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Yoga for Athletes

Yoga for Athletes: The Ultimate Get-Started Guide

If you're an athlete, yoga can help prevent injury and aid in recovery and strength-building. Here's how to add the practice to your training regimen.

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If you’re a runner, cyclist, or any other kind of athlete, you might have tried yoga before, walking into a class thinking you were fit and walking out humbled. Think back to your first experiences with your sport. You didn’t perfect your technique in a day or, I’ll guess, even a year; you’re probably still refining your skills. Your yoga experience will be similar. Soon things that were very difficult become easier. But just as some workouts leave you sore, some yoga sessions will, too. We call it yoga practice—consider it like soccer practice or guitar practice. Even the pros do drills and play scales. It’s all about the process. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you begin.

Athletes’ Yoga Rule 1: Breathe

It sounds obvious, but you must breathe. When you’re confronted with a challenging posture, especially balancing poses, you might be tempted to hold your breath, maybe in an attempt to remain steady. Trust me, you’re not going to be steady if you pass out. In general, exhalations during a pose will aid your effort: lowering the body to the ground, bending the knee into a lunge, folding forward. Inhalations will help you rise out of a pose and grow longer. If a different breath pattern feels natural follow your own pattern. Just keep breathing.

Athletes’ Yoga Rule 2: Be Safe

Yoga teaches you to listen to your body. Pay attention to its lessons, and you will never confuse intensity with pain in a pose, a training session, or a race. As an athlete, you are trained to gut it out in uncomfortable situations. Yoga can enhance that quality in you. Make sure this is positive and not negative by staying at your own edge, respecting intensity, and avoiding pain. Keep the first yama—ahimsa, or nonviolence—at the front of your mind.

Two common yoga injuries are rotator-cuff tears and irritation and the overstretching or tearing of the hamstring attachment at the sitting bone. You may begin your yoga practice with tightness or overuse issues in your shoulders and hamstrings that predispose you to these very injuries, so you’ll need to be especially aware of proper alignment and not pressing too far.

Add arm work especially slowly—don’t drop in on a class and try to perform every jump-through. Keep your ego out of your yoga practice. You won’t be ranked on your performance; there is no yoga report card issued at the end of class. You may be an athlete but yoga is not a competitive sport! Let yoga be the balance to your athletic competition, not an extension of it.

See also: 7 Poses to Release Tight Hamstrings

Protect Your Joints

Keep your joints “soft” by maintaining a slight bend. Especially in standing poses and forward folds, you must keep from hyperextending your joints. Elbows and knees are the common culprits here. If a joint is bearing weight, it should be supported by the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, not simply by the pressure of bone over bone. “Locking” the joint can invite injury. Cues to soften in the joints are reminders to take a little bend in them for safety.

Use Mountain-Pose Alignment

Tadasana (Mountain Pose) is the building block for almost every yoga pose. Learn it intimately and return to it throughout your yoga practice. Keep your toes, knees, hips, shoulders, and head pointing in the same direction. Injuries occur when the body is working at odds with itself.

Lead from the Hips

In any forward-folding motion, the fold (the “break point” or reaching forward of the body) must happen from the hips—the entire pelvis angles forward, so that the back remains a long, integral unit. Don’t round or articulate the spine unless specifically instructed to do so, and don’t ever fold from the waist, which puts great pressure on the lower backFor athletesyoga can be a valuable part of a training regimen, helping with injury prevention, recovery, and strength building.

Athletes’ Yoga Rule 3: Respect Your Limits

As an athlete, you are probably conditioned to push through intensity—and maybe through pain. Try bringing a different approach to your yoga practice; respect your limits. Come just shy of them but don’t push them. In time, they will expand. Consider the process of lactate-threshold training—to improve the threshold, you aim to exercise just beneath it. But while going anaerobic has its place in training, overstepping your body’s boundaries in yoga is counterproductive. Remain aware of the difference between intensity and pain.

Never work through pain; pain is a sign that something is wrong, as a result of either incorrect or overly aggressive alignment or of an underlying issue. Find an intensity that is productive, not destructive. This comes with trial and error, just as setting your pace in a race does. Consider your approach to time trialing. You want to be working at a level—an edge—you believe you can sustain for the allotted time or distance. Ask yourself if you’ve set the right pace: “Can I keep this up?” If you’re positive you can keep up that effort, and your answer is “Sure, piece of cake,” you’re probably not working hard enough. If you’re unsure you can keep up that effort, and your answer is “I wish I could,” you’re probably working too hard. If you’re pretty confident you can maintain that effort, and your answer is “I think I can” (and, toward the end, becomes “I know I can!”), you’re working at the appropriate pace. The edge in yoga is like that timetrial pace, though you’ll want always to err on the side of being too gentle.

Work from Where You Are

Again, it sounds obvious, but you must practice yoga with the body you have in this moment, not the one you had ten years ago, ten weeks ago, ten days ago, or sometimes even ten minutes ago. Change is natural and inevitable. As your body ages, as your ligaments change, and as your muscles loosen or tighten, warm up, or tire out, your postures will look and feel different. Listen to your body’s needs, not to the self-critical inner voice that exhorts you to make your pose look like the teacher’s pose, the pose of the teenage ballet dancer on the mat next to you, the picture in the book, or the pose you did last week.

At the same time, don’t be complacent. Stretch yourself, physically and mentally. Try challenging poses, but try them with respect and care.

There’s No Place Like Home

Remember Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz—she had the power to return home whenever she chose, whether or not she recognized that she had it. If you find yourself desperately unhappy in a pose, move out. If your reaction at the teacher’s instruction to hold a pose for three more breaths is frustration or great relief rather than “Ah, I get to enjoy this a little longer!” or “Sure, I think I can,” question the approach you are using. It is always fine to return to a previous or gentler pose.

Coming to Balasana (Child’s Pose) often feels like moving into home base, and if you’re in class, it’s a sign that you are respecting your limits. (A good teacher will understand this; beware any instructor who pushes you deeper than you would like to go.) Give yourself permission to move to Child’s Pose or any other gentle pose whenever you like. It’s not a sign of failure; it’s a sign of successfully listening to your body.

Athletes’ Yoga Rule 4: Form and Breath

Finally, if you feel too challenged or not challenged enough, bring your attention to your form and your breath. If the challenge comes from intensity, form and breath will lead you to ease. If a lack of challenge registers as boredom, form and breath will lead you to focus. And that’s true on the mat and on the course.

Excerpted from The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga by Sage Rountree PhD, E-RYT 500. Want more yoga for athletes? Join Active Pass today!  As part of your membership perks, you can choose 2 books from Velo Press, including The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga and Everyday Yoga, also by Rountree.