Poised for Yoga

Whole body movements. Functional stretches. Proprioceptive training. Breathing techniques. Yoga’s got it all for athletes looking to round out their training or rehab programs.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.5, July/August 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1305/yoga.htm

It’s a tradition thousands of years old, yet yoga has never been more popular than it is today. Millions of Americans practice yoga, and an increasing number of them are competitive athletes.

“Twenty years ago, athletes didn’t consider practicing yoga until they got injured, and then it was the last stop on the train after orthopedist, chiropractor, and physical therapist,” says Beryl Bender Birch, founder of The Hard and The Soft Astanga Yoga Institute in East Hampton, N.Y., and author of Power Yoga. “Now, there’s a lot more awareness of yoga for the prevention of and recovery from sports injury.”

Yoga, especially the more strenuous form called astanga or “power yoga,” helps prevent injury by making the body stronger and more flexible. “Athletes get pretty beat up and structurally out of shape,” says Baron Baptiste, a yoga instructor based in Boston, Mass., who has worked with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and many other pro athletes, and is author of Journey Into Power. “When that happens, certain muscle groups get tighter and imbalances develop. Their strengths tend to get stronger, but their weaknesses tend to get weaker. And they’re only as strong as their weakest link. Power yoga ends up being the perfect counterbalance for athletes in training by helping to develop functional strength and flexibility.”

Yoga can also enhance performance. “The ACSM’s guidelines for an exercise program were expanded in 1998 to include flexibility, because we know it helps overall athleticism,” says Andy Getzin, MD, Head Team Physician at Ithaca College. “As we age, we lose flexibility, then we lose function. Improved flexibility tends to improve muscular function, and yoga is one of the best places to develop that.”

Another plus is that yoga has a mental component that can lead to improved concentration, reduced stress, and an overall sense of wellness. “There have been a lot of studies about what really leads an athlete to success,” says Jim Eavenson, founder of Santosha Yoga in Ithaca, N.Y. “Yoga’s main goal—the ability to focus and not be distracted, as well as to have good consideration of oneself—has been found to be important.”

Indeed, the word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit term for union, and refers to uniting one’s mind and body. There are several styles of yoga, including Hatha (also known as “gentle yoga”), Bikram (also called “hot yoga” because it’s practiced in sauna-like temperatures), and Astanga, which is particularly well suited for athletes because of its use of a series of flowing movements (called vinyasa) through a range of poses (or asanas).

The objective of yoga is to form the body into poses that require both strength and flexibility. One pose is called shoulder stand, an inverted posture in which the shoulders and upper back bear all the weight as the legs are lifted straight up in air until the body forms an “L”. Another is downward-facing dog, in which the arms reach forward to the ground, the head is dropped, the buttocks are raised, and the legs are nearly straightened with feet flat on the ground so the body forms a “V”. In the standing forward bend, you raise your hands, bend forward from the hips, bring head and arms toward the floor, and place your palms flat on the ground. The sun salutation, a 12-step sequence of poses, targets back, arm, and leg muscles.

Finding Flexibility
Athletes who do extensive strength training often find themselves becoming bigger but tighter at the same time. Yoga can help to alleviate that conundrum. “For many athletes, it’s a challenge to put on muscle mass while maintaining flexibility,” says Getzin. “Yoga is an excellent complement when you’re trying to increase strength but not lose flexibility.”

Agrees Bender Birch, “Weightlifters will show up in our classes, and they’re so bulky and tight from just lifting constantly that they can’t access the strength they’ve worked so hard to develop.”

Baptiste notes that becoming more flexible will enable athletes to work out a lot of kinks that can hinder training and performance. “If you have a knot or pain in your shoulder related to muscular imbalance, it’s going to limit your ability to really push yourself,” he says. “You’re going to back off because of the pain or to subconsciously protect yourself from further injuring it. Through functional power yoga training, essentially a lot of those aches and pains disappear, because you’re giving the body the counterbalance it needs. Your joints and muscles actually feel cleaner and less achy.”

“Yoga is the best way to get flexible,” adds Eavenson, “because it stretches the body in ways that are much more sophisticated and complex than the basic 10 or 12 stretches any athlete might learn to do. It’s kind of a full-body approach, in that changing a pose slightly can affect the rest of the body. For example, the way you move your big toe while you stand can actually affect what’s happening in the neck and shoulder.

“It’s all connected,” he continues, “so rather than calling something a hamstring stretch, you should realize it’s really targeting the hamstring, shoulders, along the spine, extensor muscles, the calves, and certain tendons that might be too short.”

Hilary Lindsay, a yoga teacher in Nashville, Tenn., began working with Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George six years ago, and now teaches yoga to many of his teammates as well. “They find they feel a lot less pain in their bodies after a game,” she says. “Some of them also find it helps to free themselves up, like the way Eddie can turn his torso in a direction completely different from the direction his legs are going—yoga has helped him do that. Receivers also say they find it really helpful, especially those with chronic injuries and scar tissue.”

