Athletes all over the world are embracing yoga as a routine that compliments their athletic pursuits. The former World Cup German soccer team drew headlines recognizing their unique, yoga-infused training on their way to dominating on the world stage. The Seattle Seahawks, under head coach and yoga practitioner Pete Carroll, won a Super Bowl and became perennial contenders while adopting yoga as a daily routine for recovery and meditation. In all arenas and at all levels, yoga for athletes is catching on, helping yoga break out out of its stereotype.
As a physical practice, yoga helps stabilize muscle groups that are integral for more intense physical activities. As a philosophy, yoga presents the athlete with unique mental challenges that instill patience. These benefits, combined with the fact that the workout can be personalized with a seemingly infinite amount of different poses and techniques, means athletes can hone specific mental and physical skills that compliment their training.
Growing up I played the three major American sports--baseball, basketball, and football--from when I was first old enough through high school graduation. When I met my wife, after quitting my college baseball team because of a nagging knee injury, she introduced me to yoga and my philosophy for athletic training was flipped upside down.
My knee became stronger after only a week of balancing exercises, and after a month I felt healthier than I had in years. More confident making cuts and jumping off of my knee, I joined an intramural basketball team and was soon-after asking myself a question loaded with regrets. “Why hadn’t I learned about yoga for athletes sooner?!”
Traditional sports workouts most often include stretches that are rarely monitored for proper form, reps in the weight room, running up hills, laps around tracks, and individualized skill training that’s hardly ever followed up with any form of recovery. College athletes tend to see more advanced types of training, and pro teams are quite literally invested in developing and copying the most cutting-edge regimens.
Youth and high school teams, however, often end up copying techniques passed down from previous coaches, leaving the majority of us with a flawed idea of what it means to train. There are few practices with the cumulative benefits of yoga, and while its diversity promotes a litany of individualized benefits, I’ll break them down into a few categories that can hopefully give you a window to view the possibilities for improvement in your own pursuits.
1. Injury Prevention
When doing intense physical activity, major muscle groups give us power, but it’s the tendons and ligaments that surround the joints that optimize performance. Yoga for athletes can be unique to other exercises in that each pose requires not only a stretch and/or activation of a single muscle group, but proper form that ensures the individual activates and aligns the entire muscle, tendon, and bone structure.
The health of this chain of levers and sockets is the real, but often overlooked key to injury prevention, and can ensure a lower risk of injuries in the joints that experience the most stress in athletic pursuits: the knees, ankles, shoulders, and hips.
Flexibility and balancing poses, such as Half-Moon, Warrior III (or Airplane), Dancer, Chair, and even simple, anatomically correct bodyweight squats, are great for strengthening muscle and tendon chains in the lower body. Engagement of the core muscle groups and the glutes is necessary for balance, and steady breathing is required to intensify the poses.
These added benefits help ensure that when you do jump or sprint, you’ll be engaging your body in a way that distributes weight and energy more efficiently, which decreases the risk of overloading one joint or muscle as a precursor to a major injury. For upper body yoga training, planks, variations of Crow, Eight Angle Pose, and more advanced arm balances such as Firefly and Dragonfly, can provide the same type of stabilizing benefits for the shoulders, elbows, and back.
2. Mental Prowess
All great athletes have varying physical abilities, but they have one common attribute, their mental prowess. Coaches always compliment the best players with notes on their mental strength and awareness, and the greatest players in the world most often tell us they achieved because of mental preparation that led to execution.
By requiring synchronicity with the breath, and minute, gradual shifts in alignment, yoga poses require from the individual a deeper level of bodily awareness. In this mindset, by focusing on breath and stillness, athletes can reach a state of calm that compliments the intense activities most experience on the field.
Over time, yoga for athletes should become a habitual practice. For mental training, this requires leaving time for stillness and meditation after the more physical portion of the practice is over. Meditation has always been inextricably linked as an arm of yoga, but it’s often overlooked in modern styles that overemphasize breaking a sweat.
In Savasana, Child’s Pose, Lotus, and Reclined Butterfly, athletes can benefit from yoga by finding mental rest, “clearing the mechanism”, as the film For The Love of the Game puts it. In this state, athletes can find confidence, calm, and assurance, which translates well when in situations of intense pressure.
Like cars require maintenance, our bodies require tune-ups, and there’s no activity that serves as a more effective regular tune-up than consistent yoga for athletes. Over time, the stabilizer muscles are strengthened and lengthened, opening up a variety of poses and variations for the athlete yogi to explore.
Building on their foundational practice with healthy tendons and joints, athletes can continuously refine by targeting weaknesses for whole-body health. It’s important for practitioners to understand that yoga is not an activity that is finished when memorized, but a practice that evolves and continues to challenge us to obtain better mental and physical awareness. This means the best benefits often take time and patience.
As athletes age, their overlooked weaknesses often become their demise. Bad knees, chronic back pain, and catastrophic joint injuries have sidelined the best athletes in the world at times, and avoiding these hang-ups is often what ends up defining the best of the best. Working to combine all of the above-mentioned training methods for a whole-body yoga routine can culminate in a practice that serves the body and mind as you age.
By avoiding major injuries, targeting weaknesses, and improving cardiovascular health with breathing techniques, yoga for athletes gives individuals a chance to extend their careers, and participate with their children and grandchildren into the latter stages of life.
4. Awareness Off the Field
All healthy individuals perform athletic movements, whether you subscribe to the idea or not. You walk up and down stairs. You squat to pick things up. You kneel to play with your kids. The list of daily movements could go on and on, and it’s different for each of us.
When alignment is off, harmful movements can become habits, leading to chronic pain in the joints that are so integral to healthy movement. Unfortunately, most people treat these injuries with braces, crutches, and eventually surgery, when a simple postural issue could have been the root cause.
By engaging in a yoga practice, the athlete and non-athlete alike can increase bodily awareness in all aspects of their life, staying on top of any postural problems that arise within their daily regimen of activities. The ability to mentally maintain the yoga practice throughout the day often becomes a goal for advanced yogis who begin to understand through experience the holistic benefits of their practice.
By paying close attention to every movement and reinforcing proper form, all daily rituals and requirements can be infused with a sense of positivity, improving mental and physical health alike. Overall, yoga for athletes presents technical challenges for improved performance as well as daily reassurance in whole-body health, making yoga a movement we should all embrace.
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Urban Fit Yoga posts relevant, inspiring, and nourishing tools to support you along your healing journey. We believe that the benefits of yoga can extend far off your mat and we want to help!