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Yoga: An Ancient Practice Helping Modern Athletes

A diverse array of professional athletes hail yoga’s ability to increase their overall performance while reducing their risk of sports related injuries.  And while exercise fads come and go, yoga’s centuries old exercises have earned it a seat at the table.  A cascade of articles over the past decade have examined yoga’s many benefits for athletes including increased core stability and range of motion among others.  Indeed, both entire sports teams and independent athletes have sought out yoga for its many benefits.  Many athletes speak highly of yoga’s ability to enhance their game and reduce their recovery time including the NBA’s six-time All Star Joe Johnson, and the NFL’s Steven Jackson.  While dancers have long embraced yoga, nearly every professional sport now boasts yoga aficionados from tennis stars to boxers to triathletes, who incorporate yoga as a vital aspect of their training regime to both propel their performance and reduce the likelihood of injury.  And just how does yoga reduce sport injuries?  Great question!   Let’s take a look.

Increases Performance

Yoga offers its students both increased flexibility and balance as well as strength.  While certain poses may focus on one aspect more than another, combining poses into a flow allows the body to experience the benefits of each pose throughout a yoga session.  For example, beginning in Mountain Pose can center and activate the muscles while moving into Tree encourages the body to find balance.  A flow of postures into Pigeon results in a hip opener, encouraging great flexibility throughout this region.  Using the body’s own weight instead of weights builds strength and tones muscles while reducing the risk of injury. Over time, a dedicated yoga practice can result in significant increases regarding flexibility, balance, and strength.  For athletes, this combination is particularly important as it plays a key role in reducing the incidents of muscle injuries.  In “Yoga for Sports Performance”, Sue Hollingshead supports yoga’s ability to “…help rebalance, strengthen, and restore overtaxed muscles, joints and ligaments.”  Failing to address overtaxed muscles often leads to injuries which could be prevented.  

Another key component to increasing performance involves an individual’s lung capacity.  Proper attention to breath work can expand the lungs’ capacity to take in air.  Increased oxygen benefits the body in a number of ways.  Numerous studies support that better breathing can increase overall heart health as well as intensify energy and endurance levels.  Increasing readily-available oxygen resources throughout the body should be a priority for athletes.  Dee Ann Birket, M.A. and Lee Edgren, M.S., propose that Hatha yoga’s attention to the breath provides many benefits to college students including heightened “…metabolic processes, tissue healing, and athletic performance…”.   Capitalizing on yoga’s ability to increase oxygen uptake through controlled breath work to better overall performance and decrease the risk of injury should be an invaluable resource to athletes performing at every level.  

Still not sure if yoga can actually increase athletic performance safely?  Check out this study published in Pedagogics, Psychology, Medical-Biological Problems of Physical Training and Sports, conducted by S.S. Brynzak and S.V. Burko.  In this particular study, the researchers conducted an experiment to see if student basketball players who engaged in classical yoga exercises would improve their game.  Team members were divided into two groups; one group practiced yoga over a nine month period.  The researchers found that the student group who routinely practiced yoga showed an increase in a variety of indicators including speed endurance, retention of equilibrium (balance), and three-point shots.  Increased balance led to fewer injuries.  

Cultivates Focus

At its core, yoga exists as a mind-body exercise that works to better attune the mind with the body.  Yoga can influence the physiology of the body as well as the psychology of the mind.  Taking the time to cultivate such a connection can assist athletes in understanding stressors as the body experiences them and stop activity that could lead to a sport related injury whether in training or on the field.  Mere seconds matter when it comes to injury.  This type of connection allows the brain to act when the body falls, reducing the impact and potential harm.  Yoga’s focus on stability, flexibility, and balance also kicks in to assist the body when injury is imminent.  Additionally, enhancing the mind-body connection allows athletes to increase their performance by knowing how to require more from their body; in other words, a regular yoga practice helps an athlete know just how much he or she can push the body safely.  By developing a deeper understanding of the body, one can call forth a laser-like focus to enhance a desired outcome instead of exceeding the body’s limits and experiencing an injury.  

A recent study published in EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing found that students who practiced yoga for an entire semester reported not only greater kinesthetic awareness, but also a greater respect for the body.  This developing mind-body connection can be invaluable to athletes, both on and off the field.  

Athletes competing at all levels, whether high school athletics or Olympic athletics, can benefit from a regular yoga practice.  Scientific research supports that a regular yoga practice not only strengthens the mind-body connection, but enhances the body’s ability to control itself through increased stability, flexibility, and balance.  Increasing these attributes directly decreases an athlete’s risk of sports related injuries.  Practicing targeted yoga flows prior to and after training sessions can greatly benefit the body’s musculoskeletal system in addition to regular yoga classes to build overall body health.