Nearly 20 million Americans practice yoga for almost as many reasons, but primarily most hope to improve health, become stronger, and feel happier. Older Americans benefit from yoga’s gentle stretches and non-impact aerobic aspects, while younger mothers, children and teens use yoga as a way to develop strong personal bonds, self-awareness and overall clarity; and every practitioner in between knows that yoga can be the perfect choice -- no matter what your age or lifestyle – to help achieve the goal of overall well-being.
But perhaps the group with the most to gain from this ancient art is athletes. Most sports require a certain degree of physical prowess, including flexibility, endurance and strength; and yoga asanas or postures offer athletes a plethora of ways and means to improve on these qualities, as well as innovative techniques to incorporate balance, muscle conditioning and healing relief for joints.
At its core, yoga is an exploration of the body. A regular practitioner is able to develop an in-depth knowledge of the body’s biomechanics, including a greater understanding of exactly how it functions, and the changing nature of its limitations. Over time, an athlete can use yoga as a way to work with the body’s inevitable changes in order to improve performance and remain injury-free.
Yoga breathing (pranayama) techniques can also greatly improve aerobic capacity by helping to strengthen the diaphragm and expand lung tissue, resulting in enhanced athletic endurance. Yoga breathing deepens the flow of breath, improves core strength, and teaches us how to control and regulate the fight or flight response in challenging situations: Think third down and goal!
Since the primary functions of yoga are to rid the body of obstacles, as well as to calm the mind, athletic performance can be greatly improved with regular practice. As most athletes know, the mind can be the biggest stumbling block towards achieving their best. Being “psyched out” can often lead to devastating defeat.
Yoga helps athletes to step back and become a witness to their own consciousness. From this place of inner awareness the athlete is able to observe his or her own performance, without judgment, and can envision a clearer path towards their highest performance level.
As more and more professional and amateur sports teams employ yoga coaches and encourage practice as a way to stay healthy and limber, this ancient and varied practice will continue to thrive and inspire the athlete in all of us.