If you’re training for the pros or a weekend warrior, or if you have a sport you love you’re an athlete. Being an athlete is about more than competition. It is a commitment to a craft, focusing on both mental and physical energy on honing a skill. Yoga for athletes can help EVERY athlete irrespective of their sport or discipline. So what are the major yoga for athletes benefits?

Yoga for athletes benefits are both physical and mental which makes it such a powerful tool. Yoga improves your balance, core strength, flexibility, mobility and enhances mental focus. Additionally it increases an athletes body awareness enabling you to identify problems earlier and prevent injury.

Yoga for athletes' popularity is growing. If you want to perform at a higher level, recover quicker and play for longer, incorporating yoga into your training should be a priority. There is also quite a lot of evidence of how yoga for athletes has benefited many professional athletes.

Yoga and Professional Athletes

Although yoga in professional sports has become more mainstream in the 2000’s, some athletes were utilising its benefits far earlier. One of the earliest pioneers was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who discovered yoga in 1961 after reading "An Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramahansa Yogananda. 

His professional basketball career in the NBA lasted for 20 seasons (1969 to 1989). Only 8 players in the history of the NBA have played 20 seasons or more. The average NBA career length for that period rose from 3.83 years in 1969 to 4.32 years in 1989.

In those 20 seasons Kareem averaged 78 regular games per season. He never missed more than 20 games in a season and he believes regular yoga is the main reason for his longevity.

Yoga for athletes_Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

NBA's Record Points Scorer, 6 x NBA Champion & MVP

"Yoga is somewhat hard to quantify in terms of benefits because you see them in all the injuries you don't get... For me I noticed improvement in my posture – that was key for me because I had been having lower back problems. After I started doing yoga positions – asanas — all that changed. My health greatly improved overall”

Before starting yoga Kareem hardly stretched causing his muscles to tighten up and decrease his range of motion. Yoga also brought awareness to his balance which he rarely worked on. His yoga for athletes benefits resulted in the following NBA records on his retirement:

  • Points scored (38,387)
  • Games played (1,560)
  • Minutes played (57,446)
  • Field goals made (15,837)
  • Field goal attempts (28,307)
  • Blocked shots (3,189)
  • Defensive rebounds (9,394)
  • Career wins (1,074)

Yoga in the NBA

Kareem's achievements have not gone unnoticed by many modern NBA players. These players are very open about their yoga practice and frequently speak about it’s benefits for basketball. The most notable NBA yogi is LeBron James who may end up breaking Kareem’s record for points scored in the NBA. 

Yoga for athletes_Yoga in the NBA

Other players like Andre Iguodala, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, and Kevin Garnett appreciate yoga. The combination of mental and physical exercise provides a deeper understanding of body awareness and mindfulness.

Yoga in the NFL

Yoga for athletes in the NFL has proven to be very beneficial. The physical and mental demands of grid-iron are super intense so yoga is being utilised by teams and players. Much like yin and yang, the two complement each other both mentally and physically.

The Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks now practice yoga on a regular basis. Yoga is also a required workout for all rookies and players rehabbing injuries on the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears.

As in the NBA, the benefits of yoga are evident in the most successful modern NFL player. Tom Brady is the GOAT and has just completed his 20th season. He wants to play until he’s 45, so there are many more records he could break. In terms of longevity he has easily surpassed the career average of 3.3 years for all players and 4.4 years for quarterbacks(3). Here are some of the records he currently holds:

  • Most passing yards, regular season and playoffs (85,959)
  • Most passing touchdowns, postseason included: (614)
  • Game-winning drives, postseason included (58)
  • Super Bowl appearances (9)
  • Super Bowl wins (6)
  • Super Bowl MVP's (4)
  • Super Bowl passing yards (2,838)
  • Super Bowl touchdown passes (18)

He credits regular yoga and meditation as major factors in enabling him to play for so long and be relative injury free.

