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Yoga for Sport

I happened to discover yoga back in 1980 when I was training for the Olympic Games four years ahead.  In truth, I wish I had discovered a yoga teacher during my prime sprint kayaking years rather than having to use books from the library.  There is no doubt in my mind that it would have made me a much better athlete, not to mention human being.

Thankfully I started attending classes many years later.  It has improved my life in amazing and unpredictable ways, not just with respect to my career but in countless areas of my life.  In my opinion, every athlete irrespective of sport or discipline has the potential to enhance his or her ability by adopting a consistent yoga practice.  If you’re not practicing yoga, you’re competing at a disadvantage and missing an opportunity to enhance peak performance, aid recovery and avoid injury. 

Yoga may be the ultimate cross-training tool for athletic achievement.  Professional athletes in virtually every sport have taken up a regular yoga practice to balance and improve their training.  If you’re ready to use a cutting edge technology in your day to day training and in competition then it may be worth reading the points below:

Strengthens underused muscles

Athletes frequently use the same set of muscles in the exact same way pretty much each time they work out.  Imbalances in the body through repetitive overuse will cause the body to compensate and tug uncomfortably on ligaments, joints and the entire skeletal system.  The physical process of yoga poses challenge muscles by demanding total engagement and deep stabilisation, often in muscles we rarely consciously engage in our workout or chosen sport.  Balanced muscle strength promotes injury-prevention and will improve your athletic performance.

Greater lung capacity 

Your muscles need oxygen to perform.  Yoga re-educates your breathing mechanism allowing you to take bigger, deeper breaths in a very controlled and precise way, often including “Pranayama” a type of breathing exercise to increase lung strength and capacity.  In some sports breathing largely through the chest increases tension in the body and affects precision and timing, adding to levels of tension that adversely affect performance.  A strong diaphragm and sturdy lung walls let you pump the air through your body more efficiently and thoroughly. Using smooth, conscious, slow breaths to get more air into your body during a physical effort stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and will give you a competitive edge against those who struggle with deep breathing over long periods of time.

Improves core strength 

The more strength you have through the entire core (including deep abdominals, lower back and obliques), the more protection you provide to your lower back.  The more integrated your core the more effectively you can transmit power into your legs and arms.  The more core stability you have the more adept you become in moving and coordinating the entire body.  A stronger core also improves posture allowing for greater breath capacity and energy conservation.

More efficient muscles

People with tight muscles need to lengthen their muscles and increase flexibility.  People with great flexibility need to strengthen and balance muscles to support open joints, including the entire spinal column.  As a simple test Yoga teachers will often ask you to perform a standing forward fold and mindfully step back into a lunge, this will provide a wealth of feedback to the teacher, but in simple terms a rounded back and bent leg shows shortened muscles whereas a posture that resembles wet spaghetti shows muscles that need strength and balance.  

Yoga reduces muscle tightness and builds longer and leaner muscles, which will lead to greater endurance.  Long muscle fibres take a long time to build, but they are the longer-lasting energy source for athletes.  Muscles contract to perform work, a longer muscle has more area to contract, allowing for more work to be done before being depleted. 

On the flip side muscles which are over-stretched or very long in some instances provide little support to joints, which means for many sports long periods of training and competition take their toll on the joints that take the most pressure and absorb the most force.  By being very specific with alignment and vocal cues on working muscles in groups, balance can be returned to the body.  

Diagnosing what needs to be lengthened and what needs to be strengthened is an art form that needs to be applied on a case by case basis and is an excellent reason for taking one-to-one tuition with a qualified yoga teacher.

Efficient energy consumption

Being efficient in athletic terms means putting 100% of your physical and mental energy towards your performance.  Athletes can fall into a subconscious habit of wasting energy, often stemming from tight muscles and joints.  This energetic tension affects your mental balance, requiring more and more focus to negate the negative affects of muscle tension, creating a self-fulfilling circle of wasted energy.  Look at that wastage over a year and it's going to cause a problem, bring it to race day and your performance could even drop off from the times you achieve in training, the exact opposite of what you are striving for.  A regular yoga practice will help loosen overworked muscles and help you focus your mental abilities to the tasks you wish to focus on.

Increased body awareness 

On the yoga mat you learn how to really feel your body move.  You feel muscle hug bone, feel the way the feet anchor and the body balances, feel the breath guide where and how the body should move.  Ultimately we become aware of how right it feels to be in our natural body alignment.  Yoga teaches us to be aware of every sensation in the body, to become our own body’s expert.  The more aware you become of what feels good and correct the more you are able to listen to your body allowing you to tread that fine line between working 100% and over stressing the body and causing injury.  In many sports high levels of endorphins are released during activity which act as natures painkillers, being body aware is crucial to injury prevention.

Greater mental endurance

Calming the mind and body to be in the present moment no matter how challenging the activity is a huge lesson that yoga teaches athletes.  Neuroscientist Alex Korb explains, “Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.  Over time you will start to retrain your automatic stress reaction, and replace it with one more conducive to happiness and overall well-being.”

Quicker recovery

Post-workout, athletes often have sore, energy-depleted, stiff muscles.  A few yoga poses after a workout can make the difference between being ready to go again the next day versus a body full of tired muscles.  With regular stretching after a workout, you can speed up your recovery time and prevent buildup of scar tissue.  Allowing your body to fully recover between intense workouts is smart training and by making that recovery time quicker, you can be a healthier, higher-performing athlete.

The competitor who wins typically knows they are going to perform to their utmost ability on the day.  Unrestrained by fear, free from negative thought patterns, they become highly focused on a single objective - the performance. Often the race is against themselves just as much as it is against another competitor.   

Much like a muscle, the mind can be trained. A consistent practice of the asanas followed with a proper savasana is the best way I have found to improve performance. It also helps with sleep patterns, reduces stress, quells negative mental chatter and lets you perform at your optimum during the whole day, not just off the mat or at the competition.  

So if you are looking for an athletic edge then this is it, go on give it a try, before your rivals do!