Yoga is becoming increasingly popular among athletes, but there is still an element of the unknown and some common misconceptions about it. So it’s time for some ‘yoga myth busting’.
Caution: reading this article might break down your reasons for not giving yoga a go yet. Are you ready to let go of the excuses?
Yoga myth #1:
You need to be flexible to be ‘good at yoga’
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say “I’d be no good at yoga – I’m soooo inflexible.” Newsflash: Being ‘good’ at yoga does not mean you need to be flexible.
Athletes are often not very flexible. This may include you, especially if you do a power sport or a sport with a lot of repetitive motion and muscle use. But having tight (strong) muscles is no reason to rule out yoga (quite the opposite) and it certainly doesn’t mean you will be ‘no good’ at it.
On the other end of the spectrum, maybe you are a gymnast and are super flexible already – you may find this throws up its own challenges when you try doing yoga. Can you ‘contain’ that flexibility to find good alignment?
Being ‘good’ at yoga is not simply about how long your muscle fibres are. As an athlete, the purpose of yoga is to create and maintain balance, and develop greater awareness. It is about the ability to tune in to your body, become aware of its patterns, habits, strength and weaknesses and then work to establish a better balance. This will include stretching, developing core strength, being able to find correct alignment and good form, and working on your mental game too.
Yoga is a path of both personal and physical development. It is about observation; not judgement or competition. So don’t let the ‘flexibility’ issue psych you out.
A physiotherapist working with elite level New Zealand athletes once expressed to me his hesitation about athletes practising yoga.
He was concerned that ‘all that stretching’ might make them ‘too flexible’. I asked him to consider what the athletes’ weekly training schedule included. He soon realised his concern was unfounded.
Yes, it’s true that being too flexible could make an athlete less stable and this could detract from optimal performance or result in injury. But incorporating some yoga into your training programme is not going to make you ‘too flexible’.
If you are an athlete, consider how much time each week you spend training – either performing or practising your sport, or doing cardio or weight training. This can add up to many hours (perhaps 20 or more hours for top level athletes) where you are actively working your muscles in ways that will make them tighter and/or creating imbalances with other relatively weak muscles.
Add to this the time you spend going about daily activities that tend to keep us all tight (anything seated, performing repetitive movements or not moving much at all).
It can be quite revealing to consider how many hours in a week will be spent doing things that are making your body tighter. Now consider adding in an hour or two a week of yoga. No matter what you do, the ‘tightening up’ hours will most likely exceed the ‘stretching out’ hours by a huge margin.
Yoga to complement athletic training is a great way to find ‘balance’. One or two (even three or four) yoga sessions a week will provide the opportunity to lengthen out tight muscles, maintain range of motion and prevent injury. When you consider the ‘tightening versus stretching’ balance, you’ll see the risk of becoming ‘too flexible’ is quite simply a myth. Busted.
Yoga myths #3 & 4:
Yoga is ‘too easy’ and yoga is ‘too hard’
I understand if this may appear contradictory – how are these both myths?
My response is that yoga is both simple and complex. It is both challenging for anybody, yet accessible to everybody.
Many people don’t recognise that yoga is much more complex than simply stretching. Yes, yoga is about stretching, and in terms of yoga for athletes we do focus strongly on stretching, to balance flexibility and stability throughout the body. We also work on core strength, coordination, breathing and more.
As much as yoga is a physical practice, it is also a mental practice. For athletes the relevant skills include the ability to shut out distractions and focus on the present moment and the task at hand, which can be challenging.
No responsible yoga teacher should ask athletes to push their bodies too far into inaccessible or unsafe poses (making it ‘too hard to do’). In yoga you find your own personal safe limit to work at and you progress from there, one breath at a time.
The hard part about yoga is facing up to what you find challenging – mentally and physically, and then finding an intelligent and safe way to meet that challenge.
Sometimes this will mean staying with a pose and working through discomfort, and other times it may mean accepting that you need to back away from trying to ‘attain’ a pose that your body is not ready for.
Finding this balance and developing a responsible approach to yoga can be a revealing process in itself – discovering where your boundaries are, learning to accept them, and explore what is possible for you.
Yoga can be tailored to meet each individual’s needs, and that is why you will find such an array of yoga styles and classes these days.
Whether you find yoga ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ depends on why, and how, you are doing it. Always remember the reason why you are doing yoga. This in itself should bring a sense of ease and a sense of challenge for each individual.