Yoga is great cross-training for our whole life: it gives us exactly what we practice, across everything we do.
For athletes, how we yoga is even more important than just showing up. Practice doing things the hard way, we find ourselves doing lots of things the hard way. Practice being easy in our bodies in the midst of great challenge, we get pretty capable in our endeavors.
This easy capability is invaluable to athletes in every category. The greatest athletes are always the ones who make the impossible look easy. It's the difference between winning and losing. For those of us who aren't training for competition, it can also make the difference between thoroughly enjoying a long run or steep hike vs. just waiting for it to be over.
How to practice
There are many ways to do yoga. Most approaches focus on poses: practice posing enough, and you'll get good at some poses. But athleticism is about movement. So athletes can approach yoga with a focus on movement, rather than on posing.
Skillful movement blends strength and flexibility, balance and endurance, focus and calm, all at the same time. Great yoga for an athlete practices all these things, all at once. If you want to move capably, practice moving capably.
Athletes may not be so intrigued by contorting a foot behind their head, but we're very into becoming more capable movers. Yoga can be our perfect cross-training; it's all in how we practice.
Four training tips
1) Explore: get equally into every inch of your body, in every direction you can move. Rather than focus on rigid poses, move around and try new things!
Exploration in your yoga gets you good at everything you can do with your body, rather than just a few things. Great athletes are adaptable. They make their own rules. It's extremely useful to practice this in yoga.
2) Relax: stay easy, relaxed and movable, even in the midst of substantial physical and focus challenges. Rather than holding poses rigidly with arms and legs flexed, soften at your joints and relax.
From rigid and tense, movement is nearly impossible. Most yoga approaches hold poses rigidly; even "vinyasa" involves moving quickly from rigid pose to rigid pose. For athletes, this isn't so useful. Try running with your arms and legs flexed stick-straight!
From relaxed rather than rigid, easy movement becomes possible. Practice relaxed in any situation, and you'll get to move capably in any situation.
3) Move Naturally: use your breath first, then your belly, to begin every movement. A key to both speed and endurance involves overcoming inertia: here, the initial movement from nothing to something. If you use only your muscles to initiate movement, and if that movement begins with your hands and feet, you'll lose speed and tire quickly.
Keep your body relaxed enough that your inhale begins to lift and expand your body: this is the beginning of movement. Next, lead the movement of your arms and legs by rolling from your belly and hips. Try it! Let your arms hang completely relaxed, then get them to swing around by rolling your hips. Try different speeds and changing direction of your hip rolls for some interesting effects.
If you're relaxed in your body, you can move your arms and legs very quickly and powerfully, without tiring, just by breathing and moving from your middle. This requires some practice, but is extremely useful and fun when it takes hold.
4) Experiment: you are your own best laboratory, so test your yoga and find what works best. Maybe strong classes with lots of muscular effort are best for you. Maybe relaxing helps you get more from your body. Maybe it's once a week as a wind-down, or every day as a constant stepping up of your ability.
I've used yoga as my only cross training for mountaineering, climbing, ski-touring, cycling, running, swimming... it works. Mostly it depends on how you yoga; it's important to practice calm, capable movability if that's what you want to get.
For me, yoga has been a great way to transition from athletic "show of strength" - to actually being strong and capable without the show. Show of strength is tiring. You might be able to defeat a single adversary, but you'll have little energy for surprises or sustained effort.
Yoga helps develop a more sustainable and useful kind of force and control. With practice, you get to surmount both endurance and strength hurdles without tiring yourself out. You get faster. You get to do things people say are impossible. Confident gliding across unsolvable rock faces becomes easy. Endless uphills become fun tests. Out-moving your adversary: no problem.
The best thing about yoga is, it doesn't require that we take any of this on faith. Yoga is 100 percent experiential. It's ours to explore, test and refine. Make your own yoga! You'll get exactly what you practice.