With pro teams across all sports increasingly adding weekly yoga sessions to their training, the evidence speaks for itself — range of motion, mobility, and rebalancing are critical for athletes and those athletic. Shattering a preconceived notion that yoga is for thin, fit, flexible women, athletes of all ages, shapes and sizes — and even their coaches — are eagerly hitting the mat in record numbers. Yoga helps athletes shift their focus from the old system of just training the muscular and oxygen systems to also training the more subtle nervous system – and with great results. It’s unbelievable how well the body learns to reposition and regenerate.
Yoga for athletes, to be clear, is not athletic yoga, but rather, a body awareness building practice that requires patience, preparation, and even propping for out of balance athlete bodies to reap the widespread benefits without risking injury to overly tight or weak areas. Here are some key tenets of a yoga for athletes approach:
COMPETE ON THE FIELD, NOT THE MAT
When I work with athletes, this is my front and center mantra. Fierce competitive “warrior” spirit in the game is expected but that needs to be left in the locker room during a yoga practice. I implore athletes to not look around the room and get competitive with others; factors like limb length, general flexibility, fascia and soft tissue health, and pose familiarity all factor into the practice. Instead of focusing on others, yoga invites athletes to focus on the nuances of proper technique that in turn fosters greater body awareness and self-study through what is a really phenomenal biofeedback tool.
CONSISTENCY NOT INTENSITY
For real and lasting benefit, athletes need to do yoga at least a few times a week. These can be shorter sessions, like 10 to 15 minutes several times a week (really!), with one longer session (up to 45 minutes or more, up to 1.5 hours is recommended) for deep recovery and lasting benefit. Additionally, yoga should be periodized with the sport season – active, more challenging strengthening focus in the off-season with more restorative and recovery objective in-season.
DYNAMIC & STATIC
To gain maximal lengthening of the muscles when stretching, prevailing wisdom promotes first warming the muscles with dynamic movement. Then, once warm, muscle physiology research supports holding a stretch for up to one minute. In yoga, this is where a (slow and mindful) vinyasa yoga practice is beneficial, with warming rounds of sun salutation as a dynamic yogic warm-up, then settling into longer held poses that focus on key areas like the hamstrings, quads, psoas, thoracic spine, shoulders, etc.
REINFORCING FUNCTIONAL MOVEMENT
Yoga for athletes reinforces proper functional movement, which begins and ends at the spine. Yoga postures emphasize spinal alignment and elongation while reinforcing functional movement patterns like hip hinge, grounded feet, head as extension of the spine, etc., — asking the spine to operate as a single column with no local flexion or extension within it. Therefore, flexion and extension should mainly happen at the hip or the shoulders, and alignment yoga (usually with props, per below) keeps the hips and shoulders mobile, aligned and strong.
In general, yoga for athletes fosters flexibility and mobility to improve power and force, without hindering strength and speed. Specifically, yoga counters spinal malalignment, promoting thoracic spine mobility, activating shoulder integration, and encouraging a neutral lumbar spine to maximize force production from the legs. Additionally, to maintain postural alignment in the yoga practice, we use the strength in the body to keep muscles engaged while they are being stretched. When athletes hold standing yoga poses – like the standing pose warrior 2 as just one example (that’s it in the first picture in this blog) – isometric muscle strength increases even as the muscles in the legs elongate.
FINE MOTOR SKILLS & PROPRIOCEPTION
While the body moves as one functional unit, yoga helps us isolate key muscle groups for deeper awareness and connection. Nuanced movement in yoga postures as well as connection through the feet and the hands (both considered “the brain of the pose” when touching the mat) promotes fine motor skills necessary in many sports. Also, yoga optimizes proprioception, fostered in basic or more challenging poses, helping athletes locate the subtle, obscure, or unfamiliar building blocks of their bodies. It’s powerful for an athlete to have an awareness of the many pieces, as well as the skill to mobilize them at will.
BALANCED BODIES, USE OF PROPS
Sports involve repetitive actions, creating asymmetry in the body side to side, top to bottom, and front to back, strengthening certain muscles at the expense of others. That’s a perfect recipe for injury. Yoga for athletes focuses on stretching what is short and tight, and strengthen what is long and weak. Use of yoga props like blocks and belts allow athletes to move with attention, finding precision and structural alignment and safety, modifying a yoga pose when one side of the body may be tighter than the other. Yoga props are like technology – their use is often times required for quality impact, only enhancing the result. Props or pose variations/ modifications do not make poses easier, they make things more accessible! Practitioners are remiss to not take advantage of these tools for the most efficient and effective results. With injured athletes, the hope is to not lose too much training and competing time, so once cleared by the doctor, the right, modified yoga and breathing routine – based on the diagnosis – can keep the body and mind stay energized, alert and calm to promote healing.
Athletic performance, like breathing, is as much mental as it is physical. Yoga for athletes focuses on using the breath to balance energy, as well as revealing how the mental state affects the body. When the mind is agitated, breathing is rapid and shallow; conversely when calm and focused, breathing is even and steady. Many times, athletes hold their breath to push through pain or a tough play, which actually tightens the muscles. That’s when athletes tend to choke or underperform. Simple yogic breathing principles – of which there are many – learned on the mat are applied in sport to make or break athletic performance.
SELF REGULATION VS RELAXATION
Athletes know how to push it hard, to the limits. Accelerate, push, drive, excel, repeat. Then recover after. Yoga teaches athletes how to maintain composure under pressure through disciplined – and learned — regulation of the nervous system. This is done by combining all elements discussed above – resulting in the desired effect of enhanced focus, concentration and honed skill while harnessing optimal energy, power and potential.