Sports prepare you for life. They teach work ethic, how to win respectfully and how to lose with dignity and seek redemption. We like to work hard, physically compete and earn our victories.
Where I live, in Philadelphia, this is built into the fabric of the city. There is nothing Philly fans want more than to win. The professional athletes here thrive by practicing yoga regularly. As the yoga trainer for Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union and other athletes like David Buchanan, pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, I’m inspired to hear them rave about the benefits of yoga on their athletic performance.
The pros get it - yoga gives them an edge to succeed. If athletes at the highest level of competition are killing it with yoga, so could athletes of every level. Whether you’re competing in sports, or if you’re a recreational runner, rock-climber, cyclist, weight-lifter or cross-fitter, perform at your best with yoga.
Injury Prevention Through Yoga
I will never forget the moments in my wrestling career that I was unable to compete because I was injured. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to sit out because you’re hurt. Even if you decide to compete in pain, it could be downright dangerous and frustrating to step into the ring with a debilitating injury.
Athletes are especially prone to injury because they tend to be more strong than flexible and create more torque and strain on their joints. I often look at the injury-list before watching a professional game and shake my head because a lot of injuries are a result of immobility or lack of muscle-specific strength. Some injuries are unavoidable. However, many can be prevented with a steady yoga routine.
Yoga students develop flexibility and an acute attention to alignment, breath and pain-sensation. The basic poses are very powerful and therapeutic. If done intelligently, they strengthen and stretch the body in a way that promotes a keen awareness of pain and dangerous misalignment.
Be Fierce Without Losing Your Composure
A strong yoga practice demands that you challenge yourself and work harder than you ever thought you possibly could without running for the door screaming. Even after years of practice, there are still times at yoga where I’m sure I’m going to break down and throw in the towel. There’s a pivotal moment where I’m nearly certain I will never be able to make it through a class.
Much like working out or athletics, you have to contain that raw emotion and ferocity and use it as a tool to up your game. It is a powerful technique of bumping against your physical and mental edges repeatedly and in that moment, be at your best. Zac MacMath, the goalkeeper for the Philadelphia Union explained to me that yoga helps him when the game is on the line and it matters most. Through his yoga practice, he’s more relaxed and centered to make crucial saves and keep his team in the game!
Yoga Complements Cardio
Yoga is great for cardiovascular workouts and sports. It trains you to breathe more efficiently, and you’re asked to be aware of your breath at all times. This breathing technique demands that you consciously deepen your breath especially when you are struggling. So when you feel like you are winded and ready to break down, you’re able to finish your run or bike race strongly. Most cardio is running intensive. For sports like soccer, where players are running for 90 minutes straight with bursts of explosive sprints, a yoga routine that stretches the hamstrings, quads, IT bands and hips is a great way to facilitate mobility in the lower body.
A yoga regimen that includes down-dog, side-angle, triangle, pigeon, thigh-stretches, half-split, pyramid and twisted triangle would hit these key muscle groups - alleviate joint pain, and ease ware and tare on the knees, ankles and hips.
Yoga for Anaerobic, Technical Sports
For the technicians like weightlifters, baseball players and golfers, alignment and bio-mechanics are crucial. The day Phillies pitcher, David Buchanan came to my class, we talked for two hours about the mechanical skills he needs to deliver a killer fastball pitch. In his routine, we worked the hamstrings and hips in a way that helped him get more leverage in his delivery and explode off his planted foot.
For pitchers like David, working poses that stretch the hamstrings and hips without misaligning the knees are key to opening his body and improve his pitching technique. The poses are engineered to promote healthy alignment and target the areas that need to be opened and strengthened to perform optimally. In golf, it’s finding a deeper rotation in the torso without swaying the hips. Twists and lateral stretching in yoga are extremely helpful for this key action. Form in weight-training is paramount.
No matter which muscle groups you're targeting, yoga can help with your precision and breathing technique. Yoga uses clear physical landmarks and safety cues while moving mindfully with your breath.
Yoga for Combative Competitions
Yes, yoga even helps those whose sports who are meant to inflict pain on their opponents. Mental toughness, physical leverage and balance are key in hand-to-hand combat sports, such as wrestling, football, mixed martial arts and boxing. Yoga technique allows you to move your body fluidly and to powerfully position yourself and strike an opponent with deadly force. There’s many balancing poses like tree, warrior-three and dancer’s pose, where you’re asked to balance on one foot while stretching. This awareness helps you stay on your feet, defend and recover from offensive attacks more skillfully. These sports can be brutal on your body. The yoga poses stretch your body therapeutically and help to recover from grueling bouts.
Mobility/Range of Motion
With any workout, the more seamlessly you are able to move in your body, the more you will get out of your session. Workouts like rock-climbing and cross-fit demand good alignment and mobility. Rock climbers can strengthen their lower body to help hoist and hold themselves up, while opening and stretching the legs, hips and shoulders with yoga.
In crossfit, to advance you need to learn alignment to get into handstand pushups and other technical positions. Both require a strong core. Yoga helps develop strength by engaging your muscles in every pose, and flexibility where you need it most, so your body works like a fine-tuned machine.
Explosive Core Strength
In almost all athletics, there is a crucial moment where you’re invoking a fiery burst of movement. Whether you’re throwing shot-put, sprinting or tackling another player, this split-second movement is often the difference between winning or losing the battle. In all the yoga poses, you are engaging your core. Not only does yoga strengthen your 6-pack abs, but it also reaches those more subtle core muscles that get neglected like your obliques and transverse abdominis. Most yoga classes involve core-work, which teaches you how to fire and build your core without hurting your back or hip-flexors.
Balance and Symmetry
Workouts often require a repetitive motion, whether you're throwing a ball with one hand or planting with the same foot numerous times to jump or sprint. This makes your muscles develop asymmetrically. You can shift this imbalance with yoga. Yoga stretches the body evenly on either side. If you become so lopsided that it is problematic, you can structure your yoga routine to counter that asymmetry. When I teach Union soccer players, I take into account their specific position and have them hold some poses longer to balance their bodies. That way, both the right-side defender who is mostly healthy and the left-footed forward with the bad back each get exactly what they need from their practice.
Intense workouts will leave you short of breath. Yoga teaches you to control your breath especially when you’re about to lose control. Over time, you can skillfully deepen and control your breath while you’re working out. It demands an awareness in your body and through breath control, you develop an intelligence that distinguishes the difference between muscle pain and injury.
Performance improves dramatically when you’re pain-free. Yoga poses stretch your body, ease muscle soreness, and clear pain and tension. The less sore you are, the faster you get back into the game and into your workout routine. If you’re in pain before you start your workout, you won't fully go for it and get as much out of it. During the Union yoga sessions, the players are usually between games or fresh off of a workout. We normally focus on restoring their bodies and practice in a way that resolves their injuries, pain and soreness.