Mindfulness and yoga go together but thug? Marisol Swords is a homeschooling yogi who balances that with a love of lifting heavy iron! Granted mobilitywork is fairly popular among lifters but it’s still rare to find someone as passionate about yoga as they are about weights. So I jumped at the rare chance to interview this Peru based garage athlete who walks effortlessly between both worlds! Plus I had to find out where the Instagram handle came from right?
Marisol, I appreciate your support for Garage Gym Life especially your willingness to talk about your yoga practice. I know that it’s an very personal part of your life but given how many misconceptions there area about it, I’m glad that you’ve made yourself available to talk about it.
What’s the significance of your name mindfulyogithug? How did you get it and who gave it to you?
I can’t help but laugh. I am a very private person, and when I chose the name I never considered having to explain it to anyone, so I’ll do my best. Mindfulness is a major part of my daily yoga practice. Its the yoga that we do when our bodies aren’t bending on a mat. I used to teach it to students at an international high school here in Lima.
Yogi because I am yogi. I’ve been practicing yoga for a majority of my life, beginning with my father in his dojo while growing up in the Bronx. My yoga has taken root in my life off the mat as well, because yoga is much more than just contortion and stretch.
A thug is an outlaw, hooligan, someone choosing to live outside societal norms. The word also has multiple significances to me personally. I grew up constantly fighting either my sisters, bullies, or watching battles of those around me. Violence and crime were major components of my childhood experience. Growing up in the Bronx, no matter how good of a person you wanted to be, you had to be a bit of a thug to survive. Now that I’m grown and learned a few things about the world as a whole, I choose to be as kind and compassionate as possible. But in a world full of every man for himself, unconditional kindness is an outlaw ideal. Purposefully choosing a peaceful life of love and kindness, by my logic, still makes me a thug.
I used to drive a school bus. My middle and high school students would call me a peaceful thug sometimes because I looked tough, sounded tough, and I’m from the Bronx but I was sweet to them. I fought my battles with logic and calm and that impressed them. So I figured why not exhibit a bit of my own duality in my IG name. I am mindful. I am yogi. I am thug.
How long have you been training and what made you start training in your home? You’re currently overseas is that why?
I have been training in my home since the day I was born, literally. My parents had a townhouse with a basement in the Bronx and my father was (and still is) a skilled martial artist and instructor. Dad always had a free weight gym in the basement right next to his fully functioning dojo. He taught gung fu and martial arts almost daily in that basement, and we attended almost every session. He started training us as soon as we started walking. I had never seen the inside of a commercial gym until I was twenty years old, so I honestly believed training at home was the norm, and Globo Gyms were odd.
You were absolutely correct to believe that by the way!
I never really got into the swing of going to a GYM GYM to do my training, I always found a way to get things done at home. Its how I was raised. That aside, gyms here in Lima are not my cup of tea. People already stare at me everywhere (I am a foreigner and I stand out with all these tattoos), and gyms are no exception. I am more comfortable and therefore more effective in my training when I train at home.
Which strength sports do you train because although it looks like you don’t shy away from trying new things like pole dancing or Olympic lifting, it seems like your main two pursuits are yoga and powerlifting. Is this correct?
Lol! My main activities are yoga and powerlifting. I still practice martial arts at home, but not like I did when I was a little kid. Believe it or not, the pole dancing was something my sixteen year old begged me to try for months. I finally gave in. And Olympic lifting is just for fun, its nice to see what this body can do.
Yoga seems to be equal parts instruction and self-discovery. Do you find that training at home helps more with one or the other?
Yoga is all self-discovery. Almost everyone (including myself) starts their practice focused on the physical part (asanas), then slowly realize that yoga is a life long journey of discovering not only who we are, but more so what we are not. Training at home helps me to focus my efforts inward, motivating me from within.
However, I am an academic person who is never afraid to admit when I need instruction beyond what I can teach myself. So when I feel I’ve hit a wall or plateau, I seek guidance. I try to stay humble knowing that I can always learn more.
I saw a post where you were practicing yoga and you said that it was because you’d had a tough lifting session. Besides physical recovery, how does yoga practice help you as a lifter and as a person in general?
The way yoga helps me has changed over time the more I’ve practiced. My practice began because my dad wanted to make sure we were flexible martial artists. Then it became what helped me lose 100 lbs after a difficult high risk pregnancy. Somewhere along the line, my yoga practice stopped being about the physical benefits and became about my minds ability to gather itself from the shattered pieces of a hard day. It became about how savasana was the only time I could ever experience true quiet, and it was rejuvenating. As my time on the mat became more inwardly focused, my time off the mat became filled with greater patience for people and things and an increased ability to successfully deal with my own stress and anxiety. I learned that I can still be honest and sassy without being hurtful and mean (I used to be a very miserable person, yoga helped change that too).
