Athletes have trainers who prepare weight-training regimens and stretching exercises, coaches who observe and correct their every movement, and physicians who check them for injuries. So do they really need one more way to train? The answer is yes, at least for athletes who want an extra advantage when it comes to balance, flexibility, breath, and mental sharpness.
As Ryanne Cunningham reveals in Yoga for Athletes, yoga can bring a special edge to the performance of everyone from amateurs striving to improve their lives to professionals competing against elite athletes. Cunningham operates Flow Yoga Studio in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where she has instructed former Packers players B.J. Raji, Andy Mulumba, Tramon Williams, Mike Neal, and Jarrett Bush, as well as current Packer Randall Cobb and athletes from many other sports.
“Athletic careers are characterized by a chase for a better time, a stronger body, better split-second decisions, the ability to take a harder hit, and other ways of advancing,” Cunningham says. “Each athlete has unique needs, and a yoga practice benefits everyone in a special way.” She pinpoints six benefits of yoga for athletic performance:
- Aid in muscle recovery. The deep breathing in yoga helps bring much-needed oxygen to muscles, helping them create energy to burn. The goal of recovery is to clear the muscles of the waste products resulting from muscle contraction, including lactic acid, to allow the fibers to fire again. While proper hydration helps by flushing those waste products out of the body, proper stretching of muscles more rapidly restores function. And yoga practitioners have always known the best way to stretch. “The more quickly your muscles bounce back, the sooner you can get back to training so that you will gain a competitive edge,” Cunningham explains.
- Prevent injuries. The five main causes of sports injuries are lack of a careful warm-up, quick motions and twisting motions that stress joints, imbalance that trains one part of the body over others, tightness of highly trained muscles that lose flexibility, and overuse of the muscles. Yoga practice can help prevent injuries from the first four causes since yoga poses emphasize strengthening, stretching, and balance among all parts of the body. In sports like tennis, golf, and baseball pitching, imbalanced training is a serious problem. But yoga can bring the parts of the body back into balance, reducing the probability of injuries. It can also restore and preserve the flexibility that is often sacrificed by strength-building exercises by allowing the connective tissue to be restored through its emphasis on lengthening the muscles.
- Reduce stress, increase focus, and relieve tension. When working out is a major part of training, exercise can actually create stress instead of alleviating it. Yoga can help athletes work through those stresses. During taxing times the stress hormone cortisol is carried in the body. Practicing a series of movements, poses, and deep breathing as part of a yoga sequence, however, decreases the levels of cortisol, helping an athlete feel more relaxed. “Another way yoga can help an athlete reduce stress is to require focusing on the pose, which means staying in the present instead of thinking about the past or the future,” Cunningham points out. Yoga can also help athletes practice living in the moment through concentrated breathing, creating a calming, quiet moment of meditation.
- Strengthen underused muscles. It's easy for athletes to fall into a training routine to strengthen areas that are most important for their sports. But they must remember that neglecting one area of the body can create weakness and imbalance, triggering discomfort and leading to more serious injuries. Yoga teaches poses that focus on all areas of the body, including small muscles like those in the wrist that actually take most of the weight and do most of the work.
- Build your core. Yoga has always emphasized the central muscles that are the foundation of the entire trunk, helping protect the lower back and reducing injuries. Cunningham says a full yoga practice builds all the core muscles because the balance needed for holding the poses and stretches involves the deepest muscles of the body. All three layers of the core must be strong and work together to provide a balanced, effective yoga practice.
- Improve sleep. Finally, yoga can train the body to relax. “While sleepless nights can be troubling to everyone, they are particularly damaging to athletes who are preparing to perform,” Cunningham stresses. “Relaxing is as much a skill as exerting your muscles.” Yoga helps athletes learn to relax by teaching them to concentrate on poses, which leads to the mind and body learning to understand the difference between effort and relaxation. Later, when focusing on relaxation, the muscles will be able to respond to the command to relax, translating to the bed for restful sleep. Yoga improves sleep with breathing since athletes consciously use breath to help them get into poses and then calm down at the end of practice, which also works before sleep as well.
Featuring sequences for popular team and individual sports, including football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, golf, running, swimming, and cycling, as well as power sports, Yoga for Athletes will help athletes learn the most useful poses for each body region. It also contains stories from successful professional and competitive athletes about how yoga helps them improve performance and gain an edge on the field, court, or road.