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Yoga as Cross-Training
“A lot of people who consider themselves in great shape don’t realize they’re actually out of balance,” says Rodney Yee, a yoga expert featured in dozens of yoga DVDs as well as the online yoga program, Gaiam Yoga Studio.
“I was a ballet dancer and gymnast,” says Yee. “Yoga helped me heal old injuries and prevent new ones. It helps with range of motion in every joint, and keeps the muscles supple but strong. It doesn’t just build a body for a specific activity, but brings us back into balance so our body can adapt to any movement. Yoga is cross-training.”
Tennis pros Pete Sampras and Venus and Serena Williams use yoga to improve core strength, increase flexibility, improve coordination, and help heal or prevent injuries. And pro teams including the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, and Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, are integrating yoga into their training regimens.
“I think injury prevention and core strengthening are the obvious benefits of yoga,” says competitive triathlete and former collegiate heptathlete Danielle Weiss, who now teaches yoga to the triathlon team at the University of Colorado. “But after practicing and teaching yoga for almost 7 years, now I most appreciate the mental edge yoga has given me. It’s taught me to truly ‘go to my edge,’ whether I’m trying to extend fully in Dancer’s Pose, or trying to push the last 200 meters of the running leg at collegiate nationals.”
Why is yoga good as sports cross-training?
Yoga helps strengthen the muscles that are underused while releasing the muscles that are tight from your sport. “In yoga, if we do something to the right, we do it to the left. If we do something on our head, we do something on our feet,” says Yee. “Your joints and body will also last a lot longer if they get movement in all directions.”
Professional beach volleyball player Annie Akers learned that lesson the hard way. After suffering repetitive shoulder injuries from what she calls “throwing yourself like a rag doll in the sand,” Akers found yoga six years ago. “It took one class and I noticed a significant difference in my shoulders,” says Akers. In addition to injury prevention, yoga provides flexibility and core strength for her demanding sport, helping Akers arch her back to hit the ball and remain stable while playing on sand’s shifting, uneven surface.
“Yoga improves on the biomechanical compensations an athlete has that may have been caused by acute or chronic injuries,” says Jamie Naughright, Ed.D., a Lakeland, Fla.-based certified athletic trainer and yoga teacher, who regularly witnesses this with her clients and with referral patients of Dr. Larry Padgett, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves. “The poses also help me see diagnostically where the imbalances are as well as help the athlete get a clear visual of what’s going on.”
Former professional football player Carter Lord knows something about chronic over-compensation. “I used to be in a lot of pain — back pain and general tightness from years of hard charging, no stretching and football,” he says. “I had a lot of hits and even though I started doing chiropractic [therapy], nothing helped me much until I started doing yoga. I am now mostly pain free.”
While he admits his first impressions of yoga were “mellow talk and leotards and some kind of esoteric chick thing that didn’t relate to tough guys,” a decade of regular practice — mostly Bikram so he can still sweat like a guy — has changed Lord’s mind.
“It pains me to go to the gym and see these guys walking around with all their muscles,” Lord explains. “I know they don’t feel good; they’re not healthy. It doesn’t do you any good to be like a piece of steel if you are in danger of pulling muscles if you move quickly. Every weightlifter or athlete in America should have yoga as part of their regimen. If they did, you can be sure they would have far less injury.”
Read on for specific yoga poses for specific sports:
cycling, golf, running, swimming and tennis.
Mind your breath
Doing well in your sport requires mental cross-training as well. The 5,000-year-old practice of yoga helps hone mental focus and body consciousness. “Yoga is about creating awareness. Awareness of your breath. Awareness of your body in space. Awareness of coordination and rhythm,” Yee says. “It brings mindfulness to the activities you’re doing. When you’re at the gym, you aren’t doing the cycle and watching the evening news. You’re cycling and feeling the feedback your body is giving you.”
Weiss credits yoga with elevating her performance as a triathlete. “I would never have been able to compete at the level I do currently if it weren’t for yoga and the balance it has provided in my life,” she says. “It has enabled me to focus and has given me the opportunity to learn how to be alone and clear my mind.”
Yoga instructor and former professional triathlete Kimberly Fowler, creator of a sequenced practice called Yoga for Athletes, says yoga breath work may have actually saved her life. While suffering from a perforated lung during a climbing accident, she says, “I used my ability to control my breath and stay calm.” Today Fowler specializes in helping athletes who she says are often “wound very tight” to harness yoga’s mental edge. “When things get stressful in a race, you can go back to your breath,” she says. “It’s like the calm in the middle of the storm.”
Akers uses yogic breathing for concentration. “I think when I used to play, I would hold my breath the entire duration of the game — but that’s another thing yoga really helped me with — controlling my breath as I'm playing my sport,” she says.
Poses with the mostest
Along with breath, yoga poses are invaluable training tools. “Downward-facing Dog requires you to balance your weight evenly on your hands and feet while retraining the body to work as a connective unit,” says Naughright, whose clients include professional and Olympic athletes. “And when Sun Salutations are done in a fast-paced Ashtanga flow, they improve coordination and agility.”
No matter what your sport, a yoga twist also is a good pose to have in your repertoire. This asana will lengthen and support your spine, help ease backaches and tone the abdominals.
Here are some other key cross-training yoga poses and therapeutic yoga poses for the most popular sports:
Where it hurts: neck, upper body, legs
Therapeutic yoga pose: Side-Angle Standing pose will release tightness in these areas and open up your upper back, chest and hips while restoring your spine’s natural alignment.
Where it hurts: back, legs
Therapeutic yoga pose: Counteract golf’s repetitive twisting to one side with Warrior II pose, which will help relieve back pain; engage your abs; stretch the chest, groin, legs and ankles; and strengthen your legs and ankles.
Where it hurts: hamstrings, shoulders, spine
Therapeutic yoga pose: Target your tension spots with Downward-facing Dog to lengthen and strengthen the hamstrings and calves.
Where it hurts: shoulders
Therapeutic yoga pose: The Sun Salutation series of poses will strengthen and open up your shoulders while also helping you work on coordinating breath with movement.
Where it hurts: shoulders, hips, knees
Therapeutic yoga pose: Improve your overall flexibility and stretch your lower back with a Reclined Twist.
You can learn these poses and more than 70 others with a daily how-to yoga podcast and more than 9 hours of yoga pose videos in the Gaiam Yoga Studio.
Consult your doctor before using any health treatment — including herbal supplements and natural remedies — and tell your doctor if you have a serious medical condition or are taking any medications. The information presented here is for educational purposes only and is in no way intented as substitute for medical counseling.