As far as lifting, I started taking lifting seriously in January of this year and I achieved quick gains because of my established flexibility and range of motion. In that way, yoga makes me a better lifter.
You said in an Instagram post, “I’ve been a yogi so long that when I get to the bar I forget to act like a lifter,” could you explain that and describe how you deal with it now that you know that about yourself?
My introduction to yoga was at about nine years old. Through adolescence and adulthood, I’ve always done yoga and martial arts; those have always been my sports. Due to my highly mobile life, I have to consider the transportability of activities. A punching bag is much harder to transport than a yoga mat, so over time, yoga became my main activity. Yoga makes you strong, but nothing makes you as strong as weight training. I wanted to improve some of the more strength intensive yoga poses, so I started lifting. I’ve watched all kinds of people set up for their lifts. Its all explosive and loud and filled with grunts and screams that sound like something out of an action film. My set up for everything is yoga based. When I set up for deadlift, I prepare with mountain pose and chair pose. When I set up for squat, standing back bend and down dog variation on the bar. While learning how to lift, I related all movements back to my yoga, so my lifting became a type of “yoga” practice of its own. I don’t really try to fight it, I let it be. Its the organic path my lifting practice has taken, so I roll with it.
One of the things that keeps lifters from stretching in general, never mind doing yoga, is the perception that it makes you weaker. There is some research supporting this which is why many strength coaches advise dynamic mobility rather than static stretching. How do you balance out your yoga practice and your powerlifting training?
I balance out my yoga and my lifting by changing yoga style. For warm ups, I like to do ten or fifteen minutes of some vigorous, heat producing power yoga flow. Flows keep you moving; so there goes your dynamic mobility. After my training, I switch style to some yin yoga or Iyengar with the long holds and props. There is a yoga style for every thing.
I hope lifters can look at super yogis like Kino McGregor, who has never done a back squat or a bench press in her life, and realize that yoga breeds strength, without hindering it.
I see several pictures of you squatting and deadlifting on what looks like your back deck. Is that where your gym is?
Yes, my gym is in my backyard overlooking some very beautiful greenery. It makes for a very peaceful lifting environment. Even when my dogs are running amok and my cat is stuck in the tree.
What are your best numbers in the gym?
Squat: 135 1RM
Bench: 90 1RM
Deadlift: 145 1RM
I have no idea if that is a lot or a little, but I know that all of those lifts have more than doubled since I started lifting in January. We all start somewhere right?
Do you intend to compete?
No. I have zero desire to compete. I am a person who loves a sport for the simple fact that my body is capable of performing it. I have no desire to see how I stack up to anyone else, I’m happy just doing my thing.
What did you start your gym with and what do you have now in your workout area?
My current gym started with one five foot, thirty pound training barbell. That was my first squat, bench and deadlift weight; and I struggled with it! It didn’t take long before that thirty pounds felt light.
I currently have a power squat cage, two seven foot Oly bars, over 300 pounds of bumper plates, a bench, variety of dumbbells, a yoga swing, gravity trainer and my newest addition: a barbell landmine. And that’s just what I keep in the training area. I’ve been collecting gear for years, the rest is scattered throughout the house.
Speaking of equipment, tell me about your yoga wheel, how is it different from using a foam roller?
A foam roller is for foam rolling only really. A yoga wheel can be used for rolling, but it gets pretty tricky to balance on it after a while. Mainly a yoga wheel is used to assist and enhance range of motion in a yoga practice. And people like to do really cool tricks with them. I’m not one of those people! I play it safe, lol.
What’s a normal training day for you? Seems like you’ve got the mobility and strength side of things covered. What do you like doing for conditioning?
Stairs. I like running up and down stairs. There are two separate flights of stairs with about twenty steps in each in my home. I am a stay at home mom with a homeschooled teenager, I run up and down those steps a million times a day aside from training. A normal training day consists of morning meditation, power yoga for warm up, about an hour to ninety minute powerlifting session, then cool down yoga and more meditation. My teenager often lifts with me and participates in the yoga, but opts out on meditation. For cardio, I go to my local CrossFit box and let them yell at me while I do burpees or I run laps up and down the stone steps near the mountain up the street from my house. Living on a mountain range makes finding challenging cardio as easy as walking outside.