It’s not just big, bulky football players who can benefit from yoga. Long-distance runners also can have issues with flexibility. “I don’t believe runners stop running because they get old—it’s because they get tight,” says Bender Birch, who has worked with the New York Road Runners Club. “As the hamstrings get tighter and tighter from the specificity of training, it’s like cranking down a guitar string—eventually something’s going to snap. The whole principle of some of the stronger forms of yoga is to open up these tight areas.”

The Mind-Body Connection
Along with flexibility gains, many athletes are benefiting from yoga’s focus on the mind-body connection. “Most athletes will probably start yoga for physical reasons,” says Bender Birch. “But the mental component is always there—they just may not realize it. Yoga is about linking the mind and body, and whether or not you’re aware of it, you can’t really separate the two. The mental components are more subtle and you might not see them right away.

“Practice in the yoga scriptures is defined as ‘effort toward steadiness of mind,’” continues Bender Birch. “The whole objective of yoga is to be present in this moment in this place, and focus on one’s own pointedness.”

Bender Birch points out how this can help a track athlete. “If you are a competitive runner in a race, you need to have an awareness of what everyone else in the pack is doing,” she says. “But at some point you have to focus on your own race. If you spend too much time focused on what everyone else is doing, it’s going to cost you energy.”

Much of yoga’s mental work is based on breathing techniques. “For example, one of the techniques of breathing is the ujjayi breath, which has a sound like the ocean,” says Eavenson. “I teach it to most people as they begin yoga, and because the mind can follow the sound, it is calming. Many people use it in their lives when stressed to feel calm, centered, and focused.”

“You can’t do ujjayi breathing unless you pay attention to it,” adds Bender Birch. “And just doing this brings about transformation, but it’s very subtle.”

Aladar Kogler, PhD, co-Head Coach of the Columbia University fencing teams, author of Yoga for Athletes, and founder of Columbia’s Sports Psychological Research Laboratory, has devoted much of his life to studying the benefits of yoga. “Yoga can be used for controlling the mind, controlling emotions,” he says. “The biggest obstacle for many athletes is fear of failure or losing. Through yoga, you can learn how not to be attached to the results, and you can just enjoy the process of competition itself.”

Kogler also combines yoga and hypnosis, called autogenic training. “It can be used for coping with anxiety and fear, and for being able to bear the hard work and heavy loading of weight training or running,” Kogler says. “It also helps develop a positive attitude for coping with the anxiety of injury or rehab.”

In the Athletic Training Room
Yoga has found its way into some athletic training rooms, both for healthy and rehabbing athletes. Denise Yoder, MS ATC/L, Assistant Athletic Trainer at Augustana College, introduced a short program to her football athletes that they do prior to their spring lifting sessions to help get the muscles and tendons in the joints warmed up.

“The poses are held for a 15 count and involve the ankles, shoulders, elbows, hips, back and knees,” she says. “It met with some resistance at first, but soon they said they noticed a difference in their workouts due to the ‘warmup’ with yoga. They feel better prepared. They increased their flexibility and felt they had a better workout.”

Cecily Dawson, MS, ATC/L, Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, also has introduced yoga to her student-athletes. “Yoga provides a lot of core strength and balance training,” she says. “A lot of the poses are really challenging, like those where you stand on one foot and hold a position for 45 seconds to a minute. The athletes are all in really good condition already, but they find out that all the isometric stuff in yoga is really taxing. And many of them like the amount of stretching and flexibility training.”

“We incorporated many of the yoga stretches into an early-season stretching routine for several of our track athletes,” says Karen Hostetter, MS, ATC, Athletic Trainer at George Fox University. “I am hoping to incorporate a stretching and core strengthening routine into each of our sports’ preseason programs.”

Yoder also recommends yoga as a rehab tool. “I utilize it for all types of injuries, especially when dealing with flexibility and proprioception,” she says. “I have found it useful in dealing with back injuries as well as lower-extremity strains and sprains.”

Poses that deal with proprioception are particularly useful. “With proprioception comes strength without having to use a piece of equipment,” Yoder says. “I will use poses throughout a rehab program, from something as simple as a mountain pose (standing with feet together and eyes closed), to a standing scale (balancing on one foot with arms out or at the side). The important thing is making sure that the athlete is warmed up properly and that it is used in conjunction with other forms of rehabilitation—range of motion, increasing strength, etc. It isn’t for everyone. But my athletes seem to know that it has benefits and they can expect yoga in some way if they have to see me for rehab.”

Dawson occasionally sends rehabbing athletes, particularly those with back and hamstring problems, to yoga class. “Many of the things they do in yoga class are the same exercises we do for back rehab, so it saves us time by just sending them there,” she says. “They all seem to really like it.”

Yoder adds that yoga can help keep athletes from getting bored in their rehab programs. “In my experience, the more challenged (within the guidelines of healing phases) the athletes feel during rehabilitation, the more likely they are to continue with what you need them to do to return to the field or the floor,” she says. “A happier athlete is one who seems to complain less and seems to show up on time and is motivated. But it is important to be familiar with what you are trying to accomplish with the different yoga poses. As with anything else, you can run into problems if you incorporate things too quickly.”

