Just as yoga was practiced for centuries before its recent renaissance, kickboxing existed long before Billy Blanks started polluting late-night television. A hybrid of boxing, karate, Thai boxing, and tae kwon do, the competitive sport of kickboxing emerged in America during the early '70s and was popularized through Chuck Norris blockbusters like Good Guys Wear Black. (Though truth be told, Chuck was more of a karate than a kickboxing guy.) Like most martial arts, the sport's guiding tenets include self-respect, discipline, and control, while its style is best characterized as practical. "It's the most efficient way of stand-up fighting," says Guy Mezger, owner of Freestyle Martial Arts in Dallas and coauthor of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Kickboxing (Alpha Books, 2000).
As Billy himself tells you (admit it—you've sat through his infomercial at least once), kickboxing is also one of the most efficient ways of whipping yourself into shape. All versions of kickboxing, from fitness classes to light sparring to out-and-out fighting, require just about every muscle and ounce of energy your body has to offer. "The physical demands are tremendous," says Mezger, a world-champion kickboxer. "Not only does it work all angles of your body, but it calls on both aerobic and anaerobic reserves."
Kickboxing matches consist of 12 two-minute rounds, with a one-minute break in between rounds. Each competitor must execute—and defend himself or herself against—at least eight above-the-waist kicks per round, in addition to throwing various punches and knee and elbow strikes.
As for the demands of a noncompetitive class, you need only to check out the sweat-soaked T-shirts of the people streaming out of a steamy cardio-kick class at the gym to realize the sport is demanding.
The physical challenge is matched by a unique mentality which Mezger calls the fighter's edge—a fierce, no-quit, intense attitude. "In the ring, you don't just lay down when somebody whacks you," he explains. That mentality translates to those who never plan on being whacked: "You can be as competitive with yourself as you are with others," he says.
Two Disciplines, Too Different?
Despite their apparent differences—one connotes violence, the other peace—kickboxing and yoga share philosophies, including a full-body approach to wellness. Just as you need your whole body to do Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) successfully, every muscle contributes to each punch and kick. "You don't really isolate any muscles [in kickboxing]," says Mezger.
Technique is more valuable than sheer muscle power in both disciplines: You can twist further on an exhale in Ardha Matsyendrasana I (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) than if you simply try to force yourself around. And in kickboxing, if a woman has better technique than a heavier man, she can take him down, according to Mezger.
On an emotional level, both yoga and kickboxing burn off stress and anger, albeit in different ways. Just as an hour of yoga often leaves you feeling calm and focused, blasting away on a punching bag can also melt away frustrations. "I was pretty intense as a youth," admits Mezger. "Martial arts gave me a way to constructively channel my energy."
Lastly, both require an intensely focused mind. Who hasn't fallen out of Vrksasana (Tree Pose) because of a unfixed gaze? A scattered mind in kickboxing has similar—and more dangerous—effects: "The second your mind wanders is the second your opponent moves in," says Mezger. Practicing martial arts also allows Mezger, who competes in karate, judo, and freestyle fighting, to develop an inner calmness. And women may develop additional peace of mind, he adds, when they know how to confidently defend themselves.
Given these similarities, it follows that regular yoga practice would complement a kickboxer's regimen. Mezger has been attending yoga classes once a week for about a year. He has seen improvement in the stability of his joints, his flexibility, and the strength of certain tendons, and credits yoga with lessening the pain of his chronic shoulder tendonitis and strengthening his lower back. Mezger is so convinced of the benefits of yoga that he recommends it to all of his students, who range from amateurs to pros. "Climbing into the ring is really scary stuff, especially when it's the first time," he says. "Yoga teaches calmness and focus."
A sense of inner calm is just one of the many benefits yoga affords. Calling on the tranquility of Savasana (Corpse Pose) or learning how to use breath to stabilize a difficult asana are two skills that can translate to any sport, especially one where rapid reflexes are required. Despite its fierce appearance, to be successful in kickboxing, you must assume a narrow focus, similar to that of a chess player—a state achieved through practicing regular, deep breathing.
A Leg Up
Yoga also enhances the four major weapons in kickboxing: the left leg, the right leg, the left arm, and the right arm. The legs are used primarily for offensive kicks or knee strikes. Both moves require hip flexibility and leg strength, and the nonkicking leg must have excellent balance. While performing roundhouse kicks, for example, the hip moves through almost its entire range of motion, and the hip flexors, gluteus medius and minimus, quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles are engaged.
"The most natural asana to work on hip flexibility is Hanumanasana (the Splits)," says Michael Lechonczak, a senior yoga instructor at Equinox Health Clubs in New York City. "Also, Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) gives you strength in the standing leg while you're opening up the other leg in a very dynamic, functional way."
Although its name leads you to believe otherwise, kickboxing is only about 35 percent kicks. "Boxing skills are just as important as kicking," Mezger says, who adds that women, due to genetic strength distributions, tend to rely more on their legs than men.
The Arms Race
Agile arms are key to creating a defensive position to guard your face and upper body. And every muscle from your pecs to your triceps contributes to powerful punches and elbow strikes. The power actually starts in the feet, travels through the legs, and is amplified by hip rotation and transmitted through the core muscles to the chest and arms. Asanas like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) and Purvottanasana (Intense Front-Body Stretch) develop strength in your arms, abs, and back. These asanas also promote an open front body. "Both are powerful poses that generate big energy," Lechonczak says.
The fiery tempo of kickboxing can be practiced in yoga. Lechonczak recommends Sun Salutations at a steadily increasing speed. "The jumping back and forth will build fire in your body," he says.
Dimity McDowell is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer.