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Maxine Bahns got hooked on the exhilaration of athletic competition in 2000, when she entered her first triathlon at age 30 and finished third in her age group. “It fired me up like nothing else,” says the Los Angeles-based actress. But as she entered more and more races, she grew increasingly uncomfortable with their physical and mental toll. “I got terrible shin splints, and I practically lived at the chiropractor because my uneven hips were killing me,” she says. On top of that, her nerves were getting the best of her: “I was so anxious, I threw up before every race.”
Two years ago she realized she had to make a change. Seeking a way to make racing easier on her mind and body, Bahns intensified her commitment to yoga. Up until then she’d practiced only sporadically, dropping in on a Bikram class now and again. But the more she practiced, the more she liked it, and so she began attending 90-minute classes five days a week. Not wedded to any one style, she now varies her practice according to her mood and training schedule—power flows when prepping for a race and restoratives after the fact.
These days she loves triathlons more than ever, and her body does, too. “I don’t get shin splints anymore even though I’m running more,” she says. “I also have a lot less anxiety, so no more prerace puking.” She’s even been able to stop going to the chiropractor, since her hips have settled into a more even alignment.
As Bahns discovered, yoga has all sorts of benefits for athletes. For starters, it can help with muscular fitness and flexibility, says Ralph La Forge, a physiologist at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina: “Low-resistance hatha yoga is ideal for relaxing muscles that are tight from competition.”
Indeed, Bahns credits yoga with helping her dodge the injuries that plague other triathletes. “After a big race, I do nothing but low-key yoga for three days to stretch and get the stiffness out of my legs.” What’s more, she adds, “since I’ve started doing yoga, I feel like I’ve truly learned how to nurture myself.”
But the mental steadfastness that the practice bestows may be its biggest benefit, La Forge says. Researchers studying this area have found that, of all yoga’s components, the one with the most influence on sports preparation and recovery is breathwork. It can help you become both relaxed and focused at the same time.
“Anytime you take large inhales and exhale slowly, it’s followed by a period of relaxation,” La Forge says. “The other thing that is going on cognitively is just taking time out from tension—you’re distracted from the stress.” (To learn more about yogic breathwork and how it can transform your performance and the experience of your favorite sport, see “Breath of Inspiration”.)
“When I’m on the starting line and I’m really nervous and I’m shallow breathing, pranayama helps me find my happy place,” Bahns says.
To get into a happy place with your favorite summertime sport, check out these yoga poses, where separate groupings focus on four popular summer sports: tennis, running, cycling, and golf.
Tennis: asana by Anastasia Halldin
Tennis puts a tremendous strain on the body, says Anastasia Halldin, a certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher in Miami, Florida, and a former competitive player. Unlike sports that require an even, centered strength, like skiing, tennis demands more from a player’s dominant side. The result can be imbalances that lead to injuries. Consider the serve. The repetitive motion of overhead serving takes a toll on the rotator cuff, a tight-knit cluster of muscles and tendons surrounding and supporting the shoulder joint. Overuse or repetitive misalignment of this area can cause inflammation in the surrounding soft tissue, including the tendons and the bursae (fluid-filled sacs inside the joint).
Shoulder strength, good flexibility, and proper alignment are also must-haves for a powerful forehand. When the shoulder and upper back are too weak or tight to swing the racket against the impact of an oncoming ball, stress can reverberate down the arm and land in the elbow, Halldin explains. Tennis elbow results from straining the tendons that join the muscles of the forearm to the outside of the elbow joint.