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Tom Brady

 6 x Super Bowl Winner & 4 x Super Bowl MVP

“The biggest issue is muscle pliability. That's what I think the biggest secret to me is. What is muscle pliability? Muscle pliability is keeping your muscles long and soft”

Some other NFL players have also been very open about the yoga for athletes benefits they have experienced. Hall of Famer Ray Lewis was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2000 and 2003 and Super Bowl MVP when he helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl in 2000. Throughout his playing career his yoga practice was a major part of his weekly game preparation. He believes it helped him prolong his career and was a valuable aid in developing a healthier lifestyle.

Other yoga advocates in the NFL include Pro bowlers Vernon Davis and Victor Cruz. Vernon credits Bikram yoga for keeping him mentally fresh and strong throughout the gruelling NFL season. Victor Cruz benefited from the New York Giants mandatory yoga class for all rookies.He continued practising after the class as he identified that yoga helped his focus, mental toughness and improved his breathing.

Yoga in Other Sports

More and more professional sports people are crediting yoga for part of their success. In tennis, Novak Djokovic incorporates yoga and meditation to achieve emotional balance. Serena Williams is also an avid yoga fan and has been known to lead a class or two.

Ryan Giggs and the New Zealand All Blacks have incorporated yoga into the training for a number of years. The results have seen Ryan Giggs become the most decorated soccer player in the history game. The All Blacks winning percentage since 2010 is a staggering 92.13%. They won back-to-back World Cups (2011, 2015) and held the Bledisloe Cup from Australia for 15 years and counting!

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Ryan Giggs

13 Premier League titles, two Champions League titles, four FA Cup wins

“It tests parts of your body that you just don’t use in football. The first time I did it, about five years ago, I was completely knackered. I went home from the training ground and slept for three hours in the afternoon. I actually dreaded yoga for the first year because it made muscles I didn’t know I had ache."

There is no doubt that yoga for athletes benefits EVERY athlete irrespective of their sport or discipline. Many athletes, professional and amateur, are adding regular yoga workouts to their training. They are seeing benefits in a number of areas such as balance, core and injury prevention. This is helping them to perform at a higher level, recover quicker and to participate for longer.

Yoga for Athletes Research

A comprehensive study by the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health looked at the impact of yoga on sports. It found that a daily yoga practice improved sporting actions efficiency and effectiveness.

Yoga can help a sportsperson to have evenness of mind and control of their thoughts even during stress and/or adversity. Yoga can play a key role in cultivating mind control and concentration which helps a sportsperson to perform at their peak leaves and yoga helps us a lot.

If you are looking to gain a competitive edge in your sport, yoga for athletes will work for you. So let's focus on how yoga for athletes can benefit you. How can you improve your sporting performance? What are the principles of yoga for athletes? How to practice yoga safely?

Yoga for Athletes Benefits

Practising physical yoga and doing breathing exercises will improve your performance in any sport. Athletes who are not practising yoga are competing at a disadvantage. They are missing an opportunity for peak performance and longevity. Exercise tightens up your body, often putting muscle groups In opposition. You need to find a balance as well as a way to release the strain and tension in your muscles.

Yoga stretches muscles for greater flexibility and strengthens the core and smaller muscles. This improves form and economy of movements, helping overall performance. Yoga also develops lung capacity allowing you to sustain steady breath during physical activities. 

Making yoga a significant part of your lifestyle not only benefits your sport game but will change your life for the better. Aim for 3 sessions per week but if you are able to, weave yoga into your life as a regular routine up to 5 times a week.

Improve Your Mental Game

Athletes need mental concentration and focus. Committing daily to a very specific regimen is not easy. Yoga will create positive change in your mind. Learn meditation for greater focus, improved performance and less stress from competing. Visualisation helps create the winning results you desire and helps you communicate with yourself in a more positive way.

Yoga will help eliminate the noise and you will learn to set SMART goals. You will focus on achieving your personal best ensuring your game will improve. No matter your age, flexibility level, or sport, yoga will assist you. Like any other process the more you do the better you will get. Commit yourself and you will see and most importantly, feel results.

