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Yoga for Athletes

If you’re an athlete wondering whether yoga is relevant for you or why you should do yoga, you’re at the right place. Yoga is not just for 9-5 workers or those looking for their daily dose of exercise. Yoga for athletes is one of the most important practices that can be adapted. Interestingly, many professional athletes and sports persons practice yoga every day. From LeBron James and Aaron Rodgers, to Evelyn Stevens, yoga is a part of their daily routine. Many other NFL players have turned to yoga over the years and have experienced immense benefits. Some credit mandatory yoga instruction for getting the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl as well! 

Many athletes are prone to overexertion leaving their bodies exhausted. The main reasons for yoga for sportsmen to be so popular is the enhanced mental and physical benefits. It can help relieve stress, improve focus, relaxation and sleep quality, as well as improve overall health and well-being. Yoga practices improve flexibility, build resilience and concentration required on the field as well as improve mental balance. 

Benefits of Yoga for Athletes 

While yoga improves overall performance, it has a great impact on balance and flexibility. As a recovery practice too, it is extremely useful, as it aids in relaxation, better sleep, soothing muscles and preventing wear and tear. It also keeps stress at bay which is helpful when on the field. Let’s look at some of the benefits of yoga for sportsmen. 

Improves range of motion

With regular workouts, range of motion can be limited due to the way your body is constantly stimulated during a workout. So while your body will be great at one particular motion (say you are running, cycling or weight lifting), the repetitive movements mean that some of your muscles and tendons are getting stronger yet also tighter, while others may be slightly forgotten, getting weaker and possibly shorter too. Eventually, the tightness might reach a point where it starts limiting your range of motion. This leads to limited mobility which can affect your movement technique and increase your risk of injury. On the other hand, yoga engages all the muscle groups in alternating patterns. Thus, when you practice yoga stretches for athletes it will work on all the muscles in the body, bringing back the required stimulation, strength and balance. It strengthens your deep stabilizer muscles, improving your stability and posture, and of course it increases your flexibility and range of motion.

Yoga improves core strength

Having a strong core is integral to any physical practice. In yoga, many postures and movements work on the back, core and abdominal muscles - all of which contribute to building core strength. In many sports and training, there is an emphasis on the anterior chain (muscles on the front of your body) and on building up our pecs, abs, biceps and quads while somewhat neglecting the posterior chain. In yoga, all the muscles of the posterior chain are also activated. This improves strength in the back, neck and shoulder muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. 

Yoga improves balance, coordination and posture

Yoga restores balance and symmetry in your body, which is extremely useful while training. Better balance helps you hold yourself better while on the field. Furthermore, correct posture is the key to functional movement patterns, efficient strength training, and injury prevention. With regular yoga you can improve balance and alignment, both physically and mentally.  A 2016 study measured yoga’s effectiveness on performance in 26 male college athletes. Those who did yoga twice a week saw “significant” improvements in their balance and flexibility compared with those who didn’t.

Yoga is excellent for recovery

During training and games, the muscles go through a lot of wear and tear and even minor damage. Recovery is, thus, very important. A proper yoga practice regime will improve blood circulation, relax and rejuvenate the muscles and improve oxygen flow as well, ensuring healing happens faster. It’s also great for relieving stiffness and soreness. Research shows that people complementing their training with yoga suffer less muscle soreness than others. 

Yoga acts as a stamina booster

Breathwork practices are extremely helpful in improving stamina. They improve lung capacity and respiratory function, thus having a positive impact on stamina. This makes you less tired. Breathwork brings more oxygen to those hard-working muscles, boosting your endurance. Furthermore, this improves mindfulness (keeping you more positive and motivated), which also has a positive impact on stamina. In a 2017 review, researchers concluded that practicing mindfulness regularly led to improved performance in a number of athletes. Afterward, this mindfulness habit was shown to have positive effects on shooting and dart throwing. Another 2018 study examined the effects of hot yoga as a heat stress technique alternative for 10 field hockey players. They found that hot yoga improved cardiovascular performance and plasma volume percentage, which helps regulate temperature while you move.

