Our writer hated the dogma of the Indian practice — then she found a boxing version
No one lies on their deathbed and whispers: “I just wish I hadn’t wasted all those years doing yoga.” It is life-affirming, it is mind-ballooning, it is Elle Macpherson’s Benjamin Button body and the balm to smartphone-addled brains.
So I tried to love yoga. Over a decade I tried. I have pigeon-posed, tree-posed, sphinx-posed, been corrected for my wonky-warrior pose too many times. I committed to a yoga mat with non-slip grip costing £55. I suspended the cynical, sniggering me to go on retreats and chant with strangers. I tried to be one of those women with a swishy ponytail and avocado-rich skin and the slow, spreading smile of one initiated into something amazing.
But IT never happened. The yogasm. The big yo — when mind, body, breath and soul feel as one. When it feels like you are doing more than just standing in slightly uncomfortable poses. After classes, when people would put their hands together in prayer and smile at each other, I would feign a kind of dreamy face as if I felt it too. Like I was woozy on asanas and endorphins. But it was all lies!
The feeling that I was missing out on the spiritual bit might not have mattered so much if I had felt that yoga was buffing me up, but — perhaps due to lack of commitment — it never felt like a workout. It just felt, again and again, like a waste of an hour and 15 quid.
So the yoga mat was relegated to the wardrobe. I hurtled from one end of the exercise spectrum to the other — from stretching to punching — by joining my local boxing club, Total Boxer in north London. This is more like it, I thought. Here there is no sense of fraudulence: I love hitting things; love the mental acrobatics of remaining light on your feet while getting your stance, core and arms aligned to throw strong but controlled punches. There is no wondering if it has all been worth it after an hour of punching bags as hard as you can to the point of utter exhaustion.
Then I discovered that at Total Boxer they also do yoga: developed specifically for fighters. Boxing yoga was conceived by the club’s founder, Matt Garcia, when he realised that those training hard in boxing need a yin to their yang; a set of stretching exercises that can release the muscles made tight by hours of crouching, twisting, ducking and punching.
Boxing yoga might sound like a fitness oxymoron — one intense and combative, the other calm and restorative — but Garcia suggests that there are common denominators between the two. “Boxing requires intense focus — the ability to stay ‘centred’, manage your emotions and react intelligently under stressful conditions — and the focus element intrinsic in yoga can really help with that.”
He isn’t the first to make the connection: boxers from Darren “Dazzling” Barker to Floyd “Money” Mayweather have found that yoga helps them in the ring. (Wonderfully, Mayweather apparently lives up to his nickname by scattering $100 bills around his yoga mat before practice.)
Yet boxing yoga is the first time the two have been spliced together. Teaming up with the yoga expert Kajza Ekberg — and a clutch of boxers, martial artists and physiotherapists — Garcia developed a series of movements based loosely on ashtanga vinyasa, a traditional form of yoga.
There is no chanting, no talk of energy flows, and no gong at the end
“I wasn’t sure about the combination of boxing with yoga at first,” says Ekberg, “but as soon as we started researching movement patterns it became clear how much the two disciplines have in common. It’s about being strong and soft at the same time, worked on through sequences like the ‘boxing goddess’, which is a flow between lunges, punches, trikonasanas and backbends. The emphasis is on strength while maintaining focus, posture and poise, which is as essential to boxing as it is to yoga.”
Each 60-minute class is split into 12 movements or “rounds”, just like in the boxing ring. These rounds move through four stages — warm-up, strengthening, mobility, cool-down — performed to music. There are nods to boxing technique throughout, including moves that mimic the defensive boxing stance with hands in the “guard” position of fists by the chin. Sit-ups involve throwing gentle jabs and crosses directly in front of you to work your core muscles. The plank is performed not with palms flat on the floor but with fists, to strengthen and stabilise the wrists.
However, the central thrust of boxing yoga is not repeating the moves you might make when throwing a punch but giving attention to those parts of the body that come under particular stress during boxing training. The class is punctuated with back-bends and chest and shoulder openers to counteract the tightness that comes from hunching over in the defensive boxing stance of fists up, head down, shoulders by your ears. Strong spinal twists help to increase the movement and reach of punches. There’s a big focus on balance with moves designed to help fighters stay grounded while light and loose on their feet.
Garcia says the routine is now an essential part of training for the club’s more serious boxers: “It’s about targeting the body from a different angle; stretching to shorten the recovery time; releasing tension to help people move faster; working on core strength so people are more grounded when sparring. It’s also proved massively helpful to keeping fighters supple and preventing injury.”
The beauty of boxing yoga for a yoga cynic such as me is that it abandons all the spiritual elements I found off-putting. There is no chanting, no philosophical element, no Sanskrit terminology, no spell of studied silence hanging over the class. We do not talk of energy flows and there is no gong at the end, just some music to accompany the flowing movements.
With a less spiritual emphasis comes a more down-to-earth clientele, free to chat and have a laugh in the breaks between movements without feeling you are breaking anyone’s concentration. It is a more motley crew than the average yoga class: the usual actors, models and dancers mixed in with builders, martial artists and boxers with broken noses.
And it is hard. Really hard. Jim, a fellow class member, says: “The intensity caught me by surprise . . . I can do a deadlift with 160kg without any back pain, but in the back-strengthening round I was totally struggling.” An hour-long class feels like time and money well spent. You sweat, you ache and after a few classes you see changes in your body. My upper arms — previously on the verge of developing bingo wings — have firmed up, along with my stomach muscles. I am touching my toes for the first time in ages. My ludicrously tight quads have loosened up. Boxing yoga is not for the faint-hearted or weak-wristed but I have seen more of a difference in a couple of months than in years of conventional yoga.
In just a few years since its invention, boxing yoga has travelled far beyond my north London club. It is used by professional fighters such as the champion boxer Yassine El Maachi and the super bantamweight world boxing champion Scott Quigg. The regime has been taken up by sports clubs from Chelsea to Saracens, whose performance director, Philip Morrow, says boxing yoga “has proved extremely beneficial. It’s no coincidence the squad are recovering faster from injury and showing improvement on post-match fatigue.”
There are classes around the world, with boxing yoga teachers trained in the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa, India and the US. It has apparently tapped into a rich seam of punters who want a form of yoga that is stronger, harder, more no-nonsense than its spiritual cousins. It might not be for the yoga purists, but if you’re bored with gentle stretching and joss sticks and want a proper workout on the mat, then boxing yoga could be the answer.