Yoga for Athletes Method

Yoga combines a wealth of practices that build a better body and a stronger mind. It uses physical movement, breath control and meditative focus. For athletes the Hatha yoga tradition combined with the Vinyasa style provide the perfect forms and techniques. 

Hatha is a Sanskrit word that translates to force or physical. Hatha invokes the balance of opposites. The technique of Vinyasa means “to place in a special way”. Linking the two forms and techniques creates strength, flexibility, endurance and balance.

Yoga for Athletes workouts are designed to work all parts of the body equally. Most sports specific training tend to neglect efficient breathing or the focus on improving one's mental game. Yoga for athletes will strengthen the parts of the body that did not receive attention.

Many traditional exercise programs overwork certain muscle groups or build muscle bulk unevenly. Use Yoga to develop a wholesome and well rounded regimen. Yoga will expand your focus and physical practice to build more than just muscular strength.

Finding a Flow State

Flow State means that's your entire mind, body and spirit are connected in order to hone in on a single activity. This could be playing a volley in tennis or doing a burpee. When you are in a flow state, you feel strong and alert. You are in an effortless control and at the peak of your ability. This allows you to escape distractions, pressures and negative burdens.

Yoga and meditation balance the rights and left sides of your brain to help you gain full concentration and focus.

The right brain is responsible for our creativity. The mid-brain is responsible for the energy that powers us through the tasks of the day and for the creation of memories. The brain stem is responsible for physical stimulus responses, such as swinging a golf club or throwing a ball.

When the four parts of your brain are in harmony you are able to progress or ‘flow’ easily through activities or sequences. A regular yoga practice will greatly enhance your ability to tap into a flow state.

Yoga also offers a reprieve from the stress of sports related activities. Poses enhance strength, cardiovascular condition, balance and flexibility. Yoga, in its most simple form is breathing and feeling. Doing the poses and connecting on your breathing will enhance your mind and body to achieve higher standards in your chosen sport.

Yoga for Physical and Mental Strength

Body strength is the building block of success regardless of your sports or athletic activity. No amount of weight lifting with free weights will give you the strength that is achieved by holding up your own body weight in yoga. 

Practising various yoga poses builds strength and improved lean muscle mass. The muscles you need to strengthen or need to stretch or rest varies from sport to sport. You can adapt your yoga practice to serve your specific sports needs.

Almost everything you do in life activates your core, and almost everything in yoga works on your core strength. Yoga strengthens the stabilising muscles that are vital in protecting your joints and spine. These things are usually missed in other physical workouts. The core guides your balance, and your ability to balance through different movements can make or break your game. 

If your balance is on point, it gives you a solid base to work from and helps maximise movements and prevent falls and injuries. If you play tennis or golf, you know the value of range of motion. Yoga improves joint and muscular flexibility improving your body’s structure. Your joints and muscle flexibility will also foster greater range of motion.

Yoga for Recovery

Intense engagement in sports can put a huge strain on the body, and it is important to balance that with rest and recovery. Restorative yoga aids your body to recover from any particular strain, whether it's an injury or some other physical ailment. 

Yoga helps put athletes back together after a tough game or workout. It allows the body to heal and will tell you where it is tight and where future injuries may be brewing. Yoga improves your control over the noise of mental chatter to create a centre of focus. When your mind learns to move easily and stop forcing movements, you will prevent injuries and increase your flexibility, both mentally and physically.

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Lebron James

3 time NBA Champion & 4 time NBA MVP

"Yoga isn’t just about the body, it’s also about the mind, and it’s a technique that has really helped me. You do have to focus because there’s some positions that can really hurt you at times if you aren’t focused and breathing right.”

The Principles of Yoga for Athletes

There are seven areas that Yoga for Athletes workouts focus on to establish safety and comfort in the practice.

