In most fitness circles of the West, Yoga has been thought of as a purely Eastern activity mostly about stretching and moaning and getting tied up in strange “body knots”. Would it surprise you to learn that 73% of respondents to a recent poll at runnersworld.com said they do not practice yoga? It may not be surprising, but we think it should be. We believe that yoga has great benefits for the Western as well as the Eastern athlete.
“Why?” you ask. Studies have shown that yoga dispels stress, helps with weight loss, comforts pain, helps consistency with an exercise routine, and even improves a runner’s time. The strength and flexibility you develop in Yoga–namely in the core, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors–can help you run more efficiently and stay injury-free, says Adam St. Pierre, a coach, biomechanist, and exercise physiologist for the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. Additionally, holding challenging yoga poses builds strength and determination that will come back to you on the running track. Lauren Fleshman, a two-time national outdoor 5000-meter champion, began practicing yoga after breaking her foot in 2008. But the poses strengthened more than just her foot: “Yoga helps me control my emotions while I’m in discomfort on the road,” she says. “Enduring an intense pose is a lot like enduring a long run or tempo run.”
Yoga is not only a boon to runners, but to gymnasts as well. You would think that gymnasts acquire all the stretching they need on their own, but not so. Certain yoga stances demand a level of flexibility and as they are practiced; loosening occurs. Poses such as Monkey, Plow, and Full Wheel complement the motions and movements of a gymnast. Holding these positions in combination with deep breathing brings great benefit. Also, since yoga emphasizes correct spinal alignment, it can help one work towards better posture. Several poses stretch the muscles in the back and shoulders, and help lengthen the spine. A few poses that may be particularly helpful for gymnasts are Twists such as Sage pose and Half-Lord of the Fishes pose, which helps bring balance to the spine. Backbends like Cobra and Bridge pose open the back and encourage strength that lifts the shoulders. The traditional Lotus pose builds up the spine to keep proper posture. Lotus pose begins on the floor in a comfortable cross-legged position. If your body allows, pull both feet up onto the thighs. Allow the chin to lower slightly, keeping your gaze in front of you. With relaxed shoulders, rest your hands on your lap.
Make balance a priority. When your workouts in running or in your chosen sport are most demanding, stick with yoga that is more relaxing and more focused on breath and meditation. Conversely, in the off-season of your sport, you can attempt more challenging yoga flows that will work towards greater strength, thus optimizing and supporting your body’s needs.
There are as many yoga offerings out there as there are people practicing. What is important is that you find an atmosphere and an instructor that allows you to feel most at ease so that you will be consistent in your practice. It can take years to become an expert at yoga poses, so don’t expect that at your first class no matter how great of an athlete you are. So often, people who excel in a given sport become hyper-focused on achieving greater accomplishments than “the next guy”. In Yoga, you are encouraged to pay attention to your own body and respond lovingly to it. Taking small steps to greater strength and flexibility over time is more important that “striking that pose” and holding it to eternity. Initially, the goal for competitive athletes in practicing yoga may just be to avoid injury. In 2011, the ultrarunner, St. Pierre, got too aggressive in pigeon pose, trying to stretch his glutes and piriformis, and missed three months of running as a result. Yoga instructors should be able to offer advice on targeting overly tight muscles with pose modifications.
Hopefully, the Western world as a whole is beginning to abandon outdated ideas about Yoga and is actively allowing Yoga to come alongside other forms of fitness to receive greater health.