Halldin teaches tennis players poses that strengthen, open, and lengthen both sides of the body evenly. Her top picks: Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), because it not only strengthens and opens the shoulders and upper back but also stretches the hamstrings; a variation of the twisting pose Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), to promote spinal flexibility (“the more you can comfortably rotate your spine, the harder you’ll hit the ball,” she says); and Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), to loosen tight rotator cuff muscles. All three can be done before or after you play.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
This pose strengthens the shoulders, arms, and wrists, which will steady the racket against the impact of the ball. It will also lengthen tight hamstrings, which can be caused by hours spent on the court with legs bent. Come onto your hands and knees, with your knees directly below your hips and your hands a few inches in front of your shoulders. Press down evenly through the four corners of both hands and spread your fingers evenly. Tuck your toes under and, on an exhalation, lift your knees away from the ground but keep them slightly bent. Gently lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling. On an exhalation, slowly lengthen your legs. Move your awareness to your shoulders. Firm your shoulder blades on your back and broaden them away from each other. Notice which side of your body feels longer and breathe into the shorter side. Visualize it lengthening in both directions. Hold for up to 2 minutes.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), variation
Twists not only correct the imbalance between the right and left sides of the body but also add power by strengthening and opening the upper body. Sit with both legs extended in front of you. If your lower back rounds, sit on a folded blanket or a wedge until you can draw your lower back in and up. Next, reach down evenly through both sitting bones. Bend your right knee in and put your foot on the ground. Step the right foot over the left thigh, placing it on the ground outside the left quadriceps. Extend through the left heel. Keep lifting the spine. Inhale and reach your left arm up to the ceiling. Exhale and twist to the right, rotating your navel toward your inner right thigh. Cup the right fingertips on the floor behind your sitting bones. Wrap the left elbow around the outside of the right knee. Keep most of your body weight on your sitting bones, not your fingertips. Turn your gaze over your right shoulder. Press the elbow into the knee to activate the rhomboids, muscles that power up your forehand. Hold for 1 to 2 minutes and switch sides.
Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), combined with Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
This pose targets rotator cuff areas made tight by overhead serving—the subscapularis on the underside of the arm and the teres minor on the upper arm—while opening muscles around the hip joints, shortened by running on the court. Sit on the ground and bend your knees, placing the soles of your feet together. Let your knees fall toward the ground. If your knees are higher than your hip points, sit on a folded blanket. Place a strap over your left shoulder. Inhale, bend your right arm, and nestle the forearm into the hollow of your lower back. Take hold of the strap with your right hand. Inhaling, stretch your left arm up toward the sky, palm facing forward. Exhale and bend the left elbow and take the left hand to the strap. Inch the hands toward each other. (If you can clasp hands without straining, let go of the strap). Keep the navel drawing toward the spine and try not to round the lower back. Hold for 1 minute and switch sides.
Running: Asana by Sage Rountree
Sage Rountree, 35, discovered that yoga buoyed her athletic performance when she trained for her first marathon in 2002. “I hurt less, recovered faster, and learned breathwork and mantras to cope with the tedious intensity of running long distances,” she says. Now, as a yoga teacher and the author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga, her experience informs her classes for runners in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “Running and yoga both require comfort with discomfort,” she says. “You come up to the edge of what you can handle, and you use form and breath to keep yourself steady.”
Like tennis players and golfers, runners typically suffer injuries from overusing certain muscles. Part of the problem, explains Rountree, is that runners get stuck in their frontal plane. Running’s repetitive forward momentum stresses structures that propel the body forward, such as the external hip rotators and the iliotibial band, which can cause runner’s knee (patellofemoral pain). Other common overuse injuries include shin splints and plantar fasciitis (pain along the sole of the foot). Rountree’s favorite poses to counter the wear and tear of running include Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose), which brings awareness and openness to the back body; Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), to stretch the hip flexors of the back leg and strengthen the knee on the front leg; and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) at the wall, to open the hips and boost proprioception, the ability to sense your body’s movement and position.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Almost an extreme exaggeration of the running stride, the Low Lunge addresses tight hip flexors and, by evenly strengthening the collateral ligaments on either side of the knee, makes the knee joint more stable, Rountree says. From your hands and knees, with toes tucked under, bring the right foot between the hands, lining up your fingertips and toes. See that the right shin is perpendicular to the ground, and place the right knee directly in front of the hip. Exhaling, lower the hips and take the back @knee to the ground. Runners’ hips are notoriously tight, so if you need to, start with a 90-degree angle between your front and back thighs. Eventually you can lower your hips so that the angle increases to about 180 degrees. Square the hips from front to back, making them parallel to the short sides of your mat. Hold here for 30 seconds. For a stronger stretch, bring your hands to your knee for another few breaths. Switch sides.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), variation
This pose can give you muscle strength as well as a better awareness of the position of your body in space, says Rountree. And practicing with your raised foot against a wall or door frame helps steady you. Set a block about 12 inches in front of your right foot and slightly to the right of it. Rest your right hand on the block, positioning it beneath your shoulder. Lift the left leg and put your foot against the wall or door frame. Runners tend to collapse in the chest and shoulders, so stack the left shoulder above the right and extend the left arm above the body, palm facing the same direction as the front of the body. Feel the external rotation of both legs opening the hips. Keep the right knee and toes pointing in the same direction. Hold for a minute before switching sides.
Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Sit with your legs extended (if your lower back rounds, sit on a folded blanket or two). Inhale and bend your right knee to the right, then bring the sole of the right foot to the inner left thigh. Root down through your sitting bones. Exhale and rotate the torso slightly to the left. This twisting motion stretches the quadratus lumborum, a muscle that runs from the top of the pelvis to the lower back. “Keeping it loose allows you to maintain a neutral pelvis as you run, which wards off hip pain,” Rountree explains. Keep the inner left thigh pressing into the ground. Align your navel with the middle of the left thigh. Stay here or hinge forward from the hips until you feel a stretch down the back of the left leg. Keep the left quadriceps muscles engaged to release the hamstrings. Hold for up to 1 minute before switching sides.
Cycling: Asana by Karen McCavitt
Cycling is a steady, low-impact sport that is easier on the joints than the explosive actions of tennis or golf. The most common complaint is muscle pain, says Karen McCavitt, an avid rider who teaches yoga at Darshana Yoga in Palo Alto, California. Cyclists’ legs are in constant motion, so tension creeps into the quadriceps, hamstrings, and hips. When you adopt a proper cycling technique, the spine should stay in its natural curves. But many cyclists end up hunching their back, placing too much weight in their arms or on the seat, which can strain the back and shoulders. “On a long ride a cyclist’s back can be in flexion for hours at a time, so it’s important to restore the spine’s natural curves,” McCavitt says.
McCavitt’s top pose picks address the upper and lower body and can be done at any time—before a ride, after a ride, or on a break during a ride. Ideally, cyclists should do all three daily, she says. For starters, a simple Tadasana to Urdhva Hastasana (Mountain Pose to Upward Salute) elongates the spine and releases stiffness in the shoulders and upper back. Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) lengthens the hamstrings and opens the lower back and hips. And, last but not least, Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch) targets the hamstrings and the glutes, which can get tight from sitting on a postage stamp of a saddle.
Tadasana to Urdhva Hastasana (Mountain Pose to Upward Salute
“Cyclists understand the importance of alignment on the bike; the same is true in yoga,” McCavitt says. “Tadasana introduces the concepts of alignment and body awareness, while the Upward Salute opens the shoulders and upper back.” To start, stand with big toes touching and heels slightly apart. Let your arms relax by your sides. Distribute your weight evenly on the feet. Draw the kneecaps up to engage the quadriceps but don’t grip too hard. Lightly tone the buttocks, lift the front pelvis up, and move the navel back toward the spine with every exhalation. Lengthen the tailbone toward the ground. Gently roll your shoulders up and back and draw the bottom tips of the shoulder blades toward each other. With a long neck and soft gaze, extend fingertips toward the floor. Slowly, reaching out to both sides, sweep the arms overhead, palms facing each other. Inhale and lift your sternum. Breathe normally. Keep your neck relaxed. Hold for 30 seconds.
Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch), at the wall
This pose stretches tight hamstrings, the outer hips, and the iliotibial bands that run along the outer legs. As you fold forward over the front leg, think of lengthening the spine from the hips to the crown of the head to counteract the compression that comes with riding.
Start in Tadasana about 2 to 3 feet in front of and facing a wall. (If you just stepped off your bike, you can prop it against a tree and use the frame.) Bring your hands to your hips and step your left foot back 3 1/2 to 4 feet. Turn the left foot out 30 degrees. Align your right heel with your left heel. Tone your thighs and align the right kneecap with the right ankle. Exhale and square your hips to the wall or bike. Exhaling, hinge at the hips, leaning your torso forward over the right leg. Expect a big stretch in the right hamstring and the left outer calf muscle, especially after a long ride. Bring your palms or fingertips to the wall or bike for support. With the arms steady, move the shoulder blades down the back. Be sure that the neck is in line with the spine, and then gaze at your front foot. Hold for up to a minute. To come out, return your hands to your hips or walk your fingertips up the wall or bike and raise your torso back to center. Repeat on the opposite side.