Breath

Yoga emphasises deep diaphragmatic and controlled breath. This improves your quality of breathing and oxygen efficiency. Oxygen fuels strength, movements and cardiovascular endurance. Maximising the oxygen you take in and converting it to energy will enable you to perform longer. Breath is also an innate tool to keep you calm and focused. 

Feel

Understanding what your body feels could mean the difference between incurring and avoiding an injury. By being in touch with your breath you increase your body awareness. In yoga you want to feel something in every pose, feeling energetically engaged.

Listening to Your Body

You don't always need to push your body so when doing yoga be more selective. Choose more intense yoga practice to expand, grow and progress into new abilities or accomplishments. Subsequently choose a gentler yoga to take care of your aching body.

Let go of Competition

As an athlete you are trained to compete–plain and simple. However, on the yoga mat, you have the chance to set the competition aside and be stress free to focus on the poses. On the mat, athletes can embrace the moment and the yoga practice for themselves, focusing only on pose benefits and alignment.

Let go of Judgement

Judgement can be quite intense for an athlete. There is an image to uphold or a level of performance to meet or exceed and you are always striving for this. You may even judge your peers which is negative energy. When you are on your mat let go of judgement. 

Let go of Expectations

Letting go of expectations is about being open to possibility. Anticipate everything, expect nothing. Embrace the mat by being open and trusting your body to do exactly what it can. This will make yoga far more enjoyable and beneficial. Expectation usually keeps you attached to your desired outcome.

Stay present in the Moment

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift–that's why it's called the present! The present moment is the only moment you really have any control or influence over. On the mat you stay in the present moment by focusing on your breath. When you draw your attention to your breathing, you are drawn into the present moment.

Preparing for Yoga

The body is complex, so developing knowledge of how it functions will help you listen to it and strengthen It. We need to understand the importance of our core, balance and posture and the role they play in our daily lives.

Core

A vast majority of the adult population leads a rather sedentary lifestyle (sitting at desks, driving cars and relaxing on sofas). This has resulted in many of us having a weak core. More than the obvious abdominal muscles, your core encompasses all the muscles that are activated in your abdomen and torso. The core is the epicentre of your body and it supports all movements. 

 Power and control from your core enables you to move more efficiently and protect yourself from injury. If you have a weak torso and core, yoga will give you the opportunity to develop this part of your body with slow intentional movements. It will build an awareness of your entire body and highlights weak areas.

Balance

Excellent balance is a fundamental need for playing sports well. An athlete's ability to balance through different movements is a major key to success. The ability to balance is equal to an awareness of the centre of gravity, especially while you are moving. Without this you will fall over! 

The closer you are to the earth and the wider your base of support, the lower your centre of gravity is and the easier it is to balance. Moving your centre of gravity further away from the earth or narrowing your base of support, takes more effort to stay balanced. Your strength and control from your core allows you to move better when your centre of gravity changes.

Yoga poses take you through varying levels of stability. Good footwork is very important in moving, balancing, and shifting your body during complex manoeuvres. Wearing shoes protect our feet but also disconnects us from the ground. Yoga gets you out of your shoes, back on your mat, and more connected to the ground. It's a place where you can strengthen your feet and refine your balancing skills.

Posture

Without posture, core and balance training can only go so far. To compliment your core training you must correct your posture and address any underlying issues. If your posture isn't aligned and strong you are in danger of injury. Many long-term injuries suffered such as back strain are often a result of moving with unhealthy posture. 

The body naturally avoids or protects itself from pain, whether physical or emotional. The compensation is to cringe or hunch over. Both are inefficient or faulty movement patterns, they interfere with healthy posture. In sports, repetitive movements without correction may reinforce poor posture.

Yoga reinforces what you already know about core strength, good posture, and efficient movement. It signals us to refocus and move more deliberately while maintaining healthy posture. Yoga poses with the correct execution and alignment, encourages the ideal posture through the engagement of the core. Position of the head is also important in a healthy posture. In sports, where the head goes, the body follows.

