Athletes of any level can benefit from practising yoga. In fact, the more serious you are about your sport, the more seriously you should consider putting some yoga into your training programme.
Here are 10 reasons why any athlete should get on a mat.
1# Injury prevention
All injuries, chronic or acute, are the result of some form of imbalance. In athletes, repetitive use of specific muscle groups leads to them become stronger but also tighter, while other muscles are relatively weak, stretched and/or underemployed.
Over time such imbalances set athletes up for injury. Tight muscles start to pull joints out of alignment, placing unsustainable loads into vulnerable areas. Overly tight muscles also don’t have any additional range of motion to absorb the shock of sudden impacts or movements (such as tackles or lunges). Weaker muscles, not prepared to handle unexpected loads, can be strained and injured.
Yoga is an excellent tool for addressing these imbalances, developing strength/stability and range of motion/flexibility where it is needed to shore up muscle groups and joints, improving alignment and function, and reducing the likelihood of injury.
2# Body awareness
Yoga teaches athletes to tune in very closely to exactly what the body is doing and feeling at each moment. Improved body awareness has many benefits such as developing proprioceptive skills, moving more efficiently with greater coordination, becoming more aware of postural or movement ‘habits’ that may need correcting, and being more attuned to the body’s condition so you know when to ‘pull back’ to avoid injury.
3# Breath awareness
The role of breathing in sports performance can be so easily overlooked, yet is very powerful. Breathing fully and more efficiently, and coordinating movement and breath can all improve an athlete’s performance. Working with the breath is absolutely central to yoga – without continual focus on the breath yoga becomes little more than ‘stretching’.
Yoga teaches to use the breath in different ways for different needs, from remaining focused while under physical challenge, to learning to relax more deeply. But even just learning to be aware of how you breathe can be very beneficial in itself.
4# Core strength
Just about every sport requires a good deal of ‘core strength’; but not many of them actively work on developing that strength in a holistic way. Yoga places much emphasis on developing core strength and stability.
More than simply working with the superficial (outermost) abdominal muscles, yoga helps develop deep core strength that will help athletes drive power through their legs, improve their balance and also support the lower spine.
5# Improved range of motion (flexibility)
Improving flexibility is arguably the most well known benefit of yoga. From an athlete’s perspective this is not about simply pursuing ‘flexibility for flexibility’s sake’. Ensuring you maintain a good range of motion means you can perform more efficiently, keep the body in balance and reduce the chances of injury. Sports training inevitably leads to stronger, tighter muscles, and yoga offers a very effective way to keep this in check.
6# Whole body strength
Hand-in-hand with flexibility comes developing strength. Yoga offers an excellent system for developing holistic, fully body strength, using your own body weight as resistance.
Yoga poses are performed with great awareness and attention to form and alignment, and as such are highly effective for building balanced strength and stability through every muscle and joint.
Yoga develops ‘balance’ – in the broadest sense of the word. From a physical standpoint, balancing poses that require you to be on one leg, your knees, hands, forearms, shoulders, head or any combination of these develop your physical balance skills, which can directly benefit your sports performance.
More broadly, yoga balances the body and the mind through developing greater overall awareness and mindfulness.
8# Faster recovery
Recovery has a crucial role in a balanced training regime. Practising yoga can speed the body’s recovery times. Gentle ‘active recovery’ such as stretching, restorative poses, meditation or simply breathing are all valuable tools to help the athlete’s body recover more efficiently.
9# Mental focus
All physical factors being equal, in a sporting competition the difference between a top podium finish and ‘somewhere else’ often comes down to the mental focus and discipline of the competitor.
Yoga (being, as you have just read) is about a lot more than just stretching and teaches athletes to develop mental focus. Through yoga athletes can develop the ability to remain completely focused in the present moment and the task at hand, being at once both acutely aware of every movement of and sensation within the body, and also the state of play in the wider field.
10# Improved sporting performance
Ultimately, this is what it’s all about: Improved sporting performance. By helping athletes keeps injury-free, develop greater awaress of body, breath and movement, maintain a healthy balance of strength and flexibility within a well-aligned muscular-skeletal system, recover more efficiently, and develop excellent mental focus, yoga can take any athlete’s performance to a higher level, and help them to keep performing at that level for longer. Yoga really can be the ‘win-win’ answer that your training programme has been missing.
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 world champions. www.balanceyoga.co.nz