Special Populations: Athletes

Athletes come to yoga for reasons such as stretching, recovery, strength, mobility or mental focus. Athletes have very good awareness of their bodies and will appreciate the attention to posture and alignment that yoga encourages. It’s worth reminding them that yoga is not competitive. What the person on the adjacent mat is doing is of no consequence. Furthermore, what you did yesterday in yoga doesn’t matter. There is no goal and there is no best yoga practice.

Yoga as a tool for mind-body connection

Athletes often want a very vigorous practice, whether it be a yang-style or yin-style practice and it’s great that you can provide this! But always teach from your own experience. What you know is how the yoga practice applies to you and you understand the philosophy of the practice: the mind-body connection.

Athletes often want to know how to “best” stretch a certain body part or “what to do for a painful joint.” Although your own experience may contribute insight into such matters, remind them that yoga is not a prescription but rather a resource for achieving a well-balanced life.

Yoga for improving in sport?

Athletes might want to do yoga as a technique for improving in sport. And it’s true it will help, but it will be in unexpected ways. Instead of stretching and strength, it is yoga’s mind-body connection that will accelerate athletic performance.

Yoga as stretching?

There are many points in this course where we could discuss stretching as it relates to yoga. Since athletes often ask for yoga “stretches,” this is a good place for the stretching discussion.

A 2012 Yoga Journal study of 18 million Americans indicated that people’s primary reason for practicing yoga is to increase flexibility. However, Jules Mitchell, a yoga teacher who published a Master’s degree on stretching and its benefits, described only one research paper linking the benefits of stretching with yoga. On the other hand, she said she found numerous studies on the benefits of yoga for mental health.

The point is that stretching may be a useful outcome from yoga and the practice might contribute to increased flexibility, but there is no definitive proof that it will and furthermore, the practice offers a whole lot more than just physical benefits. Athletes will come to the mat looking for the physical benefits and you will provide them with a well-rounded perspective on the practice. 

Regularly doing the yoga poses will provide increased range of motion and flexibility for the specific poses, but whether it will contribute in a physically meaningful way to a particular sport is debatable. The major limiter in flexibility is the nervous system. This is demonstrated with a “contract-relax” exercise.

Contract-Relax Exercise
Exercise

Push on a student’s back when they are in a seated forward fold. Instruct the student to push back against your hands for several breaths. Following this force of contraction, instruct the student to relax. This action of contract-relax tricks the nervous system into allowing the student to go deeper into the forward fold.

It’s important to realize that just as the nervous system will allow this temporary increase in range of motion, just as powerfully, the nervous system will shortly resume its function as limiter in range of motion. Put simply, the nervous system will only allow range of motion where the body is unlikely to injure itself.

The example of contract-relax indicates that athletes are more likely to increase their range of motion by doing sport-specific exercises. Athletes may come to yoga with the intention of “increasing flexibility,” and the practice certainly will do that (at least for a short period of time), but the question is whether being flexible in a yoga pose has anything to do with their sport. More likely, and with your good guidance, athletes will return to their yoga mats for the mind-body connection, the power of meditation and the overall awareness of mobility.

Yoga is more than stretching

The value of athletic stretching is a contentious issue with multiple perspectives. At first glance, yoga appears to be a stretchy exercise and athletes start yoga with the intention of stretching. The problem is that stretching isn’t necessarily a useful athletic exercise and it’s unlikely that doing yoga poses will benefit a given sport. Yoga is a tool to develop meditation, peacefully accept the present moment and create physiological awareness. Practicing yoga poses will make an athlete good at yoga poses, just like swimming laps will make someone a good swimmer or shooting hoops will improve basketball game. Yoga is a valuable contributor to athletic pursuits not because it’s “just stretching” but because it’s so much more than just stretching.