Safe Yoga for Athletes

Developing a routine that is well rounded from beginning to end is the key to safe yoga. Repetitive movements in sport can lead to imbalances in the body. Understanding the demands of a sport or activity helps you select poses to enhance performance or correct an imbalance. 

Most yoga injuries occur from pushing the body too far and not preparing and cooling down. It is up to you to understand, listen to and feel your body so you can grasp when you should stop and when you should continue. 

Yoga workouts focus on a full body workout tailored for specific sports. Many of the poses in the workouts offer modifications to suit the needs of the various levels. Always take breaks when required and don't push yourself past your limits. 

To enjoy a safe yoga practice you need to build a stable and strong centre. Incorporating the following seven ethics will ensure a healthy and safe practice.

Establish a Base and Dynamic Tension

For maximum stability, mobility and extension, build your poses from the ground up by establishing a firm foundation. If your hands are on the mat spread your fingers wide. If your feet are on the mat, distribute your weight evenly across your feet and press down to form a strong base. Employ your entire body by engaging and contracting your muscles to become stable in a pose.

Create Core Stability

The muscles of your midsection (abdominals, lower back, gluten, hip flexors) make up your core. Engage these muscles before moving into poses and while holding them, to create strength, stability and mobility. When you work from a stable core you can move with confidence into your poses and hold them with great ease.

Aligning the Spine

This spine is supported through core stabilisation and the head follows the movement of the spine. When moving into twists, side bends, forward bends or backward bends, always start by engaging your core and finding your neutral spine. This engagement strengthens your muscles in proper alignment and helps prevent injury.

Soften and Align Knees

In most poses your knees stay in line with your ankles and point directly out over your toes. Keep a soft bend in the knees (microbend) to avoid locking out the joints. The microbend protects the joints by strengthening surrounding muscles and corrects any muscular imbalances in the legs.

Relax the Shoulders Back and Down

When stressed, fatigued or tense your shoulders tend to rise towards your ears. This increases tension in your body and decreases core stability. When holding a pose your shoulders should be drawn naturally back and down to help reduce tension in your neck and shoulders.

Hinge at the hips

When moving in and out of forward bends, bend your knees and hinge at your hips. This action will allow you to maintain a neutral spine and prevent injuries to your lower back. Come out of forward bends the same way, finding a neutral spine and using the legs to return to a standing position. Use this movement in daily activities when lifting objects or bending over.

Shortening the Lever

When hip hinging, flexing or extending your spine, keep your arms out to the side or alongside your body to reduce strain on the muscles of your lower back. Bend your elbows instead of using straight arms.

Yoga Props

Using props to explore your yoga practice enables you to modify poses. If you are hesitant about doing poses due to stiffness or tightness, you should invest in props. They will allow you to completely release and relax in poses and help you build strength and balance in your body.

Yoga straps are useful for aligning your posture and easing into poses. They are especially helpful if you have tense muscles or recovering from injuries. They allow you to fully experience your poses while maintaining structural alignment of your body.

A yoga bolster is like a body pillow but firmer and either rectangular or circular in shape. It's main purpose is to create relaxation, help soften a posture, or aid in opening the body.

Yoga blocks help in poses where tightness or unsteadiness prevents you from reaching the floor. They stop you overstretching or coming out of alignment. For beginners, yoga blocks can be used when the flexibility isn't quite there yet. You want to maintain alignment and posture in all the poses.

Yoga for Athletes Works

Yoga for athletes offers you a competitive advantage in any sport you play. It can be used to build the basics of one's physical fitness. The workouts are diverse and effective, targeting more areas than most traditional training. Regular use of the workouts will improve balance, core strength, endurance and flexibility. Athletes will become more body aware and develop more balanced movement patterns.

Developing better breathing techniques and using meditation and visualisation will improve your mental concentration and focus. Yoga for athletes also strengthens weaker neglected parts of the body. Restorative yoga is an important area in yoga for athletes. It will aid the body in recovering from injuries or strains, ensuring athletes are ready to pursue their chosen sport in the best possible shape

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