A Little Yoga for Big Benefits

Yoga for athletes

I know, it feels like a chore, it feels silly, it feels awkward and kinda pointless. You’re not spiritual, you’re not flexible, you’re not a hippy. You don’t know what all those Sanskrit words mean. You’re already strong, you’re already disciplined. Plus, you’re very, very tired.

I’d like to convince you that yoga deserves a place in your life.

Let’s start with ten minutes. Instead of squeezing in an extra mile on your run, or sticking one more hill repeat onto your cycling workout, or rushing to check emails you missed on your hike, force yourself to take ten minutes to stop, breathe and just be. A short, gentle yoga routine can help not only with mobility, but, executed properly, can build specific strength, teach balance, improve circulation and raise your mental game. You don’t even need a mat for a few simple poses.

The word yoga means “yoke.” It is a philosophy and a practice of bringing together mind and body. Through a consistent practice of physical asana (poses), pranayama (breath work) and contemplation (often what we call meditation) we learn to quiet our incessant busy thoughts, become more aware of signals from our body, remove physical and mental patterns we have developed that hold us back, and value the non-material aspects of our being. As athletes this means that we might actually start listening to our bodies during and after workout sessions, maybe lose some compulsive training patterns, and begin to recognize both physical and general life imbalances. If we are really dedicated to just a few thoughtful minutes a day we can experience boundless, holistic changes in our wellness and performance.

A diverse set of asanas challenge our body across all planes of movement, while activities like running and cycling usually depend almost purely on forward motion. We also learn strength and balance with many single leg standing poses, which, when you think about it, translates perfectly to running, as when we run we are basically balancing on one leg, then the other, over and over. I am certainly guilty of collapsing from side to side when I start to fatigue during long runs, indicating I need to focus more on some single leg stability training.

Maybe you already have a consistent stretching routine that has helped keep you physically healthy. That’s important and you’re ahead of most athletes! But a yoga practice is more than stretching our frequently overused muscles. When we turn our attention inward we allow ourselves a chance to step back for more of an objective look at how our sometimes mechanical daily activities affect our body and mind. What is that niggle really telling us? Are we overly consumed with worry over one situation, while neglecting other areas in our life? Can we stop beating ourselves up and allow space for self compassion? Maybe we can start to apply this to our training mindset, letting go of some of our compulsive mileage goals for the week, or realizing when an unanticipated rest day is needed. When race morning jitters set in we have a place to go within ourselves, to calm nerves. And if things might not be going as planned during competition, or even in a larger training block, we can turn to yoga and remind ourselves that our identity is more than “The Athlete.”

There are plenty of resources online (or good old fashioned books) to help you learn basic poses, sun salutations or breathing patterns, but it’s incredibly important to learn some fundamentals from an experienced yoga professional. Many studios have inexpensive introductory rates where you can get some friendly instruction from a certified teacher. If you really can’t get to a live class, choose a reputable online program to get started. Athletes for Yoga is a popular online program for endurance junkies, and Sage Rountree has written multiple texts on yoga for athletes, as well as created a youtube channel with tons of instructional videos (https://www.youtube.com/user/sagerountree/videos).

After your next workout, in the middle of your workday, or before bed – whenever! – try one or two of the following basic yoga asanas to recover, restore and revive your body and spirit.

Child’s Pose: Start on your hands and knees. Keep your hands where they are and slowly let your hips fall back toward your feet. Spread your knees wide and move your feet together, allowing your torso to sink between your knees and toward the ground. Bring your forehead to the ground between you arms and stretch your hands out further if that feels good. Feel a release in the lower back and hips. Breathe deeply in and lengthen your arms and torso, breathe out and sink your hips. Stay here for a few breaths.

Easy Pose with Twist: Sit cross-legged with your hands on knees and spine straight. Inhale deeply and as you do, try to push your sit bones down into the ground while reaching up through the crown of your head, creating length in your spine. You should feel like you are creating more space through the torso. After a few breaths, place your right hand just behind your right hip, reach your left arm straight up, inhale, and very gently twist toward the right, bringing the left hand down to the right knee. Only twist until you feel the stretch, then stop there. Inhale, untwist and return to center. Repeat on the opposite side.

Reclined Bound Angle: Sitting with knees bent, feet on the floor, slowly lower down to a reclined position on your back, knees still bent, feet still on the floor. After a couple breaths here, gently let your knees fall away from each other, toward the floor, and bring the bottoms of your feet together. Let your arms rest easily on the floor, away from your torso, palms up. You should feel an opening in the hips and groin, as well as maybe some across your chest. If this is too uncomfortable, simply straighten your legs. You can use some kind of support, like pillows, under each knee if that helps. Close your eyes and breathe deeply in through your nose, exhale out through your mouth.

Say Namaste if you feel like it!  This customary salutation at the end of class simply translates to: “The light in me recognizes the light in you.” Go ahead and acknowledge your own inner radiance, thank it, and remember to honor yourself in each athletic and non-athletic moment.