Of course yoga benefits athletes and prevents injury with its balance of strength and flexibility, but the breath is the surprising key to avoiding this increasingly common pitching injury among teens.
Dana Santas, known for her Radius Yoga conditioning work with professional teams including, the Philadelphia Phillies, Tampa Bay Lightning, Atlanta Braves, and Orlando Magic, says the athletes she's working with just keep getting younger. “There is an uptick in demand for yoga-based sports performance training, especially for multi-sport kids, due to increasing injuriesprimarily caused by overuse," says "Unlike pro athletes who are not playing year-round, they never give themselves a break.”
One sign of this, she says, is the startling number of teen baseball players, ages 14 through 16, who are in need of Tommy John surgery, a graft procedure common among baseball pitchers in which a ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body.
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The Trick to Preventing this Common Injury? Pranayama
The elbow injury, Santas says, can be tracked directly back to breathing patterns. “Rotation [in pitching] needs to come from the mid-back, not just the shoulder, or you risk putting undue stress on the elbow," she explains. "Ribcage position is dictated by breathing. If the ribcage is mal-positioned, due to chest breathing and lack of proper diaphragm use, you create tension in your neck, shoulders and back to hold the ribcage out of alignment and compensate as accessory breathing muscles. This dysfunctional muscle tension significantly limits mobility."
To combat the problem, Santas focuses on the ABCs of Yoga: alignment, breath and core—specifically, the diaphragm—with all athletes. "I use diaphragmatic breathing to help youth athletes restore proper ribcage position,” she says. “Properly positioning the ribcage releases compensatory upper-body tension—immediately enhancing shoulder and mid-back mobility.”
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The Power of Yoga and Pranayama for All Athletes
Pranayama, or breath control, has athletic benefits reaching far beyond injury prevention for pitchers though. It can also help to calm a young competitor’s nervous system, which Santas says, “is the best way to collect yourself while under pressure to consistently function at the highest level.”
“Ideally, during a regular season, youth athletes should practice 10 to 15 minutes of yoga, three to five times a week,” Santas says. "Primarily, work on diaphragmatic breathing with proper ribcage mechanics, but also integrate simple, rotational, T-spine twists and restorative poses." She plans to launch her Radius Yoga teacher certification program nationwide in an effort to certify more people in her style of mobility and sports training. For more, visit RadiusYoga.com, where Santas recently launched a weekly video series on yoga for sports and athletes.
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ABOUT OUR WRITER
Erika Prafder is a veteran writer and product reviewer for The New York Post and the author of a book on entrepreneurship. A long-time yoga enthusiast and Hatha yoga teacher, she edits KidsYogaDaily.com, a news source for young yogis. The working mother of three resides in a beach community in Long Island, New York.