This month I have read several articles about how more and more athletes are practicing Yoga, not just to relax and unwind after a tough training session, but also for the many fitness and sport-specific training benefits. Athletes of all levels and from a wide variety of sports are using both group and private yoga sessions to increase flexibility, strength, endurance and agility, as well as to re-habilitate injuries, for sport-specific conditioning, climate conditioning, for breath and body awareness, visualization and mental preparation skills, and for re-balancing athletes who participate in asymmetrical sports (cricket, baseball, tennis etc).
This month I was happy to hear that Tim Thomas, inarguably one of the best goalies in the National (Ice) Hockey League, credits yoga for being an integral part of his training regime. At a time when statistics indicate that 85% of yoga students are (still) women, and the myth still exists that yoga is just lying on the floor stretching and smelling incense, it’s exciting to hear that an athlete involved in one of the toughest sports in the world depends upon yoga for part of his conditioning regime. Perhaps this will guide more athletes and more men into the studio to benefit from Yoga!
Here in Australia we are hearing great results from athletes and teams that are using yoga to enhance performance, including the Gold Coast Titans, the Hockeyroos, basketballers from the National League, world-class cricketers, AFL footballers, even our beloved “Thorpedo” Ian Thorpe is using yoga as part of his training program. And if that hasn’t caught your interest, perhaps you’d like to know that you have fellow yogis in athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, Evander Holyfield, Shaquille O’Neil, Andy Roddick – even Wale’s rugby team is using yoga to prepare for the World Cup this September.
So, if you are looking for a great cross-training tool, to enhance your performance, or rebalance your body after a weekend of sports, I have shared a few simple ideas to help you out.
· Firstly, a comprehensive practice is of course best – a full class that offers a full range of movements, combined with breath, and followed by relaxation.
· A practice should always include the 4 movements of the spine (bending forward, bending backward, bending sideways, and twisting) as well as techniques that strengthen and stretch each of the major muscle groups.
· Depending on your sport and your body consider variations in pacing, repetition, room temperature, intensity, duration, and frequency.
· Get some guidance on how to support muscles that are hypertonic (over-active) and muscles that are perhaps under-active due to lack of use in your sport.
· Even if you are practicing to enhance a competitive sport, yoga is a place where you can let go of competition and just be with your body. Be sure to stay with your breath, and keep the competition away from the mat.
Here are a few ideas based on the more common requests that I get for sport-specific yoga moves:
Yoga For Runners: techniques that stretch tight calves, hamstrings and quads like Downward Facing Dog, Hero, Lunges, and the Warrior series can be helpful. Don’t overdo it though, too much flexibility makes running hard work; consider your efforts to be about releasing tension more than about making longer muscles. Running puts a lot of impact through your spine so soften it up with some simple twists and side bends. And be sure to finish up with soft neck stretches and even a bit of foot massage!
Yoga For Cyclists: cycling can really tighten up hips, so techniques like Pigeon, Lunges, Cobbler, Cow Face and Tree can be highly beneficial. And after a long ride bent over your handlebars some chest openers like Cobra, Bow and Fish will help reduce back pain/strain, improve your posture and expand your chest.
Yoga For Dancers: dancers tend to be very flexible to begin with, so core conditioning and techniques that strengthen the joints are helpful. Consider techniques like Boat, Plank, Crow, Locust and Standing Hand to Big Toe; helpful for creating great strength while challenging flexibility.
Yoga For Asymmetrical Sports: for athletes who play sports that are one-sided like tennis, cricket and baseball, some asymmetrical poses will help balance out the spine and reduce your risk of repetitive strain. Poses like Triangle, Side Arm Balance, Head to Knee Pose, and Tree are all beneficial.
There are heaps of books, DVD’s, and websites out there that can give you ideas and information about how to best utilize yoga for fitness and conditioning, post rehab or therapy, and for mental conditioning and visualization. But, the best source is a qualified Yoga instructor who can examine your sport, your body, and your needs and goals and design a practice that will address your needs and not only help you enhance your fitness, but enhance mental and physical performance as well.