Yoga is an ancient practice rooted in Indian philosophy. Originally observed as a method of attaining spiritual enlightenment, yoga is a combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation that aims to bring balance to the mind and body. Today, many misconceptions surround yoga, castigating it as a trendy fitness fad or isolating it to a mysterious practice held in incense-clouded rooms.
Sought by Americans for reasons ranging from stress and anxiety relief to easing physical conditions such as high blood pressure and stiff muscles, yoga’s popularity is growing.
While studies are ongoing, recent trials have examined yoga’s effects on back pain and reducing stress levels. Following a 24-week trial, researchers at West Virginia University found “that yoga decreases functional disability, pain, and depression in people with chronic low-back pain.”
For athletes accustomed to intense workouts and competitive atmospheres, including a regular yoga practice into their training can offer many benefits. Yoga for cross training helps prevent injuries, working parts of the body that may be overlooked in the regular fitness routine, and teaches stress-reduction techniques.
Yoga requires enormous technique and mental focus. The combination of breathwork, meditation, and postures is meant to bring clarity to the mind while developing strength and balance in the physical body. Athletes in particular can benefit from the relaxation techniques of yoga, developed through poses such as the corpse pose, which promotes relaxation and a clearing of the mind.
Though it may look easy, corpse pose requires a total release of your entire body. To enter the reclined pose, gently extend each leg, pushing the pelvis toward the tailbone. Allow your arms to fall beside your body, palms facing up. To center your spine, roll gently from side to side. Once comfortably in the pose, continue to breathe deeply, concentrating on your breath and quieting your mind. Part of the complexity of corpse pose comes from trying to relax all parts of the body: this includes calming restless eyeballs, softening the tongue, relaxing the forehead. After holding corpse pose for about five minutes, roll to your side and gently lift your body up, bringing your head up at the end.
A common yoga myth is that yoga is reserved for the supremely flexible. While one of the main benefits of a regular yoga practice is gaining flexibility, it is not a prerequisite. The practice of yoga is open to everyone, as long as you are working toward achieving personal growth and development. Each individual works at a different level and pace.
The stretching of yoga can help to open up the tight muscles of a runner, or the stiff shoulders of a tennis player. Even for the average person who may not run every day or play a major sport, stretching eases the aches associated with daily repetitive activities. Slouched posture at the computer and regular recreational golf are two examples of habitually poor repeated motions that eventually take a toll on the body.
Runners and cyclists tend to get tight hamstrings, and both activities can lead to injuries and overused, overdeveloped muscles. Effective poses involve opening up the hips and lengthening the hamstrings and calves.
Bound Angle Pose
From a seated position on the floor, bring the soles of your feet together in front of you. Your knees should remain wide apart. Keeping your back tall and straight, take a deep breath and inhale. On the exhale, lean forward, keeping the back flat. The goal is to focus on relaxing your neck and sinking deeply and comfortably into the pose, stretching your hips. If you can’t extend your face to your toes, only go as far as you feel comfortable.
Whether you’re a professional swimmer or swing dancing for fun twice a week, the key is balance. Most athletes face the challenge of muscular imbalance. If you are someone who only dances, for example, and does not engage in other physical activity, your dancing may cause more harm than good, placing excessive stress on the knees, hips, and ankles. To avoid the risk of overdeveloped areas, yoga offers a method of bringing balance to the whole body.
A regular yoga practice builds core strength and offers an additional form of resistance training for athletes. Upward plank pose, for example, provides the leg strength, hip flexibility, and agile arms required in kickboxing.
Upward Plank Pose
From a seated position, with your hands placed on the floor slightly behind your hips, place your feet on the floor, with heels about a foot from your buttocks. On the exhale, press feet and hands into the floor, raising hips so that the legs are straightened (a long, stretched position with torso and thighs roughly parallel to the floor). Shoulder blades should be pressing into your back, supporting your chest. The goal is to stretch and open the shoulders and chest while strengthening the triceps, wrists, and back.
From amateur to professional, the strain of sports can affect physical as well as mental health. Athletes who incorporate yoga techniques to increase flexibility, relieve chronic pain, and reduce stress will discover the benefits of yoga for improving their performance.