I teach two yoga classes a week that are called “Yoga for Athletes”, and because of this, I get asked a lot why I think yoga is good for athletes. As an ex- competitive marathon Runner and Triathlete, I can tell you first hand why I started practicing yoga and how it has helped me to be a better athlete. I wish I had started yoga when I was racing, but it wasn’t until I started getting seriously injured during training eight years ago that I really made it a priority. Not only did yoga heal my body, but it gave me a connection to my body through my mind and spirit as well. It is truly a healing practice. I honestly believe in what I teach to all of my students, but as for all of the Athletes out there who want to know….Here is my list of the top five ways that yoga can make you a better athlete.
Top 5 Ways Yoga Can Help Athletes
1) Injury Prevention - Athletes put a lot of stress on their bodies while participating in most sports through their training. Repetitive overuse of specific muscles will cause imbalances in the body, which in turn causes athletes to favor certain muscle groups during movements. Tighter muscles can cause tension and a pulling of the ligaments and joints. If a runners’ quadriceps are tight, then the knee joint is not going to move correctly and they might start to have knee pain. Or if the hamstrings are tight, the low back and sciatic may start to have pain. Muscle tightness also puts an athlete at a greater risk of tearing due to the muscle’s resistance. If an athlete concentrates on having more pliability and flexibility in the muscles they can help to prevent injuries. Yoga is designed to work the muscles around the joints for stability as well as to gain full mobility and rotation in the joints. This makes the athlete’s body more fluid and balanced with their movement.
2) Increase Performance – I truly believe yoga will make you a better athlete because better flexibility and range of motion translates to increased performance in athletes. For example, if a swimmer has more flexibility in the muscles surrounding the shoulder, they will have a longer, more efficient and powerful stroke, and a more complete shoulder rotation. When the body is able to move freely and efficiently, we develop a keen sense of body awareness, which in some athletes is almost like a sixth sense of how they move their bodies in their specific sport without even thinking about it.
3) Balance – I read an article one time that stated “Yoga is designed to alleviate the law of compensation”. The law of compensation states that “our bodies will default to the path of least resistance when unconscious in our activity”. In this case, the least resistance is the most flexible and often weakest area in our bodies. Yoga allows us to see the imbalances in our bodies and where we have been compensating. When we can align our body and stack our bones, we discover our strengths and weaknesses. When we practice a standing balance pose on one leg at a time, we isolate certain muscles and challenge the body to move into a deeper engagement with that muscle so that we can stabilize the body.
4) Core Strength – “Core” does not mean having a rock hard six pack. The core is made up of the abdominals, the muscles in the back and the pelvic muscles. Having a strong core helps to stabilize the spine, which in turn helps to keep the body balanced. When muscles in these areas are healthy and strong, they can help prevent injury in other areas of the body. Yoga not only addresses the physical body, but also the subtle energy body. A strong core in the subtle body system relates to our self-esteem, will power and drive.
5) Breath Awareness – I think that one of the biggest benefits of yoga is its focus on the breath. When teaching, I instruct students in my yoga class to become aware of the quality and length of their breath. This attention of the breath leads to efficiency and effectiveness of breath. It also allows us to gauge when we are active or relaxed, so we can accurately manage our own nervous systems and bring them back to balance in any situation. If we are in a challenging asana (posture) and our breathing becomes short and shallow, we learn that we need to back off, or slow down so that our breath can become long and smooth. This attention to breath also allows us to strengthen the diaphragm and expand our lung tissue to its full capacity. When we breathe at full capacity, we increase the amount of oxygen that feeds the body and the muscles which also aids in increasing our endurance. So if a runner is in a race and their breathing becomes shallow and short, they know they are not going to be able to hold that pace for very long, but if they can slow down the pace of their movement AND their breath they will find the pace that they can hold for a longer period of time and have more endurance.
These are my top 5 Reasons why Yoga will make you a better athlete, but of course I think there are MANY more reasons why Yoga is good for athletes. A few of them are mental focus (forcing ourselves to be present in the moment), Stress relief (yoga teaches us to calm our mind and nervous system) and Recovery time (both from injuries and from daily stress put on the body during training).
My Yoga for Athletes class focuses on postures that target the hips, hamstrings, glutes, and core, and always focuses on connecting our breath with our movements. Ironically, these classes are not just for Athletes, but are for EVERY BODY, because don’t we all want to have balance and strength as we move through our every day lives? You don’t have to be an athlete to receive these benefits, but my “dharma”, my life’s purpose, is to teach others what I have learned from my education and from my teachers. I am always grateful that I am able to share MY practice with others.