Stokely Creek Lodge, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario for a few days last week to cross country ski and snowshoe. It was a fun trip, and it was great to get away for a few days to do something we enjoy doing together.
I've been a cross country skier for about 35 years, much longer than I've practiced yoga. My practice of yoga, however, has improved my cross country skiing experience.
The most obvious benefits of a regular yoga practice for a cross country skier (or a snowshoer!) are that the shoulders, hips, and spine are more flexible and the muscles stretch more easily. Then there's less stiffness and soreness after a many-kilometer trip and less chance for injury. I can honestly say that I had very little muscle soreness after my excursions last week, even after my longest excursion, about 14 miles. I was tired....but not particularly sore (well, there were a couple minor injuries...).
Another benefit of a regular yoga practice is the development of a keener body awareness. We learn to pay attention to the body when we practice the asanas (yoga poses) -- we first learn where to place the different parts of the body to bring it into the basic shape of the asana, then we fine tune this placement so that the body works with more ease and can better experience the benefits of the pose. We learn to discern where the pose is going right and where it is going wrong, and how to fix it if it's going wrong. As we become more practiced and proficient, we can see on a more subtle level how to go deeper into the pose in a healthy manner.
The development of this profound awareness of the body helps us perform better in any physical activity. In my cross country skiing, for example, I'm aware that my legs work differently from each other. My feet work differently -- one big toe bends more than the other so the weight is distributed unevenly from side to side. One leg turns out more readily (as it does in my yoga poses), and that knee and hip can start to bother me if I'm not careful. When I'm aware of these differences, then I can start to make changes to bring the body into a more balanced state. If I'm not aware, or not paying attention then my unevenness grows, and there's more chance of injuring or aggravating parts of the body.
I ended up over-compensating when trying to work my legs evenly, and currently my usually healthier hip is hurting. So I mis-judged how much I needed to change, but that's just the process of figuring out how to ski better. This happens while practicing yoga asanas too -- to fix one area of the pose, we may overdo somewhere else. Then we learn how to move more intelligently in our new problem area. Developing our yoga poses is an ongoing process of awareness. We make mistakes, and then learn from them. Developing our skill in any physical endeavor is no different.