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
“If a cyclist does just this pose every day, it’ll make a huge difference in hamstring and calf flexibility,” McCavitt says. The pose also eases stiffness in the lower back. If you have tight hamstrings, use a strap. Lie on your back with legs extended, big toes touching, and heels slightly apart. Continue to reach through the left heel as you inhale and bend your right knee. Draw the thigh in toward your torso. Feel your lower back and right hip release toward the ground. Place a strap around the ball of the right foot. Now slowly lengthen the right leg while allowing the strap to slide through your hands until the leg is fully lengthened and the elbows fully extended. Relax the upper neck and shoulders until they are lightly pressing into the ground. Press the ball of your right foot into the strap while pulling the strap into the ball of the foot. Keep the back of your left thigh pressing into the ground and the left foot flexed. Hold for 1 to 2 minutes on each side.
Golf: Asana by Katherine Roberts
“The golf swing is an explosive movement that taxes every part of the body,” says Katherine Roberts, a yoga instructor trained in Ashtanga Yoga and a golf expert in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Few sports require you to swing an object up to 100 miles per hour from a static, standing position.” Considering that the average golfer takes 120 swings in a round, it’s no wonder that the majority of golfers will suffer injuries. The most common complaint? Lower-back pain. That’s because swinging a golf club requires the spine to move in three planes at once: side to side, front to back, and rotating from the centerline.
Roberts’s favorite poses for golfers are twists and back-body strengtheners. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) and a supine twisting variation of Garudasana (Eagle Pose) improve what golfers call the X-factor (the rotation of a golfer’s hips in relation to the rotation of their shoulders). Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) tones the glutes while building strength in the lumbar and thoracic spine. “Just doing these three poses four days a week will help your golf game dramatically,” she says. While all three can be done before or after a round, it’s best to tailor your approach. Before playing, the goal is to prepare the body for explosive movement, so move in and out of each pose multiple times using the breath—in on the inhalation and out on the exhalation. After a round of golf, restorative, slow movements are best, so employ longer holds for deep stretching.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
A strong back is vital for stamina during a long round of golf. Lie on your stomach. Stretch your legs straight back, with the tops of the feet pressing lightly into the floor. With fingertips underneath your shoulders, spread your fingers. Exhale and draw the navel in toward the spine, hug the legs toward each other, and press the pubic bone firmly into the floor. Inhale and then expand the spaces between the rib cage and the waist. On your next inhalation, press the palms down and lift the chest a few inches away from the ground. Draw the shoulder blades toward each other and move them down toward the waist. Focus on opening the chest and shoulders here. Staying low builds strength in the back and glutes, two weak spots for most golfers. Keep your gaze either forward or between the thumbs.
Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), variation
The position of the body in this pose mimics the hip and torso position of the golf swing, Roberts says. “The more you can turn your trunk, the farther you’ll hit the ball.” From Tadasana, exhale and step your feet 3 1/2 to 4 feet apart. Turn your right foot 90 degrees to the right and come to the ball of your left foot. Square your hips toward your front leg and come into a High Lunge by bending the right leg to 90 degrees. See that the knee lines up directly over the ankle. (For an easier variation, lower the left knee to the ground, placing a blanket under the knee.) Exhaling, engage the pelvic floor, draw the navel back to the spine, and lift the rib cage off the waist. With another exhalation, turn to the right until you can hook your left elbow to the outside of the right knee. Press the knee into the elbow and the elbow into the knee. Press the palms together in front of the heart. Repeat on the opposite side.
Garudasana (Eagle Pose), supine twisting variation
This pose stretches the external hip rotators as well as the glutes, both of which need to be flexible to generate power for the golf swing. Lie on your back with your legs extended. Inhale and bend your knees, bringing the soles of the feet to the floor. Walk the heels in toward the sitting bones. Reach the arms perpendicular to the body and turn the palms up. Pressing down into the feet, lift the hips and shift them slightly to the right. Cross the right leg over the left leg. Exhaling, slowly take both legs to the ground on the left side of the body. Again, this deep twisting motion helps you improve the all-important X-factor, Roberts says. (If the stretch is too intense, place a block or blanket under the knees.) Breathe deeply and allow gravity to take you deeper into the pose. Repeat on the other side.
Catherine Guthrie writes about health, yoga, and nutrition from her home in Bloomington, Indiana.