Yoga for Athletes – How Yoga Can Help You Increase Your Performance

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Yoga has become a valuable asset to various types of athletes, from hobby runners and local league players to Olympic athletes.

So when did yoga enter the world of professional and amateur sports? Better yet, does incorporating yoga into athletic training have any merit?

Short History of Yoga: From Sacred Texts to Killer Workout

indian man looking at the sea in india
Short History of Yoga: From Sacred Texts to Killer Workout

Since the conception of yoga, it has experienced many changes. This includes the essence of the practice, but it also includes the public image of yoga.

At the very beginning, yoga was a spiritual practice reserved for the Vedic priests and mystic seers. It was a practice of stillness and contemplation, a humbling search of meaning.

Somewhere along the line, it gradually evolved into the healing practice that vaguely resembles modern yoga. In addition to breathing techniques and meditation, yoga recognised the benefits of physical movement.

Even as the practice formed to include a variety of carefully crafted asanas, yoga remained a pretty exclusive discipline. Well into the 20th century, yoga was dominated by male teachers and practitioners.

In fact, for many years, yoga purists argued against the inclusion of women, and when female students were finally made privy to the practice, they were segregated from male students.

Which can be hard to believe, considering the current image of yoga. Nowadays, yoga practice is most often associated with activewear-laden women showing off feats of flexibility bordering on contortion.

However, yoga remains an ever changing practice. In recent years, people finally started to realize that yoga comes with a myriad of mental and physical benefits, prompting more demographics to show interest in this ancient practice.

In the same way as it infiltrated the corporate spaces, yoga found its way to the world of sports. Following suit of professional runners, cyclists, basketball players, swimmers, and rock climbers, amateur athletes saw the value of adding yoga to their training regimen.

Why is Yoga Important for Athletes?

julesyogi in high crow on fingertips black background and white carpet
Why is Yoga Important for Athletes?

Yoga is such a versatile discipline, it can be used to target all major muscle groups, as well as the body’s support systems, such as stabilizers and various connective tissues.

Athletes can use yoga to their advantage in 4 main ways:

Cross-training

In essence, cross-training is an exercise that differs from your main sport yet complements your training.

For instance, runners may pick an activity that focuses on lower body strength, hip and ankle mobility, coordination and endurance.

A rock climber may choose an exercise (or exercises) that strengthen their grip, improve their power endurance, or engage the muscles involved in a pulling motion.

Thanks to its versatility, yoga has the ability to complement various types of training, whether you are looking for strength, flexibility, balance, or endurance.

Opposition Training

In contrast to complementary training, opposition training is designed to train muscles in the opposing direction. This could include stretching the muscles that usually contract, or using the same muscles in the opposite direction.

For example, a rowing athlete typically performs a large amount of pulling motions using their shoulders and chest. One of the aspects of their opposition training would include pushing, e.g. through push-ups or boxing.

Once again, this is an area where yoga can be very helpful. It features many static and dynamic pose variations that engage specific muscle groups in the way that your primary sport does not.

Injury Prevention and Recovery

Another stellar benefit of yoga for athletes relates to long-term performance.

Because no matter how hard you’ve worked, an injury can take you out of the game for a while, which has a knock-on effect on the overall trajectory of your training or professional sports career.

Yoga can act as a tool both for injury prevention and a faster, smoother recovery once the injury happens. Many physiotherapy programs include elements of yoga specifically designed for that sport and tailored to individual athletes.

Increasing muscle elasticity and strengthening the ligaments can go a long way when it comes to increasing the margin of error, which leads to decreasing the severity of potential injuries, or avoiding them altogether.

In the event when an athlete suffers an injury, a carefully crafted yoga routine can help them reach the state of recovery quicker and more efficiently.

Please note that such recovery process should be approved by your treating physician when they deem it safe for you to practice.

If the injury has a long-term impact on your performance, yoga can also be the way to manage the area affected by the injury. In this case, yoga essentially acts as a supplement for as long as you engage in that particular physical activity.

Other Benefits of Yoga for Athletes

In addition to the physical advantages of yoga, athletes can enjoy the effects of yoga on one’s mental game.

At the end of the day, every athlete understands that mind plays an important role in training and overall performance. Sometimes, our mind gives up before the body does.

