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August 3, 2012, 04:25PM PT in Fitnovatives Blog  |  2 Comments

Integrating Yoga into Personal Training Sessions

yogaIncorporating yoga into personal training sessions may be daunting for those who do not have a formal yoga education.  However, blending practices of the East with those of the West not only benefits the client, but also you, the trainer.  For the client, this fusion develops a deeper physical awareness, breath control and mind-body connection, and the trainer is presented with an opportunity to implement creative exercise design and enhance continuing education skills. For those with no knowledge or experience in yoga, it is vital to understand the background and basics of yoga.

What is Yoga?
The Sanskrit word, yoga, holds a literal meaning of "yoke" or commonly known as "union." The original basis of yoga was to sustain breath control in yogic postures to prepare oneself for meditation, but there are now a number of philosophies and styles of yoga. Although the practice as a whole focuses on exercise, breathing and meditation, Eastern philosophy incorporates "eight limbs," which emphasizes a deeper connection with the yoga experience. Most modern day yoga concentrates on three of the eight limbs including: asana (posture), pranayama (breathing) & pratyhara (meditation).

Yoga Breathing
Breathing is essential both during exercise and to sustain life. Prana (life energy or life force) and yama (control) are vital during yogic postures, and although every instructor or style will have a different approach, the yogic breath is inhaled and exhaled through the nose.  My Indian yoga master, Dr. Senthil Kumar, taught his students that nostril-breathing assists in breath control, warms the breath before it reaches the lungs, and filters air pollutants with our nose hairs.  For the correlation between yoga and personal training, it is advisable to focus on three-dimensional breathing - oxygen expanding the lungs up and down, front and back, and out and in. This is useful in personal training sessions when the client's core remains contracted while concentrating on oxygen flow. 

Yoga Education
Yoga is complex, and I advocate trainers to educate themselves with certifications, conferences, seminars or workshops. Reputable organizations such as Yoga Alliance and the International Association of Yoga Therapy list studios or organizations on their website that provide trainers with YA or IAYT certifications.  YogaFit provides yoga teacher training and recognizes ACE and Yoga Alliance continuing education credits. I also recommend reading "Yoga Anatomy, Second Edition," a multifaceted book published through Human Kinetics that will significantly enhance your knowledge.

Beyond formal education, trainers with no experience should start taking classes to engage in the physical experience.  Throughout the practice, you'll have the opportunity to explore and analyze correct / improper alignment and joint stability and mobility.

What to Know

  • Understand and demonstrate the proper alignment for each asana. The client relies on the trainer to be their visual guide. It is vital to properly demonstrate each pose because if performed incorrectly, injury or excessive joint stress may occur.
  • Understand the "why" of each yoga posture, since each specific asana features physical and mental benefits, therapeutic applications and contraindications.
  • Remember that the human body is complex and every person is different. Many clients are either overweight, have orthopedic issues or structural obstacles such as one leg being slightly longer than the other, an uneven pelvis, or scoliosis in the thoracic spine that gives them naturally uneven shoulders. Because of this structural imbalance, the client may not feel the "stretch" or length in that specific desired area. 
  • Know how to progress or regress the yoga asana.
  • When a pose becomes "effortless," the client is ready for a progressed variation or a different posture with the same anatomical focus.
  • Learn how to assess an individual's standing and seated posture. 
  • Select poses that are standing, seated, kneeling, arm-supported, one-legged, prone or supine. 
  • It is common for clients to experience sore muscles one to two days after implementing yoga poses.

What to Avoid

  • Know your client's health history. As mentioned above, there are specific poses that should be avoided for precise ailment. Choose poses that benefit and don't hinder or aggravate a client's ailment. For example, a person with chronic asthma requires chest-opening postures that focus on deep breathing into the ribs and the intercostal muscles. It is not advisable to place asthmatic clients into deep forward folds or isometric poses where it is challenging to breath. 
  • Avoid poses that cause sharp, stabbing or highly uncomfortable joint or muscle pain.  If a client complains of this, the first step is to analyze the alignment and readjust the pose if needed.  If the pain continues, seek a different posture.  
  • Remember that there is no one way to implement an exercise, which remains true in yoga.  Newbies to yoga should not be stuck on "this is the one and only way to implement Warrior II."  Chairs, stability balls and other props are available to allow students to succeed in the pose at its current state before progressing the posture.

The Integration
Many fitness professionals know yoga simply as the "strength and stretch" exercise that allows participants to lengthen muscles and enhance core strength with weight bearing movements.  Yoga is more complex than this notion and is highly beneficial during the implementation of Phase 1 (Stability and Mobility) and Phase 2 (Movement) of the ACE IFT Model. In Phase 1, yoga postures are typically static—holding the pose for a specific length of time before switching sides or moving to the next pose.

In Phase 2, yoga postures are dynamic in two ways. The first way is moving between poses, holding each asana for one breath or with an inhalation or exhalation. An example of this is a sun salutation or a vinyasa ("breath synchronized movement") inspired sequence.

A second way is integrating the static with the dynamic.  For example, in Phase 1 you may implement Triangle Pose. In early Phase 2 you may still implement Triangle, but with a horizontal core rotation ("opening and closing: motion of the core with the top arm and torso move in unison) similar to a transition from Triangle to Pyramid.  Once the core can sustain this movement, you can now incorporate a variety of transitional sequences only if the client is ready for this version of yoga.  An example of a sequence is to move from Triangle, Pyramid, Warrior I to Warrior II, which maybe repeated several times.

How to Integrate
To successfully incorporate yoga into personal training sessions follow these steps:

  • Know your client's health history.
    • What are my client’s health issues?
    • Does my client have noticeable posture abnormalities?
    • Does my client have any chronic joint pain?
  • Choose 3 -5 poses to incorporate at the end of the session prior to static stretching.
    • What is the purpose of these poses?
    • Why are these poses appropriate for my client?
  • Hold each pose for 30-60 seconds, equivalent to 3 -5 deep yoga breaths.
    • Try to match the inhalation and exhalation starting with 5 seconds in and out, increasing seconds to reach a maximum goal of 8 or 10 seconds in and out. 
  • Beginners should focus on three-dimensional breathing. 
  • Once three-dimensional breathing is obtained, continue breathing into all six areas of the rib cage but with an emphasis of breathing into the area of the chest that is "opening toward the ceiling."
    • If the pose is asymmetrical, complete the asana on each side.
    • If needed, rest 30 seconds between each asana.

 As a yoga instructor and personal trainer, I find the integration of yogic practices beneficial for breath concentration, core strength and deeper biomechanical awareness in weight training.  I hope you find success putting these techniques to use and helping your clients live their most fit lives. Good luck!   

By Elizabeth Kovar


Elizabeth Kovar M.A, personal trainer and yoga/fitness instructor, earned Yoga Alliance 318 hours in Ashtanga yoga & Chakra Meditation from the Ayurveda & Yoga Retreat and Hospital in Coonor, India. She studied yoga in five different countries, and learned through some of the best names in the yoga industry. Her Master’s Thesis “Creating Yoga Programs for People with Movement Disabilities” was implemented on a 12 week research study for people with Stage 1-2 Parkinson’s Disease with the University of Toledo Physical Therapy and Neurology Department. She resides in Seattle, WA and is the fitness coordinator at the City of Lynnwood Recreation Center. Elizabeth is also a freelance fitness / travel writer, workshop presenter and instructs an online Yoga 1 & 2 course for Walla Walla Community College. Questions or comments can be directed to erkovar@yahoo.com