The unlikely marriage of the combat martial art and tranquil breath-focused activity can help you boost fitness while strengthening mind and body.
Whether you’re a black belt with loads of experience or a white belt learning how to defend from a kimura, if you practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), you know how this South American form of martial arts provides the ultimate full-body strength and conditioning workout.
But while practicing holds and submissions enhances your fitness (and soaks your combat gear in sweat), a piece to the fitness puzzle is missing—the flexibility and breath control needed to pull off some of the practice’s toughest holds. That’s where yoga comes in. Getting on the yoga mat can help improve strength, balance and flexibility, while also helping reduce back pain—a common experience for those who practice BJJ. Experts affirm that yoga also reduces stress, improves heart health, increases energy levels and helps you sleep better at night.
If you’re new to yoga, you might wonder how it’s any different than the stretching you do after your workout. “Stretching is simply holding a position for whatever body part you’re working at the time,” says Sarah Draht, a competitive BJJ black belt and lead yoga instructor for yogaforbjj.net, a yoga app created for BJJ practitioners. “In yoga, we craft a set of carefully articulated poses into a flow.” Here’s how it works.
Go With the Flow
If you’re training for a specific sport several days a week, time for other activities becomes scarce. But even just 10 minutes of yoga each day goes a long way to improving flexibility and posture. “Frequency really trumps quantity in this regard,” says Jenni Tarma, a Yoga Medicine® therapeutic specialist and teacher for Yoga Medicine Online.
Still, BJJ black-belt instructor and movement specialist James O’Conner advises not to expect instant results. “It’s common sense—two weeks of yoga won’t change things” if you’ve spent the last 20 years training in a totally different way, O’Conner says. “It’s a process you need to commit to, like all daily habits that help you improve.” If you’re looking for a way to use yoga to enhance your jiu-jitsu training, start with these six moves.
1. Plough Pose (Halasana)
Why it helps: “When your opponent has you in some sort of spinal twist where your legs are pinned one way and your shoulders another, your diaphragm’s a bit compromised, making it hard to breathe,” says Draht. “The plough pose teaches you to be comfortable in uncomfortable positions and having the ability to breathe there.”
How to do it: Lie on your back. Raise your legs over your head, rolling onto your upper back as you try touching your feet to the floor. Stretch your arms toward your glutes, keeping them parallel with the floor. Take several deep and full breaths as you hold the position for 30 seconds.
Hero Pose (Virasana)
Why it helps: When playing in closed guard (your opponent is laying on his back), your first goal is to maintain posture as your opponent tries to break free. This means dropping your glutes as close to the mat as possible, which is almost identical to this move.
How to do it: Kneel on the floor, big toes slightly angled toward each other. Press the tops of your feet into the floor. Bend your knees and lower your glutes to the floor, attempting to sit between your feet, not on top of them. Squeeze your shoulders back; place hands on hips. Hold for 60 seconds.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Why it helps: “Cobras are incredibly important in the maintenance of spinal health,” Draht says. “Our back is constantly rounded (in forward flexion) in jiu-jitsu, so it is very important to balance that.”
How to do it: Lie on your stomach. Prop yourself up on your forearms, elbows under shoulders. Spread legs hip-width apart. Using your back muscles, raise your head and sternum towards the ceiling, pressing the tops of your feet or training shoe laces into the mat and straightening your arms. Hold pose for 30 seconds.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Why it helps: “This move requires flexion, extension, adduction, abduction and internal and external rotation,” says Tarma. It helps improve everything from hip escapes to getting your opponent to tap out from completing a triangle.
How to do it: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Reach your arms toward your feet. Pressing your feet and arms into the floor, exhale while raising your hips toward the ceiling. Hold for 60 seconds.
Plank to Pushup Pose (Chaturanga)
Why it helps: “This move resembles trying to pass an opponent’s guard,” Conner says. “When you place your hand on their knee, you begin looking at your elbow position. If it matches, it’s the strongest position your arm can be in, making it virtually unbreakable. It also makes you safer in that position.”
How to do it: Start in an extended plank pose, shoulders slightly in front of hands. Engaging your core and quads, lean forward with your sternum so that shoulders are well in front of hands. Bend your elbows and lower yourself to the floor, keeping body in one straight line. Lower until your body nearly touches floor, then return to start.
Lotus Pose (Padmasana)
Why it helps: “The lotus stretches the outside of the hips—an area that is commonly tight,” Draht says. “This stretch will decrease injuries and increase your range of motion, fluidity and flexibility.”
How to do it: Sit on the floor with legs stretched in front of you. Bend right knee and take hold of your right foot; place it on top of left thigh. Bend left knee, take left foot and place it on top of right thigh. Keeping your spine straight, place hands on your knees, palms facing ceiling. Breathe in and out deeply 10 times.