Yoga can be helpful in facilitating the commitment required by your sport in a variety of ways:

  • Sharper focus. This aspect is especially important for sports that require strategy and ability to make split-second decisions.

  • Mental endurance. Athletic ability requires an investment of effort. Yoga can help you hone the mental endurance required in training and competition.

  • Perseverance. Whether you do sports as a hobby or professionally, it requires serious commitment even when things don’t go as planned. Especially when things don’t go as planned!

  • Stress relief. Yoga reduces the levels of cortisol in the body, also known as the stress hormone. Combined with endorphins from your chosen sports, it is a powerful tool for stress relief.

  • Self-confidence. Yoga is not a performance-based activity. It celebrates movement and stillness, intensity and relaxation… It can help athletes rediscover their body and its abilities, boosting their confidence.

  • Sense of coordination. The vast majority of sports, from running or swimming to martial arts and skiing, are practically impossible without spatial awareness and coordination. Yoga is well-known for improving both.

  • Breath control. There is a reason why in yoga, breathing is synonymous with prana, or vital life energy, is because breath is essential in everything we do. In sports, breath control is key for providing enough oxygen to the body while maintaining a safe heart rate.

  • Rest and recuperation. Yoga can be a source of tension relief, restoration and relaxation for many athletes, in addition to other enhancements it offers.

Is yoga for athletes really yoga?

couple in high lunge doing yoga after running
Is yoga for athletes really yoga?

Yoga for athletes is usually modified to benefits practitioners of a specific sport. There is often more emphasis on the physical asana practice as opposed to the spiritual aspect of yoga.

Furthermore, it is not uncommon to come across elements of other disciplines in this type of practice.

This led to some practitioners questioning the validity of yoga for athletes and modern yoga as a whole. After all, yoga for athletes tends to be somewhat removed from traditional yoga practice.

The counter argument to that is the historical evidence that change and evolution is a natural part of the yoga practice. As it spreads and develops, it may branch into various types of practice, as witnessed with Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar Yoga, Yin, Kundalini, and more.

And instead of attempting to confine the practice, shouldn’t we be happy to see elements of yoga being adapted for a wider selection of demographics?

I always like to say – “Movement without breath is just movement. Movement with breath is Yoga.”

How can yoga help different athletes?

group of athletic yogis sweating holding back foot
How can yoga help different athletes?

Even engaging in a rounded, all-purpose yoga practice would bring great benefits to any athlete, you could achieve much more with a specialized practice tailored to your chosen sport.

Runners

people running in the morning sun
Runners

Running is a popular sport among professional athletes and hobby runners alike. It is one of the most accessible types of physical activity, requiring very little equipment and not ties to a specific location.

Furthermore, running is an element of many compound sports, such as soccer, basketball, tennis, rugby, field hockey, and more.

Running affects the following muscle groups:

  • Glutes

  • Hip flexors

  • Quadriceps

  • Pelvic floor

  • Hamstrings

  • Calves

Naturally, if you’re a runner who wants to add yoga to their routine, it’s a good idea to find a practice that targets the relevant areas.

Yoga for runners should include strengthening standing poses and balance postures, as well as gentle backbends to strengthen the glutes and stretch the hip flexors.

To improve hip mobility, runners should practice a variety of strength and flexibility-focused poses that involve rotation, forward bends, and anti-gravity lifts.

Top-5 Yoga Poses for Runners

Cyclists

cyclist man wearing helmet smiling
Cyclists

Cycling is often used as a cross-training activity for running due to the fact that there is a large overlap in the major muscle groups and connective tissues used in both sports.

You do not have to be a professional cyclist to feel the benefits of incorporating yoga into your training. In fact, even if you cycle out of necessity (e.g. for commute or for work) you would definitely benefit from some stretching and strengthening that yoga provides.

Cycling affects the following muscle groups:

  • Quadriceps

  • Hamstrings

  • Calves

  • Glutes

In addition to the muscles in the lower body, cycling engages the IT band, a cluster of connective tissue alongside your hips that connects it to the knees on each side.

Taking care of your IT band is extremely important if you’re a cyclist, since it is a sport with a lot of repetitive motion, which can cause inflammation and knee pain.

