The benefits of yoga have been widely publicised, and yoga lifestyles dominate the feeds of healthy lifestyle sites and social media. But beyond the 'om', how can practising this ancient art apply to the science of peak athletic performance? Increasingly major sports teams are integrating it into their training plans so we look at the benefits of yoga for athletes.
It may come as a surprise to hear that the New Zealand All Blacks and many NBA teams utilise yoga strongly within their team training plans - a surefire antidote to the myth of it being a lightweight activity. If you're more into hard facts than spiritual spiel, we explain why you should consider integrating yoga into your training regime to enhance your game, strengthen your mind and build your resilience to injury.
What are the benefits of yoga?
A comprehensive yoga routine covers dynamic stretching and flexibility, muscular endurance, core strength and stabilisation, breath control and optimisation as well as balance work to enhance agility. All of these components are complimentary to physical conditioning and athletic performance across the spectrum of sporting activities.
Which Pro Athletes Practice Yoga?
With the above in mind, it is little wonder that major sports teams and stars incorporate yoga into their supporting training programmes. The cross-disciplinary sports mentioned below are a testament to the broad reach of benefits for athletes from a range of sports, seeking to compliment their existing training. Aside from the New Zealand All Blacks, yoga is big news amongst NBA team training regimes. Perhaps some surprising athletes who do yoga include big names such as Miami Heat's LeBron James, the Brooklyn Nets Joe Johnson, and Blake Griffin of the LA Nets. Olympian athletes also incorporate the extensive benefits of it into their training regimes. Notably US Olympic cyclist Evelyn Stevens and Olympic World Record holder, swimmer Ariana Kukors, both credit their yoga practice as vital components to their training regimes. Over in the UK, it has also gained popularity within the Premier League. Most notably the ex-Manchester United star Ryan Giggs is a keen yoga devotee.
Both Manchester United and Manchester City employ their own yoga coach, Sarah Ramsden, employed to help ensure a multi-faceted approach to the Premier League's team training. Having previously released his own yoga DVD, Giggs lauded the its benefits, crediting it with improving post-match recovery and benefitting his overall performance. Referring to the benefits of yoga for athletes, Giggs commented that it "strengthens muscles, improves flexibility, but also keeps you fit and gets you out on the training pitch so you can train every day. If I do a yoga session, I'm nowhere near as stiff, and i'll be back training at the right level at lot quicker."
So how can yoga work for me?
Dynamic, controlled stretching is the basis of yoga practice. On this basis alone, it is an excellent discipline with which to release muscular tension, aid muscle recovery and counter-act the strain of repetitive movement. Deep stretching will improve overall muscle condition and flexibility, target the fascia, and regular yoga practice will enhance overall flexibility and muscle suppleness. Similarly, sports requiring short periods of sprinting and bursts of activity can lead to muscle tightening and shortening in the legs and ankles, which can heighten the risk of injury. To negate this effect comprehensive full-body yoga stretches the muscles to return them to their natural form. The results? Contracted muscles are eased back into their natural extension, meaning they are far less susceptible to strain, or even worse, rupture. Strenuous high intensity weight bearing exercise causes muscles to bulk. Obviously for many this is no bad thing, and indeed a core objective for many. However utilising yoga helps to release tension by lengthening shortened muscle fibres. For those engaged in goal-based weight training, fear not - yoga will not transform you into a string bean, it will simply assist in releasing muscular tension improving muscle efficacy and comfort. This means that over time it could help you train harder for longer. A perfect example of athletes utilising yoga without losing muscle are the New Zealand All Blacks, who rely upon it as a crucial part of their training programme.
How can I start to use yoga?
As with any physical activity, beginners are recommended to seek out an experienced practitioner in their local area for face-to-face tuition. In particular, an excellent yoga teacher will be able to best advise on a practice best suited to your athletic needs and be able to tailor your practice according to any existing injuries or weaknesses. Sourcing an excellent teacher is, in the first instance, the key to utilising yoga to compliment your existing training regime successfully. Even those with some prior experience could benefit by seeking advice from an experienced professional to fine-hone their practice according to athletic performance goals and specific sport. Online organisations such as Yoga Sports Science are excellent resources with which to find an expert yoga coach specialising in yoga training based upon specific sports and athletic goals. For those seeking to compliment their existing training regime, help avoid injury risks, improve recovery and potentially enhance their overall athletic performance, yoga is an excellent option - illustrated by its popularity amongst some of sports biggest names.