Yoga for Athletes

 

What do LeBron James, Lauren Fleshman, the Seattle Seahawks, and the New Zealand All Blacks have in common? Besides being professional athletes with recent championship-winning seasons, all four use their yoga practices to give them a competitive edge.

Athletes in a wide variety of sports are turning to yoga for physical, mental, and emotional support. This ancient practice has real, practical benefits for all modern athletes - from King James to P.E. students - and Yoga Ed. is here to help you experience them. Check out the benefits below, along with recommended poses to try during your own cross-training adventures.

Image via telegraph.co.uk

Image via telegraph.co.uk

Physical Benefits

Yoga has been shown to improve flexibility, strength, balance, endurance, circulation, and immunity.

Most athletes know that yoga can help your flexibility. But can’t “regular stretching” do the same thing? Not in the same way. Stretching is linear, usually focusing on one body part at a time. Yoga poses typically stretch multiple regions of the body at once, in multiple planes. That can be especially helpful for joints that move in many directions, such as the shoulders, elbows, wrists, ankles, and hips. By placing your body in its full range of motion, yoga is the perfect complement for dynamic activities like sports.

A member of the New Zealand All Blacks, Beauden Barrett, says he’s “been working on my flexibility. That's been vital for me. … I'm quite a stiff bloke, so extra [yoga] sessions here and there have certainly helped.”

Flexibility lets him maintain proper alignment and form during the bending, lifting, and twisting that rugby requires. Being more limber also helps him prevent injury from his highly physical, full-contact sport.

Try it yourself:

pidgeon 1.jpg

Pigeon

Pigeon is great for your hips, which get particularly tight in sports that involve a lot of running.

Instructions:

  1. Begin in Table Pose.

  2. Inhale, bring your right leg forward bending at the knee.

  3. Exhale, tuck your left toes under.

  4. Inhale, pressing evenly into your hands and lift your chest, drawing your shoulder blades together.

  5. Exhale, fold forward onto forearms or until the forehead is touching the ground.

  6. Breathe.

  7. Inhale, step back to Table Pose.

  8. Repeat on the other side.

thread the needle.jpg

Thread the Needle

Thread the Needle provides a release for tight shoulders.

Instructions:

  1. Begin in Table Pose.

  2. Spread your knees wide.

  3. Walk your right hand to the center of your mat.

  4. Inhale, reach your left arm into the air.

  5. Exhale, thread your left arm under your right armpit.

  6. Inhale, extend your right arm forward towards the front of your mat.

  7. Breathe.

  8. When you are ready, walk your right hand back towards your head bend your elbow and come up to Table Pose.

  9. Repeat on the other side.

 

Mental Benefits

Jason Battung is a Yoga Ed. trainer. At his high school in Los Angeles he teaches five classes of beginner's yoga, each class packed with nearly 40 students. “At first,” Jason reflects, “I wanted to teach yoga for high school athletes to help them maximize their physical potential, understand their mental patterns, and minimize frequency of injury.” Yet as his own practice and interests evolved, he began to see his role in a new light. Realizing yoga could support healthy physical, mental, and emotional development of all students, not just athletes, Jason identified “naturally occurring cross curricular connections and social-emotional lessons” that yoga can offer. “That is at the heart of what I do, and something I believe is the future of high school physical education,” says Jason.

LeBron James, a 3-time NBA champion, has been serious about yoga for more than a decade.

Yoga isn’t just about the body, it’s also about the mind, and it’s a technique that has really helped me.
— LeBron James
Image via cleveland.com

Image via cleveland.com

By building awareness of your body, breath, and thoughts, yoga brings everything together in a way that engages and energizes. "You do have to focus because there's some positions that can really hurt you at times if you aren't focused and breathing right,” James says.

As James alludes to, yoga requires a focus on the breath which can help train your mind to focus on just one thing at a time. This is often a challenge for busy athletes of all ages. This type of concentration can be crucial for game-winning shots or the many micro-decisions athletes need to make during competition.

Try it yourself:

Eagle

Balance poses, like Eagle, include setting your eyes to one point.

Instructions:

  1. Begin standing in Mountain Pose.

  2. Inhale, stand tall in your body.

  3. Exhale, bend your knees slightly as you step your right foot over your left leg. Place your right foot like a kickstand to the outside of the left foot.

  4. Inhale, reach your arms out to the side.

  5. Exhale, bring your right arm over your left arm. Bend your elbows as your palms press together. Raise your forearms.

  6. Breathe.

  7. When you are ready, unwind your arms and legs to return to Mountain Pose.

Seated Forward Fold

Seated forward fold is calming for your mind while also releasing your hamstrings.

Instructions:

  1. Begin in sitting on your mat with your legs extended straight ahead of you in Staff Pose.

  2. Inhale, reach your arms up to the sky.

  3. Exhale, extend your arms forward placing your hands to the outside of your legs.

  4. Breathe.

  5. When you are ready, inhale and come up to Staff Pose.

 

Emotional Benefits

Coach Pete Carroll knows that happy players are better players, so yoga and meditation are consistently on his football team’s agenda. The Seahawks originally had yoga as an optional activity during the 2012 season, and the players enjoyed it so much that it became a mandatory part of workouts in 2013. His players found a sense of ease in the practice that they could carry onto the field.

Image via jasyoga.com

Image via jasyoga.com

Lauren Fleshman, a two-time national outdoor 5000-meter champion, found yoga after she broke her foot in 2008. It helped her recover from injury, but the poses also gave her insight into how to stay persistent in the face of difficulty. "Enduring an intense pose is a lot like enduring a long run or tempo run," she says. “Yoga helps me control my emotions while I’m in discomfort on the road.”

Many endurance athletes say their sport is just as mental as it is physical, and this emotional awareness can help you stay in the game even when it’s hard.

 

Try it yourself:

Ocean Breath

Ocean breath can bring attention to your breath and your feelings. Inhale through your nose and make the sound of waves (“ahhhhh”) on your exhale.

Instructions:

  1. Inhale through your nose.

  2. Exhale, open your mouth “hahhh,” making the sound of an ocean wave.

Adding a regular yoga practice can benefit athletes of all ages. No matter your sport of choice - running, football, basketball, or even rugby - yoga has something to add to your performance. Jason Battung knows how versatile and effective yoga is for the high schoolers in his P.E. classes. Jason uses yoga to “challenge students, teach them to explore their edges, and help them understand their center both on and off the mat.” That’s something we can all use, on the court, on the field, and off the mat.


References

Paul, G. (2017, June 17). Lions tour 2017: yoga, pilates and not so many pies. Retrieved from https://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=11877741

Roenigk, A. (2013, August 21). Lotus pose on two. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/9581925/seattle-seahawks-use-unusual-techniques-practice-espn-magazine

Van Allen, J. (2012, December 14). How yoga can help your running. Retrieved from https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20806908/how-yoga-can-help-your-running/

Windhorst, B. (2009, March 24). LeBron's extra edge: Cavaliers star's devotion to yoga training helps keep James healthy. Retrieved from https://www.cleveland.com/cavs/2009/03/lebrons_extra_edge_cavaliers_s.html

 

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