Similar to running, yoga for cyclists would include a lot of poses focused on strength and mobility of the lower body.

Professional cyclist and Olympian athlete Taylor Phinney practices yoga on a regular basis to supplement his training.

Top-5 Yoga Poses for Cyclists

Rock Climbers

woman climbing steep rocky wall above the sea
Rock Climbers

Rock climbing comes in different forms and levels of intensity. Whether you spend your days hanging off the side of a cliff or getting covered in chalk in a bouldering gym, you could benefit from adding yoga to your training.

Arguably, rock climbers were some of the first athletes to realize that yoga could help take their ability to the next level.

Rock climbing affects the following muscle groups:

  • Hip flexors

  • Core muscles

  • Back muscles

  • Pectoral muscles

  • Forearm muscles

A lot of rock climbing effort is concentrated in the upper body, however legs and hips play an important role, especially when it comes to vertical angles or dynamic moves.

Furthermore, yoga can help climbers to relax their wrists, stretch their fingers, and let the feet recover from tight climbing shoes.

Many indoor rock climbing venues offer on-site yoga classes that help climbers get stronger and more balanced, as well as providing the opportunity to stretch and release tension after an intense session in the gym.

Professional climbers don’t shy away from yoga either. Competitive climbers, including Adam Ondra, Alex Megos, and Shauna Coxsey are all known to incorporate yoga into their training for its physical and mental benefits.

Top-5 yoga poses for rock climbers

Basketball Players

two men battling over basketball in the air
Basketball Players

A popular team game across North America, basketball can be as much a fun hobby as it can be a career opportunity for many high school and college athletes.

Basketball is a game that requires not only physical prowess, but also agility, strategy, coordination and temporal awareness.

Basketball affects the following muscle groups:

  • Triceps

  • Forearm muscles

  • Core muscles

  • Hamstrings

  • Calves

  • Quadriceps

There is a reason why great players like LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal advocate for yoga practice to be included as part of the training regimen for basketball athletes.

As well as contributing to their physical fitness, it helps basketball players stay present and clear-headed, keep calm in stressful situations, and maintain a great attitude.

Top-5 Yoga Poses for Basketball Players

Other Sports

Team sports

side view of men rowing in a canoe
Team sports

Athletes who play football, baseball, rugby, soccer, lacrosse, or field hockey can definitely benefit from yoga for runners, since it is featured heavily in the aforementioned games.

Tennis

man about to serve in tennis
Tennis

In addition to running, tennis involves a lot of upper body power, agility, and coordination. There is a reason why top tennis players Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, and Andy Murray turn to yoga for assistance!

Circus ARTS

circus woman balancing in handstand splits sunset
Circus ARTS

Circus performance involves a huge amount of physical training behind the scenes, only for performers to appear weightless and effortless! From acrobats and aerialists to jugglers and contortionists, many circus professionals use yoga techniques in their training.

Weight Lifting

From Olympic powerlifters to gym enthusiasts, yoga makes a great tool for flexibility, tension relief, core strength, and recovery.

FAQs

How to incorporate yoga practice into your training plan?

It’s simple! Whether you’re working with a coach or using a preset training plan, it will be able to dictate when you should incorporate yoga into your schedule, as well as the kind of practice you should select.

For strength or flexibility training, select the more intense yoga classes. Your training plan will usually include one or two days a week dedicated to cross-training.

The more grounded, slow-paced yoga classes can be included on rest days, as well as on the days when you train your main sports discipline.

What type of yoga is best for athletes?

This will depend entirely on the goals you are trying to achieve. If you are looking for a relaxing, grounded session, you may prefer Yin or a modified restorative practice.

If you wish to work on your cardio and endurance, find a class like Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga, or Strala Yoga.

For a slow and steady strength class, consider taking Iyengar or Hatha Yoga.

Alternatively, look for classes tailored to your sport.

Do you want a custom-made yoga class to enhance your performances and speed-up your recovery? Get in touch with a professionally certified yoga teacher.

Where to find yoga classes for athletes?

If you’ve found yourself in search of yoga that would help you enhance your athletic performance, the best bet is a yoga class specifically designed for your chosen sport.

The most effective way to ensure yoga helps your body and mind are private lessons with a teacher specialising in your main sport.

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