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What if the key is yoga?

As athletes we’re constantly looking for ways to take our performance to the next level. Many of us spend hours scouring the internet looking at different training protocols, nutrition tips, and other tools that will help us break through our plateau and “elevate our edge.” 

It’s a constant battle that can leave us feeling like there is always more to be done. But what if the key isn’t to keep pushing? What if reaching that next level isn’t a matter of being stronger, faster, or having more endurance? What if the key is to slow down, connect with our breath, and to allow our body to recharge? 

What if the key is yoga – yoga specifically geared towards athletes?

Yoga for athletes isn’t a new idea. For years, many high profile athletes have touted the physical and mental benefits of dedicating time to a yoga practice as part of their training regimen. It has become so popular that high profile teams have implemented it into their training sessions. 

When you aggregate all the benefits of yoga – things like, increased mobility, enhanced proprioception, more efficient movement, and a higher level of body awareness – it’s easy to see why so many athletes are jumping on the yoga bandwagon. But the benefits aren’t only being seen by professional athletes and teams, many college and high school sports programs are also getting hip to the idea of yoga for athletes. 

Yoga, when built for the demands of a specific sport, facilitates more efficient movement and improved biomechanics.  Performance improves and athletes’ bodies age more gracefully.

Even in young athletes, repetitive movements that accompany certain sports can cause wear and tear on the body – patterns get ingrained and the body finds ways to compensate, often causing more harm than good. Helping young athletes recognize these patterns will raise body awareness, leading to injury prevention, and more resilient aging. 

Coaches have said that their student athletes are sleeping better as a result of yoga–when they sleep better, they perform better. But in order to reap these benefits, athletes need to learn to slow down.

Most who are actively striving to improve their performance are constantly pushing themselves to reach the next level. 

While pushing on the field is great, that same mentality does not belong on the yoga mat. It may feel counterintuitive, but the benefits of slowing down and tuning into the body, allowing it to restore and recover, can seriously boost performance.

Since introducing yoga into their training sessions, coaches have seen an improvement both on the field and off. They believe yoga is making their student athletes overall better people – it is helping them change habits. (How great is that?)

But how can “stretching” change habits?

The answer is surprisingly simple: the breath. Focusing on the breath can help us find strength in vulnerable places – within our body and our mind.  We take up to 20,000 breaths a day; making them deeper and more calm and confident has dramatic impact on the nervous system. The breath can be a great barometer into our stress and poor breathing has system-wide negative impact.

When we deepen and steady our breath, it allows us to find ease within the poses, renews our focus, brings balance, and helps us find resilience against stresses. It’s the cornerstone of a mindful practice. 

By learning to deepen the breath on the yoga mat, athletes are able to more effectively harness its power when performing and competing. It boosts the mental edge over competition and affords the ability to slow down, relax, and look more deeply into our motivations, power, and goals. It teaches athletes to be more mindful and deliberate in their actions; more patient; even kinder and better people and better teammates – it is the key to breaking through plateaus and performing at a higher level.

Guest blogger, climber/athlete and casual but dedicated yogi, Zach Kochan, explores – in this and other posts – how yoga has shaped his relationship with sport, life, and everything in between.