Thanyapura Yoga Instructor Erin Fischer has been teaching yoga for athletes, and triathletes yoga to help improve their stamina, mental capacity and more. The benefits of yoga for athletes is endless. Erin has outlined how yoga is beneficial for athletes, and how you don’t have to be flexible to start.
It may seem to be an opposing idea at first, but in actuality, athletics and yoga can complement each other wonderfully when done in a safe manner. While yoga has gained popularity in many countries, some people still see it as ‘just stretching’ or an activity only for the very flexible, or even a women-only fitness trend. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yoga for athletes is very beneficial and can help improve their athletic performance.
Yoga has so much to teach runners and endurance athletes, as it does all of us. Yoga is one of, if not the oldest forms of physical and mental conditioning in human history, and was traditionally practiced by men, especially royalty, in India and Asia about 3,000 years ago, and since then has evolved into many different styles and forms, some of which have led to confusion and misinformation about the practice itself. Hopefully with a little information, we will show why yoga can be incredibly healthy, beneficial, and perhaps even life changing, especially for athletes.
There are many professional athletes who credit yoga with helping them progress in their chosen sport: Kelly Slater practices daily to improve his world-champion level surfing. Mark Henderson, a former swimming world record holder and Olympic Gold Medalist in the 4×100 Medley Relay, stated that his yoga for athletes practice ‘increased strength, presence of mind and improved sleep, to name a few” and has stated he wished he had discovered it when he was competing. LeBron James, NBA star and avid yogi, recently credited an early-morning yoga class for his ability to beat cramps in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
But what why exactly is this practice of yoga so helpful for many different kinds of athletes? And why aren’t more athletes practicing? Lets take a look at the benefits of yoga for athletes:
The Benefits of Yoga for Athletes
- Improved Strength – yoga for athletes:
Lets begin with the most obvious benefit: consistent practice of various yoga asanas (poses) will help build strength and lean muscle mass. This is most noticeable in the under-utilized muscle groups in the sports of swimming, cycling, and running. Often, increased core body stability and decrease overuse injury by strengthening the supportive, often overlooked muscles surrounding the major muscles, which in turn, creates a balanced, high-functioning athletic body that is stronger, balanced, and resilient.
- Better Balance – yoga for athletes:
Improving balance and coordination leads to enhanced control over bodily movements, and this means technique and form in nearly all sports will be improved. This seemingly simple practice of yoga, done consistently over time, will yield big shifts in this area, and ultimately be reflected in improved performance across the board.
- Mental Control – yoga for athletes:
In the world of competitive athletics, of any kind, especially endurance sports, the one thing most champion athletes posses is mental control over fears, negativity, doubts, and control over emotions, stress and discomfort. This is a bit different than the ‘push through any pain’ mentality that can often lead to injury. In yoga, the individual builds precise body awareness, and becomes acquainted with small shifts in the body, that are often the precursor to bigger issues. Practicing yoga asanas in a systematic way, athletes are able to pay attention, not just go through the motions until something goes wrong. Learning what one’s individual restrictions are will lead to deeper understanding of ones body, and open the person to adapt or improve in such areas with control.
The second piece of the mental part of yoga, for the athlete, and most people in general actually, is the most challenging. Commonly, athletes may find it very challenging to ‘slow down’ or be still, and might find this boring at first. This is the true challenge of the yoga practice: in our overly stimulated culture, most of us find it very uncomfortable to be present with ourselves, to notice the chatter in our minds. Being still on the ground for 3-5 minutes can be unbearable and many people try to leave class early to avoid this part, known as savasana. This must not be missed, however, because it is in these moments of stillness that deep insights and personal development truly occur. Sure, its awkward at first, but like most things, enduring a little discomfort at first will have huge benefits in the long run. Athletes who practice individual sports especially, who may spend lots of time focusing on themselves even more than team sport athletes, often report feeling a greater sense of community and overall well being after practicing over time.
- Improved Range of Motion and Flexibility – yoga for athletes:
Keeping endurance athletes in a full range of motion for swimming, running, cycling and the like are crucial to their performance and form, and as they build muscle, keeping the muscle supple, not over-stretched, but relaxed is helpful and beneficial to overall performance. For example, a swimmer with maximum range of motion in the shoulder and hips will be able to capture more water per stroke, improve muscle economy, and the ability to strength condition the entire muscle group due to the ability to increase the force extended in each movement.
I know, you might be thinking, being overly flexible will make me lose my competitive advantage gained from the Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC) and I might increase my risk of injury trying to stretch into a yoga pose. Let’s take a look at these things a bit more: Sure, there is much to be said for the SSC cycle, the advantage gained by power athletes that require short bursts of power for a short period of time. Yes, its important for these athletes to limit the amount of stretching prior to competition, and doing excessive amount of yoga is not advisable for most of them. Overstretching is important to consider, however, adding yoga in an non-aggressive way to a training program, when practiced with an experienced teacher, overstretching most likely will not occur. Muscle recovery will likely actually improve and quicken. Relaxed, supple muscles is the goal, not overstretched ones. The goal is not extreme flexibility in yoga for athletes, but mobility is.
- Breath Enhancement and Control:
The entire practice of yoga is based around control and development of breathe. It is the most crucial and beneficial parts of the practice. For this reason, athletes who must control their breath, or breath from the belly will find many of the yogic breathing practices (knows as Pranayama) very useful and can even improve breath capacity in large strides. Master yogis can hold their breath for long periods of time, with low heart rate and calm bodies. This ability is passed on to the yogi athlete, and many note the ability to use breath to calm a stressed mind during a race or event a big advantage over time.
It is important to begin yoga for athletes as you would any other physical activity: If you want to run a marathon, you likely wouldn’t try to the entire 42.2 kilometers your first time out. You build up to it- the same is true with yoga for athletes. The best way to start is to go to a beginners class, learn the basic movements and alignment, the breathing techniques, and build from there. A skilled teacher will know how to give you variations to make poses safe for you as you build strength and body awareness in these unfamiliar movements. Over time, usually with in a few weeks to months of regular practice, you will be flowing through and feeling great, with physical and mental benefits that may surprise you. There are a variety of styles as well, and I suggest trying a few to see which feel best to your body, or which challenge you in the right way. Teaching styles vary as well, so going in with an open mind and positive attitude will benefit you in finding the perfect class for yourself, as well as being open with the teacher about any injuries or physical concerns you have before the class begins. And most of all: relax, breathe, and enjoy the ride!