Yoga keeps the mind steady and focused

Yoga practices like meditation and breathwork help focus the mind. This improves concentration on the field, thus improving performance. Breathing right when holding a yoga posture helps one stay steady and strong. This focus and strength eventually gets ingrained with you, and stays with you even on the field. 

How often should athletes do yoga 

Yoga for sports includes yoga stretches, postures, breathwork practices and even meditation. While it is recommended to do yoga 3-4 times a week to see steady progress, it is also important to follow a regime that compliments your existing training plan. Depending on your current routine, your trainer can develop an appropriate plan to include yoga. The key is to find what works for you and stick to that. Each person’s practice will be different. 

Yoga Stretches for Athletes

The best yoga poses for athletes include:

Downward facing dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana

This improves breathing patterns, airflow and respiratory health for football players, basketball players, runners, gymnasts, etc. Often considered an active resting pose, Adho Mukha Svanasana is a wonderful asana for stretching and strengthening the muscles. The asana also releases tight areas like the calves, hamstrings and shoulders, allowing you to stretch out your back as well. As an inversion, it improves blood circulation, invigorates the mind and releases stress. 

Downward facing dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana

How to practice Downward Facing Dog: 

  1. Come onto your fours. Form a table such that your back forms the table top and your hands and feet from the legs of the table.
  2. As you breath out, lift the hips up, straightening the knees and elbows. Your body will form an inverted V-shape. 
  3. Hands are shoulder width apart, feet are hip width apart and parallel to each other. Keep the toes pointed straight ahead.
  4. Press your hands into the ground. Widen through the shoulder blades. Keep the neck lengthened by touching the ears to the inner arms. 
  5. Hold the downward dog pose and take long deep breaths. Look towards the navel.
  6. Exhale. Bend the knees, return to table pose. Relax.

Cobra pose or Bhujangasana

An asana that’s great for runners, cyclists, football players and gymnasts, among others, cobra pose is great for lengthening and strengthening the back muscles. The cobra pose will lengthen the abdominal muscles and strengthen the erector spinae and muscles that balance your shoulder blades. Even the rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles will get a strengthening effect. This reduces the chances of lower back pain. 

Cobra pose or Bhujangasana

How to practice cobra pose: 

  • To practice cobra pose, lie facedown on your mat and bring your hands below your shoulders. 
  • Press the tops of your feet down into the mat and keep your elbows bent. Now press into your hands to lift your chest away from the floor. 
  • Use your back muscles to lift your chest as this will be better. 
  • Keep your elbows pulled towards your sides and avoid the shoulders from rounding. Shoulders should remain away from the ears. 
  • Stay here for a few breaths. Relax and breathe as deeply as possible.

Warrior II or Virabhadrasana 2

This asana works on the core, legs, back, shoulders and arms. It stretches out all these areas as well as provides a strengthening effect. 

Warrior II or Virabhadrasana 2

How to practice Warrior 2: 

  • Stand about 3 feet apart with your right foot facing forward while your left leg is straight behind you with your foot flat on the floor. The foot will be pointing outwards. 
  • Come into a lunging position with your torso facing forward for warrior one. 
  • Now raise your hands up and gaze forward. Make sure your front leg knee is in line with your foot and thigh is parallel to the floor. 
  • Engage the core, thigh muscles, abdominal muscles and take deep breaths. Keep the back straight, focus your attention on any stretch you are feeling in different parts of the body. 

Camel pose or Ustrasana

This is a backbend that has a wonderful effect on the spinal muscles and nerves, the thighs, hips and glutes. It also opens up the chest, improving respiration and breathing patterns. This is a great posture for swimmers, cyclists, golfers, tennis players, baseball players, etc. 

Camel pose or Ustrasana

How to practice camel pose:

  • Come onto your knees with your legs hip-width apart and hands on your hips.
  • Squeeze thighs together to rotate them inward. Slowly pull your tailbone toward your knees. Lift your sternum and draw elbows toward each other.
  • Squeeze your abs and then gently drop your hands to your heels one after the other.
  • Grab the heels with your hands to lift and open your chest. Drop your head back. Keep the neck relaxed.

