Yoga for Athletes

IMAGE Whether you are an avid runner, a serious cyclist, or just a fitness enthusiast who hits the gym a few days a week, yoga could have a lot to offer you.

Why Athletes Might Benefit From Yoga

Athletes can enjoy the stress relief and deep relaxation of yoga as much as anyone. Experts on yoga claim that there are five compelling reasons for athletes to try yoga:
1. To Increase Flexibility and Range of Motion
Yoga increases flexibility, strengthens the whole body, and increases range of motion.
2. To Build Core Strength
Many yoga poses build core strength. The poses in conjunction with movements are an excellent type of resistance training.
3. To Improve Your Ability to Focus
Yoga improves focus and mental clarity.
4. To Correct Imbalances in the Body Caused by Training
When athletes work out the same muscles it results in muscle imbalance. Yoga can help correct these imbalances.
5. To Relieve Chronic Aches and Pains That Often Accompany Regular Training
Yoga poses can help reduce pain and improve motion.
While these claims may seem realistic, most do not have scientific evidence to back them up.

Choosing the Right Style for You

If you have decided that yoga deserves a place in your training program, the next step is to choose a style. Although there are many kinds of yoga, for simplicity's sake, four of the more popular types are included below.
Note: The health claims made by the experts below are not evidence-based, but rather represent the opinions of yoga teachers.

Iyengar Yoga

Iyengar yoga practitioners use props such as blocks and belts to aid them in performing many of the more difficult postures, and great attention is paid to a precise alignment of postures. Iyengar yoga practitioners claim that it improves body awareness (awareness of how you sit, stand, walk, etc.), balance, flexibility, and endurance. They also claim that it improves circulation, aids digestion, and reduces tension.
Focus: Posture, alignment, and balance. It also focuses on extension and achieving greater symmetry in the body.
General Benefits: This type of yoga builds strength and endurance early on.
Benefit to Athletes: Body awareness may improve overall performance and may help prevent injury.

Kundalini Yoga

Kundalini yoga involves postures, meditation, and the coordination of breath.
Focus: Breath and breathing techniques (more so than the other types mentioned here). It focuses on body awareness from the inside out. It is a combination of physical work and meditation, with more of an emphasis on the latter.
General Benefits: Kundalini yoga is purported to make the nervous system stronger, which may enable you to better handle stress. It may also improve mental clarity, which increases your ability to concentrate more fully on your sport. Kundalini yoga tones the entire body but makes the muscles pliable rather than tight.
Benefit to Athletes: Learning to breathe deeply (belly breathing) may help prevent injuries because the body is more relaxed.

Power Yoga

In Power yoga, rooms are often heated to 90-degrees to make the muscles malleable. After a warm up, students do a series of sun salutations (a series of poses that flow one into another without stopping). Then, they perform a series of standing poses to stretch and strengthen the legs and back. After practicing a series of floor poses, class ends with relaxation.
Focus: Strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. Because the poses are linked and flow one into another, it is more aerobic than the other types of yoga mentioned here.
General Benefits: This style of yoga strengthens and stabilizes the core and allows for greater freedom of movement. It may help improve stamina, flexibility, and reaction time. It also teaches you how to coordinate your breathing with physical movements.
Benefit to Athletes: Power yoga helps build strength and stamina.

Kripalu Yoga

Kripalu yoga is delineated into three stages: learning the postures and exploring the body's ability; holding the postures for an extended time and developing an inner awareness; and moving from one posture to another in a spontaneous movement.
Focus: Releasing chronic tension and energizing the physical systems of the body. It focuses on the sensation of yoga—how your body feels.
General Benefits: Kripalu yoga helps release chronic muscle tension to allow for a full range of motion in joints, and to relax you deeply. It brings peace of mind, strengthens your body, and teaches you how to harness energy and strength.
Benefit to Athletes: Kripalu yoga is a full body exercise that can help correct imbalances created by repetitive motion.

A Good Addition to Your Routine

While it is not entirely clear if yoga can enhance athletic performance, the increased flexibility and relaxation, improved core strength, and variation in exercise that yoga can bring to your routine make it a good practice for most people.

Injury Prevention

Yoga is generally considered a very safe exercise modality. However, as with any sport, approach to yoga requires professional guidance, especially if you are a beginner. Injuries are not common with yoga, however they may happen, especially if the exercises are done haphazardly or without proper warm-up. The best way to prevent them is to progress slowly, listen to your body and remember that yoga is not about competition.

RESOURCES

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine http://nccam.nih.gov/

Yoga Alliance http://yogaalliance.org//

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology http://www.csep.ca/

Public Health Agency of Canada Healthy Living http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/pau-uap/fitness/

References

The art, science, and technology of kundalini yoga. Kundalini Yoga website. Available at: http://www.kundaliniyoga.org/kyintro.htmlAccessed July 26, 2012.

Styles of yoga. Yoga Alliance website. Available at: http://yogaalliance.org/content/understanding-different-styles-yoga. Accessed July 26, 2012.

What is yoga? Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health website. Available at: http://www.kripalu.org/about%5Fus/479/. Accessed July 26, 2012.

Yoga for health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm. Updated May 2012. Accessed July 26, 2012.

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