Until about seven years ago, Baxter Bell competed regularly in 5K and 10K running events and biathlons, and occasionally in triathlons. Then he discovered climbing and turned his focus to scaling rock walls. A few years later, he began hiking more and climbing less. As he switched from one sport to another, his body underwent a posture metamorphosis. "When I was doing competitive triathlons, my legs were huge," says Bell, a family physician and medical acupuncturist in Oakland, California. "When I switched to climbing, my upper body became bigger. I strengthened my arms but it was difficult to straighten them, and my shoulders rounded forward like a Neanderthal's." His body changed again when he began a regular yoga practice. "Suddenly, everything got more balanced between my upper and lower body," says Bell, who has since become a certified yoga instructor. "I was able to re-create a more natural, upright position with a lifted open chest and more lengthening in my arms and legs."
Any athletic activity can overdevelop certain muscles, leaving them strong yet tight. At the same time, other muscles may become comparatively underdeveloped--they may be flexible, but they're also weak. The resulting imbalance leads not only to poor posture but often to injuries. "The athletes who have good posture are few and far between," says Joseph Guettler, an orthopedic surgeon and sports-medicine physician at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. "The normal function of the spine and joints relies on an appropriate balance of strength and flexibility."
The lower back and shoulders tend to suffer the most when posture deteriorates. For example, overly arching the lower back can result in stiff, sometimes painful muscles there. And a rounded upper back and internally rotated shoulders don't let the shoulder blades rest in the proper position; this creates tightness and sometimes pain in the shoulder joint and restricts the muscles that move and lift the arms.
Good posture does more than prevent aches and pains, however. It can also increase endurance by improving oxygen intake. Athletes with correct posture, who lift the breastbone and open the chest, can take fuller and deeper breaths, thus getting more oxygen into the body. In certain sports, proper posture can even help improve performance in other ways: A lifted breastbone and an open chest allow swimmers to move through the water more efficiently, for instance, while a flexible pelvis that shifts easily with the rest of the spine gives cyclists more power.
Though each type of physical activity affects the body differently, you can benefit by focusing your attention on three key goals: stretching the chest and hip flexors and strengthening the abdomen. More flexible chest muscles allow you to lift your breastbone and lengthen your upper spine. Longer, suppler hip flexors make it easier to keep your pelvis in the proper position. Strong abdominal muscles support your lower spine and keep your pelvis aligned.
To open the chest, Bell suggests beginning with a passive backbend; lying over a bolster allows you to stretch more comfortably and for a longer period of time. Follow this with a seated chest opener, which also helps stretch and strengthen your arms. Then add asanas that strengthen your abdominals, like Plank Pose, and that strengthen the back and stretch the hip flexors, like a modified Ardha Salabhasana (Half Locust Pose).
To see lasting results, though, you must carry the body awareness you develop during your asana practice into everyday life, says Bell. Casually doing stretches won't help as much as creating an internal awareness of the proper body position.
When you do the asanas, notice how your body position feels and try to internalize those sensations. Then, while working at your desk or exercising, periodically bring your attention to your posture, using what you've learned in yoga to adjust your body into a better position. "If you embrace the mindfulness of the practice and bring it into your daily life and sport, you will notice a change," says Bell.
In addition to asanas, Aladar Kogler--author of Yoga for Athletes (Llewellyn, 1999) and five-time Olympic fencing coach--suggests incorporating deep-breathing exercises. "Breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation all indirectly affect your body posture," he says. "If you are in a bad mood or feeling anxious, it shows up in your posture." Kogler therefore includes breathing, meditation, and relaxation in the routines for his student fencers.
Though many breathing exercises can positively influence mood, Kogler recommends what he refers to as the "double-R breath." Begin by sitting quietly and noticing the breath's natural rise and fall. Then, once you feel calm and centered, begin to breathe deeply, using your lower abdominal muscles to bring the breath in and out of your lungs. On the inhalations, focus on recharging with positive thoughts and energy. On the exhalations, focus on releasing tension from your body and negative thoughts from your mind. "Do this exercise whenever you notice that your mind goes to a negative place and your posture suffers as a result," Kogler says.
Alisa Bauman is a writer, runner, and yoga instructor in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.