure to be a bruise and soreness to follow in addition to the immediate pain, it wasn’t enough to pull the dedicated player off the field.

As I watched the player recover from the hit. I thought back to one of my yoga classes I had taught this past week. I asked my students to hold chair pose until they felt like they were losing good form or it was just getting to be too much to stay in that position any longer. Once they got to the point of painful hold rather than expression of strength and endurance, I asked them to either release into forward fold or stand up into mountain pose – whichever felt like the better counter-pose in that moment. I encouraged them to take enough time to really let go of the tension built up in their muscles after the long hold – I asked them, quite literally, to shake it off. Some gentle ragdoll swaying in forward fold, or circling of hips in mountain, whatever they each needed to recover from the chair pose.  Just as the baseball player had done after getting hit from the pitch, I wanted the yogis to continue on in their practice, to move past the discomfort they just experienced, and be ready for the next move. In order to accomplish this directive, they chose some freeform movement rather than holding a stretch to release from chair pose.

The hared connection between the baseball and yoga class examples is that both involved processing though pain. Instead of “freezing” when feeling the hurt, they were encouraged to literally move past the challenge. Had the baseball player plopped down at home plate and started crying and absorbed himself fully into the extent of his hurt, he might not have eventually scored a run. The yoga practice I led my class in was not really about how long they could hold chair pose, but rather about what they needed to do to allow their muscles, body and even minds to recover from the hold before moving on in the practice. You have got to keep moving or you’ll find yourself dealing with the consequences of feeling frozen or even defeated by pain.

The pain that yoga helps us deal with is not always caused from the long hold of a challenging pose. It can also help us deal with the pain that stops us in our tracks and makes us want to plop right down and cry for days. Emotional pain can cause real physical pain, too. We experience tightness and sore muscles from the effects of suffering and grieving. Heartache can be more than figurative – the losses we experience can manifest in physical aches, too. Holidays and anniversaries can bring up painful emotions, just as they can bring us joy.

The stress hormones that are released as you deal with pain and grief launch your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode. Consequently, more blood flows to your muscles as they tense up for action. Physical tightness and pain can result the longer your body remains in this intense state of stress response. Your body needs time to relax in order to balance out the physical effects of stress. Once you feel better physically, you can often better cope with your pain emotionally. And that’s where yoga can help. More and more research is documenting that yoga techniques can calm your nerves and positively impact your mood, literally helping you move into a happier state of mind.

Seane Corn, an internationally celebrated yoga teacher, describes the mental and emotional toll watching her father suffer from kidney cancer had on her: “After my father died, the grief was so overwhelming that I would become hyper-reactive or numb,” Corn recalls. “I realized you can’t just process heartbreak in your mind. You have to process it physically, too.”

When life hits you with a pitch, there’s more wisdom in those cheers from the stands than I first realized: walk it off, or shake it off.  Physical movement can help you feel better. The movements and breathing that make up a yoga practice are ways to help your body physically work through the toll that emotional pain can have on you. Movement can also do wonders for physical ailments, too. The longer we let muscles feel tight and restrict range of movement, the longer it will take us to “get back in the game.” So don't freeze on home plate. Walk it off to first base. The pain might still sting and you'll have a bruise to remind you that you got hit, but if I've learned one thing from watching baseball it's that there is zero chance of scoring a run from the dugout.

For additional information: The inspiration for my yoga practice and this blog post came from a premise in the best-selling book by Dr. Peter Levine,  Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.  Dr. Levine’s life work has developed into Somatic Experiencing®  -- a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders. Find out more at his website linked HERE.