You said that yoga helps build mental discipline but as a yogi is there a tension between being calm and centered and trying to get tight and fired up for powerlifting?
No, not really. As a yogi, I understand that all things possess duality: the idea that contrasting aspects can coexist. I also understand that while I may be hyped for lifting in that moment, when I am done lifting, I am done. The moment of hype has passed and the moments of calm have arrived. If anything, being able to have lifting as an outlet for that fiery energy supports my efforts to maintain a calm center.
How is your family involved in the different aspects of your fitness lifestyle?
My husband has always known I’m athletic, I mean a five foot two Puerto Rican ninja is hard to miss. But for the most part my family participates in many of my practices, at their own levels of course. My husband enjoys the yoga aspect of my practices the most while my daughter prefers lifting, attending the local CrossFit box as well as learning to power lift with me at home. Overall, we have always been a pretty active family.
Are you familiar with Natural Movement and have you tried it?
I was not familiar with it until this question here. Thanks to Google and YouTube, that has been fixed. Lol. No, I have never tried it, but if I am ever in a city that has a workshop or studio for it, I will most definitely be going. That looks right up my alley.
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about yoga? Or to put it another way, what do people ask you all of the time when they find out that you practice yoga that you wish they’d stop asking?
“I would do yoga, but I’m just not that flexible.” or “Do I have to be flexible to do yoga?”
I wish people would stop and really listen to the absurdity of the above statements. You don’t need a flexible body to do yoga; you need a flexible mind. When I hear people tell me this, I have to bite my tongue because anyone’s biggest obstacle to anything that seems impossible is whether or not you can convince yourself you can do it. Same with yoga. So the real question becomes: what are you afraid of? Most people want to do well at things, especially athletes who are accustomed to being the best. Trying something that might expose an area of weakness in them doesn’t hold high on their to do list. I find myself explaining to people that yoga is not a competition sport about who can get the bendiest. You start where YOU are, and with steady practice, you improve. Internalizing this concept is where mental flexibility comes in handy, you learn to let go of the idea that we are in competition with one another and come to understand that we are all having the same shared experience.
Are you into music while you train or do you prefer natural sounds regardless of what type of training you’re doing?
I almost never use music while I train and when I do, its gangsta rap. When I train, whether its yoga or lifting or martial arts, I tune out all activity around me and focus on the movements. So, whether I have music playing or birds tweeting, at some point I don’t hear it either way.
Occasionally for yoga, I will play thunderstorm sounds. It never rains here in Lima, and I miss the sound of it so much I play it during practice, it helps with meditation sometimes.
Powerlifting, even raw powerlifting, lends itself to specialized equipment, knee sleeves, heeled shoes, wrist wraps while yoga is practiced barefoot. Because of your greater mobility do you find that you can dispense with all of that?
No. Not just no, heck no.
Knee sleeves for lifting are just smart, human knees aren’t meant to support so much extra weight. So are wrist wraps and heeled shoes for squats. But with yoga, you’re not adding any weight the body is not already used to carrying, so no special gear is required. Also with yoga, you want to be in full contact with the surface on which you practice. Yogis have nice, mystical explanations for why, but I am a huge fan of science. Having your full foot in contact with your practice surface allows you to take advantage of Newtons Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As you push your feet down into the ground, the ground pushes back up into your feet providing greater stability in standing poses. Kinda like when you dead lift, you want flatter shoes so you can push the floor, well, when you yoga, you wanna be able to push the floor and feel it push back.
As a yogi, I can practice with nothing but the clothes on my back, but as a lifter, knees sleeves, wrist wraps and lifting shoes are my desert island essentials.
Do you find it ironic that so many people shy away from yoga because of the religious overtones while not realizing that they already do a lot of the poses when they stretch anyway?
I do find it very ironic, and even kinda funny. I chuckle because practicing yoga asanas does not indoctrinate you into a new religion. And while many people practice the full eight limbs of yoga as aspiritual path, it would still be considered a philosophy, not a religion. And you can literally hold the beliefs of a philosophy to be true AND still be devout to a religion, especially when the principles of both support one another. My father is an excellent example. He was raised, as are most Puerto Ricans, as a Roman Catholic. He became a martial artist and Buddhism became a major part of his life philosophy. If you ask him, he will tell you he is a Christian Buddhist. He finds zero conflict in this dualistic designation.
Regardless of why people do or don’t practice “yoga”, as long as they are doing the moves and feeling the flow, and maybe even gaining some calm, they can enjoy it under whatever name they like.
You can follow Marisol on Instagram @mindfulyogithug