Athletic recovery is an application for yoga that is still relatively under-utilised, in part because it is the spiritual aspects of the practice that dominate the prevailing Western interpretation. Yoga, however, is incredibly effective at alleviating the sort of pain experienced by athletes, whose sport requires them to maintain an ‘unnatural’ body position for long periods of time and to repeat a very small set of movement patterns.
The human body is an incredibly efficient adaptation machine. To conserve energy, it evolves to optimise for the activities you do most frequently, regardless of whether or not they are the best for your overall health. As each sport develops certain muscles and neglects others, over time this sets up muscular imbalances and alters alignment.
Muscular imbalances and postural adaptations put stress on structures in the body that are not designed to withstand these pressures, causing pain, stiffness and sometimes even injury. And as everything in the body is connected, an injurious domino effect can ensue.
Unfortunately, as these adaptations often take months or years to show up, we don’t realise the effect our sport is having on us until pain and dysfunction have taken root and we’re left facing an intimidating uphill struggle just to get back to baseline.
Why is yoga so effective for athletes?
Yoga has many features that make it well-suited for supporting athletic training.
- Yoga combines stretching and strengthening to counteract the muscular imbalances caused by specialising in a particular sport.
- Unlike conventional stretching, in yoga we stretch muscles from many different angles and at different intensities. We also sequence poses strategically to achieve specific objectives.
- As a bodyweight discipline, we target not only isolated muscle groups like the biceps or quads but also condition the smaller, stabilising muscles, tendons and ligaments in the feet, ankles, hips, core and shoulders.
- Alignment is a primary focus in yoga, and this can help to correct postural dysfunctions.
- Yoga moves you out of habitual movement patterns, putting the body into a variety of novel body positions, including twists, bends and balances. This activates underused muscles and releases tension in those that are overactive.
- Putting poses into a flow sequence improves the health of the joints, moving them through greater ranges of motion, safely and with control.
- Yoga restores coordination between the upper and lower limbs that can be lost as we become specialised for our particular sport.
- Yoga incorporates relaxation, which helps to relieve tension that has built up in the body and reduce stress that can negatively affect performance.
- Yoga involves gentle movement, which is a crucial aspect of injury rehabilitation and athletic recovery.
- Yoga improves body awareness which makes you a sharper, more adaptable athlete and can help you to notice injuries before they take hold.
- Yoga develops balanced, functional, core strength which is essential for efficient movement.
- Yoga focuses on the breath, which has many applications for athletes, including improved fitness, better posture, enhanced focus, increased resilience and relief from pain.
- In yoga, we can modify poses to each individual athlete, with different variations and the use of props.
What is your experience with yoga as a tool to support your athletic training? How does it hit and how does it miss?