Yoga that packs a punch

Punchbags hang from the studio ceiling of the boxing club. I stand with my fists clenched, left arm extended in a jab, right forearm tucked close to my body as if to block any blows to the gut, hand high to protect my face.

My trainer, Deniz Ates, adjusts my stance, lengthening my reach.

I nearly topple — the jab’s easy, but I’m in the classic yoga warrior pose: left leg in a lunge, right leg straight out behind. I’ve been in the warrior pose so long I’m trembling.

Punchbags hang from the studio ceiling of the boxing club. I stand with my fists clenched, left arm extended in a jab, right forearm tucked close to my body as if to block any blows to the gut, hand high to protect my face (stock photo)

Punchbags hang from the studio ceiling of the boxing club. I stand with my fists clenched, left arm extended in a jab, right forearm tucked close to my body as if to block any blows to the gut, hand high to protect my face (stock photo)

Punchbags hang from the studio ceiling of the boxing club. I stand with my fists clenched, left arm extended in a jab, right forearm tucked close to my body as if to block any blows to the gut, hand high to protect my face (stock photo)

‘Enjoy the shake!’ says Deniz, 31, sweetly merciless and with the lithe bendiness of a yogi, despite his boxing background. I half wish we were sparring, as dodging hooks would surely be a breeze compared to the brutal workout that is Boxing Yoga.

‘It’s definitely challenging,’ says Matt Garcia, founder and CEO of Boxing Yoga. ‘It’s yoga for boxers.’

Yes, I gasp, as every muscle throbs, now I understand.

Matt, 45, a fully-qualified England boxing coach, devised this no-frills exercise with yoga teacher Kajza Ekberg, in consultation with physiotherapists and martial artists, in 2011, here at his club, Total Boxer, in North London. Vogue dubbed it ‘one of London’s elite boxing clubs’, but it’s friendly and not at all chi-chi — the entrance is through a gravel yard at the end of a scruffy alleyway.

Unlike Boxercise — the keep fit trend that emerged in the UK in the Nineties — Boxing Yoga wasn’t designed as a commercial product. Matt simply wanted to enhance his boxers’ performance. All the hunching and tension in boxing causes tightness in the body, he explains. ‘But in any martial art, one needs agility, speed and flexibility.’

He aimed to improve fighters’ mobility, core strength and power with flowing movements and stretches to counter-balance the crouching and tautness.

Unlike Boxercise ¿ the keep fit trend that emerged in the UK in the Nineties ¿ Boxing Yoga wasn¿t designed as a commercial product (stock photo)

Unlike Boxercise ¿ the keep fit trend that emerged in the UK in the Nineties ¿ Boxing Yoga wasn¿t designed as a commercial product (stock photo)

Unlike Boxercise — the keep fit trend that emerged in the UK in the Nineties — Boxing Yoga wasn’t designed as a commercial product (stock photo)

Happily, these benefits are also attractive to anyone who spends hours leaning over a desk, and wishes to stay strong, supple and straight-backed.

Eight years on, this professionally recognised ‘yoga-based training system’ is taught in 24 countries — in yoga studios as well as boxing clubs — and is popular with elite athletes and non-professional exercisers alike, who crave yoga’s rewards without the ‘chanting and esoteric beliefs underlying yoga philosophy’. I was scared off from traditional yoga 15 years ago after a yawn-inducing class where the teacher rudely marvelled at how inflexible I was. I’ve been yoga-avoidant ever since.

Running and strength training keeps me fit, but that I can’t touch my toes is a concern. I soon learn to be careful what you wish for. Even the warm-up, which involves a flowing movement called ‘Boxer 1’, is a struggle. It’s a reverse lunge, great for strengthening the core and quadriceps, requiring balance, alignment and stamina. You raise one hand in a fist, extend the other in a jab, then swap. This twist improves the range of movement in your spine.

