Yoga for Athletes
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Yoga for Athletes

From Madonna to your mother, everyone you know is doing yoga and singing its praises. You're intrigued, but you're not sure how, or if it all, yoga will fit in with your current training routine. Whether you're an avid runner, a serious cyclist, or just a fitness enthusiast who hits the gym a few days a week, yoga could have a lot to offer you.

Here's a get-started guide to improving your flexibility, endurance, and strength with this age-old discipline.

Why Athletes Might Benefit From Yoga

Athletes can enjoy the stress relief and deep relaxation of yoga as much as anyone. But experts on yoga claim that there are five compelling reasons for athletes to try yoga:

1. To Increase Flexibility and Range of Motion
Regular yoga practice makes the spine more flexible and muscles more supple—something all athletes need, says Donna Davidge, a Kundalini yoga teacher at New York Sports Club. What's more, it increases flexibility, strengthens and lengthens the whole body, increases range of motion, and releases the joints.

2. To Improve Your Ability to Focus Yoga
Many yoga poses build core strength. The poses in conjunction with movements are an excellent type of resistance training that benefits every athlete.

3. To Improve Your Ability to Focus
Yoga improves focus and mental clarity.

"You won't get as much from sports if your mind isn't clear," says Davidge.

4. To Correct Imbalances in the Body Caused by Training
"Training of any kind is repetitive by nature," explains Baron Baptiste, owner of Baron Baptiste Power Yoga Institutes in Cambridge, MA and Philadelphia, PA. "Training is one dimensional and can create imbalances; some muscle groups are strengthened, but others are ignored. Yoga can fix these imbalances."

5. To Relieve Chronic Aches and Pains That Often Accompany Regular Training
"As a result of doing yoga, you have less pain and more agility and mobility, which allows you to react more efficiently", says Baptiste, who has taught yoga to NFL and NBA players as well as golf and tennis pros.

6. To Stay in the Game
Whether you run, cycle, or kick box, "regular yoga practice may allow you to do what you love for the rest of your life," says Richard Faulds, president of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA.

While it seems indisputable that yoga enhances flexibility, none of these claims for yoga have any scientific evidence behind them.

Choosing the Right Style for You

If you've decided that yoga deserves a place in your training program, the next step is to choose a style. Although there are many kinds of yoga, for simplicity's sake, we've highlighted four of the more popular types below.

Remember that not every type of yoga is for every person.

"It's an individual decision as to what type of yoga you choose," says Davidge. Be patient with yourself and your body. You may not feel like you're getting anything out of a class until you've gotten a few weeks under your belt. For best results, take a class at least once a week. As you get more comfortable, try to practice 2-3 times a week.

Note: The health claims made by the experts below are not evidence-based, but rather represent the opinions of yoga teachers.

Iyengar Yoga

Expert: Roni Brissette, owner of Yoga to Go in Brookline, MA.

Focus: Posture, alignment, and balance. It also focuses on extension and achieving greater symmetry in the body.

Typical Class: Classes start with 30 minutes of standing poses to improve alignment and form. Many of the poses focus on the legs as the foundation. Seated poses are done for the last 30 minutes. Students use props such as blankets, straps, ropes, and blocks to help them relax into the poses. Class ends with relaxation.

General Benefits: This type of yoga builds strength and endurance early on.

"There is usually a great deal of personal attention in classes," says Brissette.

Iyengar yoga practitioners claim that it improves body awareness (awareness of how you sit, stand, walk, etc.), balance, flexibility, and endurance. They also claim that it improves circulation, aids digestion, and reduces tension.

Benefit to Athletes: Body awareness may improve overall performance and may help prevent injury.

Kundalini Yoga

Expert: Donna Davidge, Kundalini teacher at New York Sports Clubs.

Focus: Breath and breathing techniques (more so than the other types mentioned here). It focuses on body awareness from the inside out. It's a combination of physical work and meditation, with more of an emphasis on the latter.

Typical Class: Most of the class is done with the eyes closed. Class begins with one or two minutes of chanting. Then, students practice individual postures and "sets"—series of postures focusing on a particular body part while focusing on breathing. Class ends with meditation.

General Benefits: Kundalini yoga is purported to make the nervous system stronger, which may enable you to better handle stress. It may also improve mental clarity, which increases your ability to concentrate more fully on your sport. Kundalini yoga tones the entire body but makes the muscles pliable rather than tight.

Benefit to Athletes: Learning to breathe deeply (belly breathing) may help prevent injuries because the body is more relaxed.

Power Yoga

Expert: Baron Baptiste, owner of Baron Baptiste Power Yoga Institutes in Cambridge, MA and Philadelphia, PA.

Focus: Strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. Because the poses are linked and flow one into another, it's more aerobic than the other types of yoga mentioned here. Although it's often confused with Ashtanga yoga, they are not the same.

"Power yoga is easier and safer on the joints than Ashtanga," says Baptiste.

Typical Class: In Power yoga, rooms are often heated to 90-degrees to make the muscles malleable. After a warm up, students do a series of sun salutations (a series of poses that flow one into another without stopping). Then they perform a series of standing poses to stretch and strengthen the legs and back. After practicing a series of floor poses, class ends with relaxation.

General Benefits: This style of yoga strengthens and stabilizes the core and allows for greater freedom of movement. It may help improve stamina, flexibility, and reaction time. It also teaches you how to coordinate your breathing with physical movements.

Benefit to Athletes: "Power yoga takes the whole body through a full range of motion, strengthens it isometrically, and fixes imbalances caused by sports training," says Baptiste.

Kripalu Yoga

Expert: Richard Faulds, president of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA.

Focus: Releasing chronic tension and energizing the physical systems of the body. It focuses on the sensation of yoga—how your body feels.

"It's very much about the experience of doing yoga rather than perfecting the poses," says Faulds.

Typical Class: Class begins with centering—1-2 minutes of breathing and awareness of breath and body (like meditation), then continues to warm-ups to prepare the body for movement. The rest of the class focuses on stretching and strengthening postures held with deep breathing. Class ends with relaxation.

General Benefits: Kripalu yoga helps release chronic muscle tension to allow for a full range of motion in joints, and to relax you deeply. It brings peace of mind, strengthens your body, and teaches you how to harness energy and strength.

Benefit to Athletes: Kripalu yoga is a full body exercise that can help correct imbalances created by repetitive motion, says Faulds.

A Good Addition to Your Routine

While it's not entirely clear if yoga can enhance athletic performance, the increased flexibility and relaxation, improved core strength, and variation in exercise that yoga can bring to your routine make it a good practice for most people.

Injury Prevention

Yoga is generally considered a very safe exercise modality. However, as with any sport, approach to yoga requires professional guidance, especially if you are a beginner. Injuries are not common with yoga, however they may happen especially if the exercises are done haphazardly or without proper warm-up. The best way to prevent them is to progress slowly, listen to your body and remember that yoga is not about competition.

RESOURCES:

Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
www.kripalu.org

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
http://nccam.nih.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology
www.csep.ca/

Healthy Living Unit
http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/pau-uap/fitness/



Last reviewed June 2008 by Robert E. Leach, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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