There’s a reason they call it warrior pose.
Yoga will improve your athletic performance. Here's how.
IF YOU’RE A GUY WHO grew up in America, you most likely competed in sports. It’s part of our upbringing and a large part of who we are as a culture. 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. As the yoga trainer for Major League Soccer's Philadelphia Union and other professional athletes, I’m inspired to hear them rave about the benefits of yoga on their athletic performance.
If athletes at the highest level of competition are killing it with yoga, so could athletes at every level. Whether you’re competing in sports, or if you’re a recreational runner, rock climber, cyclist, weightlifter or CrossFitter, perform at your best with yoga. Here’s how to do it:
Injury Prevention Through Yoga
I will never forget the moments in my wrestling career when I was unable to compete because I was injured. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to sit out because you’re hurt. Athletes are especially prone to injury because they tend to be more strong than flexible, and so create more torque and strain on their joints. 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 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. 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. Yoga 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, told me yoga helps him remain relaxed and centered when the game is on the line.
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. Breathing technique demands that you consciously deepen your breath, especially when you are struggling. So even 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 (the iliotibial band ligaments along the thigh) and hips is a great way to facilitate mobility in the lower body.
Yoga for Anaerobic, Technical Sports
For the technicians like weightlifters, baseball players and golfers, alignment and biomechanics are crucial. The day David Buchanan, pitcher for Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies, 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. 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 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 powerfully position yourself and strike an opponent with deadly force. There are many balancing poses like tree, warrior III and dancer’s pose, where you’re asked to balance on one foot while stretching. This awareness helps you stay on your feet, and defend and recover from offensive attacks more skillfully. These sports can be brutal to your body. The yoga poses stretch your body therapeutically and help you recover from grueling bouts.
Mobility & Explosive Core Strength
With any workout, the more seamlessly you are able to move, the more you will get out of your session. Workouts like rock-climbing and crossfit demand good alignment and mobility. Rock climbers can strengthen the 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 – which yoga delivers. In 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. 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.
Balance and Symmetry
Workouts often require 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.
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. However you choose to compete in your own life, let yoga help you perform at peak level.