It becomes swiftly apparent that I find every facet of Boxing Yoga exhausting. ‘Keep your balance, back straight, focus on your centre line!’ says Deniz. ‘Twist, take a deep breath!’

There’s brief respite when we perform a simple floor exercise to work back and side muscles. My nemesis is the Downward Dog split, where you assume the pose then raise one leg high and go through a series of moves — including slow push-up and side-plank. It’s fiendish and rewarding in equal measure.

Matt, 45, a fully-qualified England boxing coach, devised this no-frills exercise with yoga teacher Kajza Ekberg, in consultation with physiotherapists and martial artists, in 2011, here at his club, Total Boxer, in North London (stock photo)

Matt, 45, a fully-qualified England boxing coach, devised this no-frills exercise with yoga teacher Kajza Ekberg, in consultation with physiotherapists and martial artists, in 2011, here at his club, Total Boxer, in North London (stock photo)

Matt, 45, a fully-qualified England boxing coach, devised this no-frills exercise with yoga teacher Kajza Ekberg, in consultation with physiotherapists and martial artists, in 2011, here at his club, Total Boxer, in North London (stock photo)

Even my hard-won ability to perform push-ups falls short. I keep my arms wide; the Boxing Yoga push-up has elbows pinned to your body. It’s is twice as taxing and I nearly collapse.

Afterwards, as I recover, Matt says: ‘To the uninitiated, boxing is all flying fists. But actually, a huge amount of core work and leg work is needed, to rotate the body and provide explosive strength.’

But he’s keen to point out Boxing Yoga is accessible for all. ‘The postures are challenging whatever your physicality, but whether you are a boxer, martial artist, woman of 40 or 50 years plus, you will benefit from the strength and flexibility it provides.’

Indeed, after the £15 class, I feel like I’ve been stretched on the rack. Now there’s space between my shoulder blades and I feel taller. I’m delighted.

The following morning, when I inhale deeply, it’s as though I’m wearing a bodice, a satisfying indication of how intensely I worked my back and core. My body buzzes for the rest of the day. And it’s boosted my confidence. Boxing Yoga has me in its corner.

Go to totalboxer.com to find teachers trained in BoxingYoga™ around the UK, or download the 55-minute Boxing Yoga class (£9.95).

YOGA, BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT… 

SPACE YOGA

What: A cross between yoga and a science lesson, from Guerrilla Science in collaboration with the UK Space Agency. Sessions are led by a qualified yoga instructor, and each focuses on an aspect of aerial fitness training.

Where: Guerrilla Science has its own YouTube channel with home tutorials.

Results: Space Yoga focuses on the particular elements of training that astronauts undergo to counteract the weakening effects of microgravity on muscles and bones, including exercises that keep your spine healthy, strengthen your core and balance.

PADDLEBOARD YOGA

What: Traditional yoga, outdoors on water (usually a lake or canal), where the paddleboard acts as your yoga mat. You can do the class in yoga gear, though wetsuits and buoyancy aids are usually provided for safety and insurance.

Couple practising acroyoga. An exhilarating combination of traditional yoga, acrobatics and Thai massage with a partner, which involves lifting each other, and being lifted

Couple practising acroyoga. An exhilarating combination of traditional yoga, acrobatics and Thai massage with a partner, which involves lifting each other, and being lifted

Couple practising acroyoga. An exhilarating combination of traditional yoga, acrobatics and Thai massage with a partner, which involves lifting each other, and being lifted

Where: Nationally, including Brentford Lock and Paddington Basin, West London (from £25, active360.co.uk). Essex (£20, wetndryboardsports.com) and Bristol (£35, supbristol.com)

Results: The movement of the water requires you to work harder on balance and core stability.

ACROYOGA

What: An exhilarating combination of traditional yoga, acrobatics and Thai massage with a partner, which involves lifting each other, and being lifted.

Where: Brighton (from £6, acroyogabrighton.com).

Results: The supported inversions enable you to practise positions such as headstands more safely, and is great for balance.

 

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