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Yoga for Athletes

Yoga for Spinning

A new fitness trend teams up yoga with indoor cycling for an inspiring workout.

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Rare is the yoga class where you put on a sweatshirt before going through Sun Salutations, but I clearly wasn’t in any regular yoga class as I piled on a fleecy layer to absorb some sweat before Down Dog. My quads were already shaky, my headband soaked, and my throat begged for another gulp of water—and we hadn’t even hit our mats yet.

Despite my healthy glisten (and inner exhaustion), I pulled off my shoes and sweaty socks, shook out my legs, and stood in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), ready to begin the second half of a Yoga Journey class. Also known as Yoga Spinning, this new trend of classes combines yoga and indoor cycling, an Ironman-worthy workout in which students pedal through an instructor-led, visualized ride on stationary bikes.

A few years ago, Noll Daniel, a Spinning teacher and yogi, taught Spinning and yoga classes back-to-back in a New York City gym. Some of his students would double up: sweat through a 45-minute Spinning class, then towel off and strike poses for another hour. “The asanas seemed easier since we were already warmed up,” says Daniel, who has been teaching yoga for 15 years and Spinning for four. He suggested a combination class to the manager at Chelsea Piers, the New York City club where he teaches, and Yoga Journey was born.

Putting the Pedal to the Mental

Although each instructor—usually a yogi with an interest in aerobic activity—individualizes the class format, the basic structure of the classes remains consistent. A combination of stretching, breathing, and cardio work, the warm-up can be done either on the bike or the mat. Helen McGee, a private instructor in Napa Valley, California, favors beginning with the full Sun Salutation series, then moving on to some more challenging poses like Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) and Balancing Prayer Twist, a variation of Utkatasana (Chair). “When you get off the bike, your legs are usually pretty wobbly,” says McGee, “so I like to do the challenging stuff first.”

After students generate some warmth, the ride begins. Usually set to New Age music or sounds from the Caribbean and Africa, the journey involves a series of hills, flats, and sprints, created on the bike by increasing or lowering the front wheel’s resistance and in the mind by visualizing the road ahead of you. Again, the instructor’s personal preference determines whether you climb Mount Everest or sprint for the Tour de France finish line. McGee prefers to focus on developing endurance and strength, while Daniel led us through some challenging interval work. After about 30 to 40 minutes of Spinning, students dismount, stretch, do a few more asanas—Daniel had us use the bike’s handlebar for balance during modified versions of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) and Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose)—throw on the aforementioned sweatshirt, take off their shoes, and roll out the mats. About 40 minutes of different asanas follow; most, like Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), focus on stretching hip flexors, quads, calves, and other cycling-specific muscles while simultaneously slowing down the heart.

Something for Everyone

If you haven’t thought about Spinning before, perhaps you should. More important than the tabulated sweat factor are the cardio benefits Spinning brings to a yogi’s regimen. “I have greater awareness about the capabilities of my body,” says Daniel. “Plus, I’m stronger, have more energy, and just feel good.” Most Spinning classes last 45 minutes, but because of the workout’s intensity, cyclists get their heart rates soaring within minutes; a 130-pound woman can burn about 500 calories during that time.

At first glance, yoga and Spinning appear to go together like Oprah and Howard Stern, but they actually complement each other. “They’re a perfect yin and yang,” says McGee. “They both allow you to go inside of yourself in an interesting way.” They’re also the ultimate balanced workout in that muscles get strengthened and stretched, your mind goes on a calming inner journey, and your heart gets a fierce pumping.

Physically, many of the tenets of indoor cycling mirror those of yoga. Staying centered and grounded is paramount, whether you’re on the bike or the mat. Just as most asanas—from Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) to Sirsasana (Headstand)—require energy and movement radiating from your core, Spinning at high revolutions with little resistance requires a solid sense of balance, beginning from your lower back and abs. (Throughout our workout, Daniel reminded us to lift up from the abdominals and to keep them engaged for maximum support.)

Similarly, both require a solid sense of body position and knowledge: For the most efficient cycling, you need to know how to engage—and feel—each muscle in your leg, just as you need to know how to “spiral” out your thighs in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). The energy level in both classes is similar too in that they begin low and then build to an outburst.

Perhaps the most important physical trait Spinning and yoga share is the use of the breath. Sunny Davis, a North Carolina-based instructor who holds Yoga Spinning clinics for instructors around the country, realizes that Western athletes may not be as accepting of nontangible concepts like “proper breathing eases effort,” so she has her students wear heart rate monitors while Spinning. She introduces them to the power of Pranayama through a simple exercise of counting how many cycles of breath (inhalation and exhalation) they observe per minute. Not surprisingly, when they breathe correctly their heart rates go down despite the fact that the workload may go up.

“Somebody came up to me after a class and told me she took the class knowing she was going to hate it,” Davis says, “but then she saw the numbers on her monitor go down and realized what a powerful tool correct breathing could be. That drove it home for her.”

The personal focus inherent in concentrating on the breath is representative of the inward attention required by both practices. When you practice yoga in a class, the teacher suggests a pose and you listen to your tight muscles, aching joints, and flexible tendons to realize how far you’ll be able to take it. In Spinning, the instructor tells you where you’re going and how hard to go, but the image you see is ultimately drawn from within and you work at a comfortable pace for your body.

During the course of Yoga Journey, I was able to go inside myself more deeply than I’ve been able to during a solitary bike ride or a single yoga class. I’ve never experienced so intensely the feeling of pushing my heart to its limit, then consciously slowing it down.

Perhaps that’s the draw of both disciplines: The inner experience is always unique and revelatory. “In yoga the asanas don’t change, yet each time you practice, you have a different experience with them,” says McGee. “It’s the same thing in Spinning: A flat ride is always a flat ride, but you never have the same ride twice.”

Dimity McDowell is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer.