Can Athletic Traits Hinder Yoga Practice?

The focus and determination that makes athletes excel in their sports may be the very things that frustrate them in yoga class. Here, Sage Rountree explains how athletes can adapt these skills to excel in yoga, too.
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The focus and determination that makes athletes excel in their sports may be the very things that frustrate them in yoga class. Here, Sage Rountree explains how athletes can adapt these skills to excel in yoga, too.

When I teach yoga for athletes intenstives for other yoga teachers, we discuss the mentality athletes bring to class. Some themes routinely emerge, and while naturally there are many exceptions to these examples, for the most part, athletes bring these strengths:

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  • Knowledge of their bodies
  • Sport-specific strength
  • Desire to improve
  • Receptivity to feedback
  • Readiness to work
  • Focus

Does this sound like you? Good, they're all great qualities! But when it comes to yoga, some of these pluses in sports can become obstacles in yoga. Let me explain.

While athletes may know their bodies, their awareness may be completely tied to their sport. Yoga helps them learn more about their bodies’ overall capabilities. Yet they're often surprised (and frustrated) to find tightness, weakness, or imbalances that make some yoga poses challenging for them.

Athletes also typically have sport-specific strength, created by working in a certain plane of motion—for example, moving forward, for runners—but that neglects development in another plane and often overworks the muscles used for that one activity. In other words, strength in one area of the body can hide weakness in other areas. Often, the strength in the extremities (arms and legs) compensates for weakness in the core (abs and back).

An athlete’s desire to improve makes him interested in gaining advantage anywhere possible. This can shrink down the value of yoga into the simply physical, and into merely a tool for performance. Remember, there’s much more to yoga than stretching.

Team-sports athletes are usually quite receptive to feedback. They're used to plenty of instruction on technique, and they respond to corrections well. Others, including endurance athletes, can be less open to alignment instructions, viewing it as evaluation. Remember that your yoga teachers just want you to find ease in your asana practice.

The readiness to work most athletes show is a wonderful boon. But in yoga, often less is more. The more work an athlete is doing in training, the less work should happen in the studio. Many athletes also are used to suffering, reasoning that since discomfort in training often yields improvement, discomfort in yoga should bring gains. In yoga, we strive to practice ahimsa, nonharming, and play the safe side of the edge.

Athletes’ focus can be greatly enhanced through a yoga practice, as we've been examining. The downside here is that athletes can take practice too seriously, working to make it perfect. Keep room for imperfection and humility in your yoga practice. A sense of humor and perspective can go a long way to experiencing greater benefits and longevity in your practice.

Sage Rountree is a yoga teacher, endurance sports coach and athlete, and author of books including The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga and The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery. She teaches workshops on yoga for athletes nationwide and online at YogaVibes. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.