Yoga for Athletes

By Emily Laskowski – September 3, 2013

The inner cool associated with yoga does not, on the surface, seem to compliment the fiery power associated with competitive athletics. But combining these disciplines improves flexibility, increases focus, and prevents injury. Although the adage “leave it on the field” applies whether you’re a football player, swimmer, or marathon runner, actually following this mantra after a win or loss, against a competitor or yourself, can be a challenge.

Practitioners of yoga emphasize the importance of listening to your body each day, which is expressed as “meeting your body on the mat.” Amy Younkman, who teaches Yoga for Athletes at Austin Kula Yoga, explained that, “rather than muscling through a pose, you [have] to stop and pay attention to what your body is telling you it needs.” This sort of mind–body awareness could be just what athletes need to elevate their game after leaving an intense physical effort on the field.

Flexibility is sometimes the biggest improvement athletes can make in their game. Whereas movements in sports are repetitive (think: swing, reset, swing, reset), yoga is circular and continuous. As Younkman explained, “[T]he transitions are as important as the poses themselves.” Embracing this range of movement allows an athlete’s body to do more and, literally, reach higher, and that extra length and range of motion may be just what they need to get ahead of the field.

Routine practice of yoga also has additional benefits: Learning how to zone in on a regular basis makes psyching up for those important games much less of an energy-consuming effort, instead, tuning in becomes a natural part of preparation. That reflection also gives athletes a better understanding of what the body needs, which in turn allows for better physical care and maintenance , keeping athletes healthy and injury free.

Despite attempts to be mindful, injuries happen. They plague all athletes: young collegians, seasoned veterans, and Olympians at the top of their game. Whereas many athletes want to power through pain, yoga implores its students to leave the ego at the door. One of the most fulfilling transformations that Younkman has observed is the compassion that athletes develop for their own strengths and weaknesses. She has actually seen competitors accomplish more post-yoga because they are operating from a place of self-acceptance rather than from a place of fear and feeling inadequate.

Yoga brings balance to athletes, on and off the mat. So, what type of yoga is right for you? Here are a few of the many styles of yoga that are available. Take a look at the following to see what form best matches your athletic personality.

Vinyasa likes to keep things moving
This vigorous practice links breath and movement to create a continuous flow of postures.

Something out of whack means Iyengar
Runners in particular can benefit from this form of hatha yoga, which uses a variety of implements and one-on-one work with teachers, to provide correction to body alignment.

Sweat hogs soak up Bikram
This practice takes place in a heated room and consists of an unchanging sequence of postures, designed to rejuvenate and strengthen the entire body, from head to toe. The intense heats allows for greater flexibility.

Yin it for tight muscles
Poses are held for three to ten minutes while reclining in a relaxed state and are coupled with breathing and mindfulness concentration techniques (used for managing pain, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and fatigue).

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose) improve alignment and lessen imbalances such as IT band problems, plantar fasciitis, and tendinitis

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose) targets hips and hamstrings

Incorporate Sun Salutation in your warm-up to prime the the hips and hamstrings for flexibility work


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