Practising yoga has many meaningful benefits for athletes. In this article, we’re going to take a look at five of the most significant ones.
No matter what level you’re at with your athletic pursuits, the information below will help you understand how yoga can help you optimise your performance!
All-Over Body Strength
If you want to bodybuild and fill out your muscles then weight-training is the quickest method, but yoga is a form of strength training too, as it requires you to lift the weight of your own body.
Yoga therefore provides balance in toning your muscles more widely and increasing overall strength, since it’s not focused on targeting specific muscle groups.
For best physical results, athletes should aim to combine their strength training with a yoga practice. On a mental and spiritual level, this is also in keeping with the yin-yang philosophies behind yogic practices.
By balancing our exercise between Yin practises (slow, relaxation, reflection, yoga, tai chi, walking etc.) and Yang practises (movement, action, energy, running, CrossFit, weights etc.), we can reach our optimum fitness potential in all areas.
Yoga improves balance in two ways, physical and mental. If you’re at all familiar with yoga, you will know that yoga improves your core fitness, which assists with balance and co-ordination. It also strengthens individual muscles, which helps you to stabilise your body weight.
The mental aspects of balance-training are also highly persuasive; there is evidence to suggest that challenging your sense of balance, co-ordination, and agility can reduce age-related loss of balance, promote neuroplasticity, reduce cognitive decline, and improve cognitive function.
Practising balance poses is a well-known technique in yogic traditions for increasing focus and concentration.
Try standing on one leg and focusing on a point on the wall. Ok? Now try it again, this time with your eyes closed. I’m guessing this much more difficult.
When you have something to focus on in the present moment, it is much easier to find your centre of balance. When you are engaged and mindful of the world around you, it is easier to stay stable. When you are thinking of other things, however, it is easier to lose your focus.
This works as a good metaphor for the cultivation of mindfulness in yoga practice, and indeed, in life itself; if we allow ourselves to be carried away with our thoughts, it is easy to lose our balance, and cause ourselves stress or injury. But if we cultivate that sense of awareness and remain in the moment, we gain stability, control, and focus.
So practising balancing asanas in yoga not only helps you to find physical equilibrium, but also a mental balance which will push you further forwards in your athletic career.
Deep breathing involved in Pranayama helps to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which suppresses the autonomic nervous system – i.e. the system which causes the ‘stress’ response by releasing cortisol and adrenaline.
Yoga relieves tension in worked muscles through gentle stretching and releasing. This helps to increase flexibility, ease of movement, and overall athletic performance. There are lots of benefits of being able to move more easily when exercising – less battling with achy muscles means quicker reaction times, greater speed, less likelihood of injury, and less pain from exercising – no more walking straight-legged after a hard workout!
In one study, participants improved their flexibility by 35% in 8 weeks through following a simple daily yoga regime.
If you are practising yoga to increase your flexibility, consider what you are trying to achieve overall from your current exercise routine. If you want to push your body and increase your stamina, practises such as Vinyasa or Ashtanga are faster paced, and will help to improve your endurance.
If, on the other hand, you are looking to relieve stress, stretch out over-used muscles, and work out mindfully to avoid or heal injury, you may prefer a slower form such as Hatha yoga, Yin yoga, or restorative yoga.
Mental: Yoga usually incorporates a few moments of meditation before or after the practice. This helps to build focus and attention, and relieve anxiety – both factors in improving attention and concentration.
Physical: Yoga helps to build physical endurance by delivering more oxygen to the muscles through Pranayama breathing, which may also increase lung capacity. This makes muscles work more efficiently. Building muscles in the core also helps to strengthen the back and hips, which stops the body from collapsing into other parts of the anatomy, such as the legs and arms. This helps to improve overall endurance and stamina.
There are as many different approaches to yoga practice as there are athletic disciplines, and every practice can be adapted to your personal needs. So, get on your mat, put the stresses and strains of the day aside, and indulge in a little Me-Time for your body AND your mind!