Boat Pose or Naukasana

The boat pose engages the abdominal muscles, while improving stability and balance. There are many variations you can try to challenge yourself. This posture is perfect for any athlete or anyone trying to improve core strength.

Boat Pose or Naukasana

How to practice boat pose: 

  • Lie down on your mat. Inhale, and as you exhale lift your upper body and your legs up. 
  • Bring the legs straight up to a 45-degree angle. The torso will tend to fall back, but do not let the spine collapse. Keep your back straight. 
  • Stretch the arms in a straight line with your shoulders. 
  • Your body will be in a ‘V’ shape. 
  • Stay here for 5-10 breaths or as long as comfortable. Keep taking slow, deep breaths and engage your core. 

Cat-Cow pose or Marjariasana

This is a great asana for back pain and stiffness. It relieves tightness, improves back flexibility, and provides relief to stiffness and pain in the lower back. It’s also good to practice this during recovery. 

Cat-Cow pose or Marjariasana

How to practice Marjariasana: 

  • Come onto all fours with the palms directly under the shoulders and knees underneath your hips. Ensure your weight is equally distributed on all fours. 
  • Inhale and fill your abdomen with air as you let your belly drop towards the mat. There will be an arch in your back as you do this. Look up towards the ceiling and lengthen your neck and throat.
  • As you exhale, pull the naval towards the spine, curve your back and tuck your chin into your chest as you lift up. 
  • Continue this movement for a few breaths. Let your breath guide you through the movements. 
  • After a few rounds, release and come into child’s pose. 

Bridge Pose or Setu Bandhasana

Also a great asana for recovery, this posture is extremely helpful for the back and to improve respiration. It opens up the chest and lungs, and improves respiratory function. It is good for asthma, thyroid and digestion. 

Bridge Pose or Setu Bandhasana

How to practice Setu Bandhasana: 

  1. Lie down on the back and bend the legs. Place the heels on the mat in line with the knees.
  2. Extend the arms down alongside the body. Palms will be beside the feet. 
  3. Press into the feet, engage the core, and lift the hips.
  4. Pull the shoulders back, keeping the shoulder blades on the mat.
  5. Take a deep breath and lower back down slowly. 

Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose or Viparita Karani

This is a wonderful restorative posture that replenishes energy levels while boosting circulation and allowing for relaxation. It enables blood flow back up from the legs and relieves leg pain and tightness. You can also place a cushion or folded blanket under your head or hips.

Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose or Viparita Karani

How to practice Viparita Karani: 

  1. Sit with your right side next to the wall.
  2. Lie back as you swing your legs up against the wall.
  3. Place your hips right against the wall or a few inches away.
  4. Place your hands alongside your body or overhead.
  5. Relax in this position for as long as comfortable. 

Breathing practices or Pranayama

Breathwork, as discussed above, improves lung health, respiratory function and cardiovascular function. It relaxes the mind and body, improves oxygen supply, releases toxins and imbalances. It also improves mindfulness which goes a long way in helping athletes on the field. Practices like full yogic breathing, where one breathes completely into the abdomen, chest and clavicle, have a strong impact on improving stamina and breathing capacity. Abdominal breathing, where one focuses purely on breathing fully into the abdomen and expanding the abdomen as you breathe in, not only improves how you breathe but also improves core strength. Alternate nostril breathing or Nadi Shodhana pranayama, helps balance the left and right side, releases blockages in the nadis (energy channels), improves the flow of blood and oxygen and induces a sense of calm and peace. 

Meditation for focus

Focus and concentration are challenging, yet crucial for athletes. It’s important to focus on the game irrespective of the cheers or jibes from spectators. Losing focus for even a split second can cost you the win. Meditation is one of the best practices that can be adapted to improve this focus and concentration. It helps withdraw from the external, quieten the distractions and focus on what’s important. It will also still the mind, keep you motivated and relaxed even during stressful moments. 

Conclusion 

Yoga may not be the first thought that comes to mind, but its benefits for athletes are multifold. Practice with experienced teachers to get a personalized, all-round plan that includes everything you need to improve your performance as well as recovery. If you’re pressed for time, even a few hours a week will work wonders for you. 

Author
Yoga for Athletes
Shvasa Editorial Team

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