Getting Started
Most competitive athletes already train extensively, so they may feel that they don’t have time to add another element to their program. That’s why you need some creative strategies for introducing the idea. “For the past two years, we’ve had yoga instructors conduct free classes right down the hall, usually early in the morning,” Dawson says. “Some of the athletes do them as teams, such as cross country and sometimes the soccer team. And a lot of individual athletes from every team, especially swimmers and skiers, also attend.”

Sometimes, appealing to athletes’ competitive instincts can spur them to give yoga a try. “They can be frustrated at first because it looks so easy,” Yoder says. “But once they get into a pose and are unable to hold it, they see the challenge right away.”

Although the market abounds with yoga books, videos, and classes, experts recommend that athletes take a beginning yoga class as the best way to learn. “Have them start with a beginners’ class, even if they are strong and flexible,” Eavenson says. “It’s much better to begin with the fundamentals and build from there. The best thing is to eventually practice yoga by yourself, but it’s good to start with a teacher and continue to study with teachers for a while because they keep their eyes on you to see how you’re doing.”

Whatever you do, don’t send your athletes to an “open” class that includes advanced yoga practitioners. “They’ll look around and see what everyone else is doing and they’ll try to keep up, and that’s a prime way to get injured,” says Bender Birch. “Even if you tell them to just focus on themselves, and not worry about what anyone else does, they won’t. They will strain and struggle and try to be the best ones in class. Yoga ideally is supposed to be noncompetitive, but that has to be learned and can take a long time.”

If you decide to bring a yoga instructor into the athletic training area, choose one who has experience working with athletes. Bender Birch notes that some yoga instructors can be overly enthusiastic and push students faster than advisable. “You don’t want yoga to cause injury,” she says. “There are good teachers all over the country, but some of them don’t realize that athletes might be especially tight. That’s why its important to find a well-trained teacher who’s used to working with athletes.”

“There are instructors in most large cities these days, but not everyone knows what they are talking about,” adds Yoder. “Do a little research and have a battery of questions prepared. Yoga is something that is relatively new in its use in athletic training, so it is a learning process for both you and an instructor, as well as your athletes.”

Lindsay says that the true measure of a yoga teacher is how the students feel after class. “If a yoga teacher is good, you can sense that they’re leading you in the right direction,” she says. “You’ll feel it in your body.”

Athletes should also understand that patience is the key to success with yoga, according to Bender Birch. “Those athletes who need it the most are probably going to like it the least,” she says. “They’re not going to be good at it, and they’ll feel like a fish out of water because they’re not going to be able to use their strength from other sports to be good at yoga. I tell them to focus on the benefits they’re going to get from doing it regularly. But they have to be prepared to not enjoy it the first couple of classes.

“They also need to practice it and incorporate it into their training program,” she continues. “Doing it one day a week is essentially worthless.”

As Baptiste notes, however, once athletes have learned the techniques, they can choose to incorporate just some of the poses into their routines. “Athletes can take what works for them,” he says. “That’s the nice thing about yoga. Some people want an overall life transformation, while others just want to improve in one area. You can take it as far as you want, or you can just take the chunks or techniques or principles or practices that are relevant to you.”

Try It Yourself!
Competitive athletes aren’t the only ones who can benefit from practicing yoga. Athletic trainers themselves may also want to consider taking it up to help deal with the rigors and responsibilities of their job.

“Last August I began doing some stretches from a book called I Can’t Believe It’s Yoga!,” says Karen Hostetter, MS, ATC, Athletic Trainer at George Fox University. “I needed to improve my flexibility to deal with some very sore hips and legs, not to mention my low back. I have been diligent about my stretching, doing it five mornings a week, at least 15 to 30 minutes per day.

“At Christmas I was so excited because my forehead was about four inches from my knee when sitting in a V-sit, with legs on the floor,” she continues. “By spring break I was resting my forehead on my knee. The back pain has decreased to a tolerable level, and I am able to work for longer periods of time.”

Alice Buchanan, ATC, Graduate Assistant Athletic Trainer at George Washington University, says she also has benefited from yoga both mentally and physically. “I began yoga a year ago,” she says. “Within the first month of doing it at least twice a week, my back (which is frequently sore) was feeling noticeably better. My flexibility improved, I was more relaxed when I got home at night, and I just felt better about myself as a whole. Unfortunately, my practice and travel schedule picked up this spring, and so I have not done yoga in over two months. I have also had to see a doctor in the last month about my back and have been on pain meds, so I think there is definitely a correlation there.”

Yoga Web Sites:
• www.yogajournal.com. Home of Yoga Journal, one of the most popular yoga magazines.
• www.power-yoga.net. Beryl Bender Birch’s Web site.
• www.baronbaptiste.com. Baron Baptiste’s Web site.
• www.activeyoga.com. Hilary Lindsay’s Web site.
• www.santoshayoga.net. Jim Eavenson’s Web site.