Five top yoga poses for athletes

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Photos Peter Bryant | www.shoot.kiwi

‘Begin anywhere’ is the quote hanging outside my yoga studio door as I write this month’s column. It is simple, practical advice (from music composer John Cage) and recognises that not knowing where to begin can prevent us from starting on a path that can lead to great things.

If you have done little or no yoga before, just getting started can be a bit confusing. What poses should you try? In what order? And, how do you do them if you are just working by yourself, or from the pages of a magazine? So this month I am guiding you through my top five yoga poses for athletes, which is also an ideal starting off sequence if you are an athlete new to yoga.

This selection of poses will benefit any athlete, as they target key muscle groups that typically will need some stretching and care no matter what sport you do.
This sequence is most suitable as a post-workout routine, or as a light recovery session. Do them in the order below.

Supported Fish

Supported FishThe Pose: Supported fish pose is a passive, supported back bend that helps extend the upper body.
Benefits: Gentle extension of the spine. Opens the chest and shoulders. Extremely good counter-pose to balance the body from any forward/closed position such as cycling, rowing, swimming, running etc.
Prop needed: Ideally use a yoga bolster, as pictured. This is like a very firm and supportive pillow. To improvise you could use a stack of blankets or towels, folded about 30cm wide.
How to do it: Sit in front of your bolster with about a fist-distance between your hips and the bolster. Carefully lie yourself back along the bolster, resting your hips into the floor. Take your arms out beside you to any position that creates a gentle stretch across the chest – they could be just out from your body or anywhere up to reaching out over the head behind you. Breathe deeply as you relax into the pose.
Variation: To also stretch into the groin, bring the soles of the feet together, draw them closer to the hips and let the knees relax out to the sides.
Hold for: Three to five minutes typically, or as long as you like.

Downward Facing Dog

downward dogThe Pose: This iconic yoga pose is excellent for lengthening the entire back line of the body from the soles of the feet up to the neck.
Benefits: Opens the shoulders and chest, lengthens and decompresses the spine, stretches out the back of the legs. Builds strength.
How to do it: From hands and knees reach your hips back and reach your arms out long in front of you on the mat, shoulder distance apart. Spread your fingers and press the whole hand into the mat. Lift the hips up and back, to come into a pyramid shaped pose. Engage the quadriceps and take the thighs back. Lift the sit bones high and gently extend the heels towards the floor.
Note: The heels do not have to reach the floor (usually they don’t). Create space between the shoulders and ears, broadening the collar bones and sliding the shoulder blades down the back. Aim to maintain the natural curves of the back, creating a feeling a length through the spine (sometimes it helps to bend the knees and lift the heels a little to create that length in the spine).
Variation: If your hamstrings feel very tight, bend your knees.
Hold for: Thirty seconds to a minute. Rest and repeat as desired, building endurance over time.

Crescent Lunge

crescent_lungeThe Pose: A long-stance standing lunge.
Benefits: Opens front of body, particularly hip flexors. Strengthens the legs and stabilises the knees and ankles.
How to do it: From standing take a long step back with one leg and be on the ball of the back foot. Keep the pelvis square to the front. Bend into your front leg. Keep your front knee directly over the ankle. Be tall through the upper body. The more you lift your spine, shoulders and arms up and back, the more this will stretch the front of the body.
Variation: For a less intense pose, kneel on the back knee and/or have the hands on the hips.
Hold for: 30-60 seconds, then change sides.

Caterpillar pose

The Pose: Caterpillar pose is a very gentle seated forward bend. This variation of seated forward bend comes from the ‘yin’ style of yoga, which is a more gentle approach than others and softly releases the body’s non-contractile elements like the fascia and connective tissues.
Benefits: Gently releases muscles and connective tissue along the back line of the body including calves, hamstrings, hips, pelvis, back and spine.
How to do it: With very little effort! Do not contract your muscles to force a stretch. Let the legs relax and simply fold forwards, relaxing the spine. The breath should be long and soft.
Variation: You want to feel relaxed and supported in caterpillar pose. Consider placing a bolster (or two) or other support on top of or between your legs (as pictured) so the front of the body is supported.
Hold for: Three to five minutes. Start out with a shorter hold, gradually holding for longer as you practice more.

Legs Up The Wall

legs_up_wallThe Pose: Very straightforward – just as the name suggests.
Benefits: Excellent restorative pose for legs, aiding recovery and draining fluid. Settles the pelvis, hips and back. Mild stretch for the chest.
How to do it: Lie on your back near a wall, get in close with the hips, then take your legs up the wall. If your hamstrings are a bit tight, move out from the wall enough to comfortably extend your legs while still having your hips grounded on the floor.
Variations: Hips can be on the floor, or raised onto a bolster (more inversion). Place a weight such as a sandbag onto your feet to help settle your femurs into the hip sockets. Take your arms to any comfortable position, from resting on your belly, on the floor beside you or out over your head.
Hold for: As long as you like. This is a great restorative position you can remain in for several minutes.

Sarah MacDonald is New Zealand’s only certified Yoga for Athletes instructor.  She specialises in helping athletes maintain physical balance and mental focus. Sarah has worked with athletes of all levels, from school students through to some of New Zealand’s most elite athletes, including Olympians and worldchampions. www.balanceyoga.co.nz

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