By Gillian Mandich, MSC, PhD(c), RYT (@gillianmandich)
Yoga is about so much more than striking a pose. In fact, incorporating yoga into an athletic training regimen can help build muscle, boost power, and prevent injury. More and more athletes (including NFL players, ultramarathon runners, and Olympic medalists) are discovering the myriad of ways that yoga can enhance athletic performance.
There are a variety of types of yoga that can complement any training program and every body; saying you can’t do yoga because you aren’t flexible is just like saying you are too dirty to take a shower. No matter what your level of flexibility or athleticism is, there are a variety of styles of yoga, ranging from athletic and intense to meditative and relaxing, to suit every need.
Hailed as America’s top personal trainer by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and author of the New York Times Bestseller Beyond Training, Ben Greenfield says there are many benefits to athletes engaging in yoga: “It can be a very helpful training method for sports. More and more athletes nowadays are turning to yoga to help improve their performance. Whatever type of sports you are into, you can be sure that yoga can help you up your game.” In fact, a recent study conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that yoga lowered athletes’ resting heart rates; increased oxygen intake, functional strength, and flexibility; and improved focus and concentration.
Benefits of Yoga
Yoga is a powerful biofeedback tool that can help athletes respect the strengths and limitations of the body as well as develop better body awareness. Depending on the sport, athletes can endure a lot of stress on their bodies from contact and training, favour certain muscles creating imbalances, and suffer from repetitive overuse injuries. Because yoga engages the muscles that surround joints, it can help to increase joint stability, improve mobility, and enhance the fluidity of movement.
Markers of athletic prowess such as power, strength, and speed are directly correlated to proper body mechanics: when the body is properly aligned it can transmit force more efficiently and overall performance is enhanced. Yoga can help promote proper alignment in the body, which will lead to an improved range of motion, greater muscle recruitment, more efficient movements, and increased power output — which can help athletes reduce power leakage in their deadlifts and squats, improve gait and efficiency, and help enhance the explosiveness of certain movements such as punching, jumping, or throwing.
Yoga also promotes body awareness by engaging stabilizing muscles and isolating parts of the body (such as doing a pose standing on one leg). It builds balance, stability, and proprioception, which can make training more effective. Jill Miller, creator of Yoga Tune Up® and author of The Roll Model says, “The self-awareness you gain is never just on a physical level. The way you hold yourself in life is the way you end up holding yourself in your sport.”
Yoga teaches athletes mental focus, how to observe the mind and its patterns, and imparts skills athletes can use to remove obstacles that may otherwise hold them back if they weren’t conscious of them. In addition, Miller describes, “the mental training involved in yoga practices chisels the athlete’s mind while it reconstructs their optimal body. It accelerates an athlete’s ability to concentrate and stay focused on their performance goals both in the context of one-time play and ‘playing’ for longevity.” The mental component of yoga can also be beneficial for stress relief. Training and competing can increase stress, and yoga can help athletes calm down. “Yoga is a relaxing activity, and actually slows down your body’s ‘fight-and-flight’ reactions, also known as your sympathetic nervous system,” Greenfield explains.
Finally, one of the biggest benefits of yoga is its focus on the breath. It allows athletes to learn to manage their nervous systems by gauging when they are active or relaxed, strengthens the diaphragm, expands the lung tissue to its full capacity, and increases the amount of oxygen that feeds the body and its muscles.
What Type is Best?
There is no doubt that any athlete may benefit from incorporating yoga into his or her training regimen. Just like you brush your teeth for oral health, “you need to brush and floss the inside of your body for the hygiene of our tissues; you need to respect your connective tissue,” describes Miller. Whether full yoga classes become part of your regular training routine, or a few yoga poses are simply integrated into an existing fitness program, athletes of all levels can incorporate yoga as an effective cross-training tool to improve performance, health, and peace of mind. No matter what type of yoga an athlete does, it is important that they listen to their body throughout the yoga practice. And because there is a variety of styles of yoga out there, testing out a few classes to find the specific type that suits an athlete’s needs and complements their training schedule is recommended. Give it a try, and get down with downward dog (no spandex required)!