You might think of your yoga practice as something that is completely separate from your fitness routine. You do yoga to connect with yourself and get grounded. You cycle or run or take a Zumba class to get your heart rate up and release endorphins. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, when you use your yoga as cool down stretches after a workout, you get a one-two punch combination that can score you all of the above.
Why use yoga poses for cool down stretches?
Yoga can help reduce the physical stress that results from running, for example. One study found that yoga can help reduce inflammation (which can result from exercise) in people who performed moderate and strenuous workouts. And don’t discount yoga’s ability to help you tap into the mind-body connection after other workouts, allowing you to relax and bring your heart rate back down to baseline.
The major benefits of yoga, though, are an increase in flexibility, functional reach (aka range of motion), and relaxation, says John Porcari, PhD, the director of the clinical exercise physiology program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “When you’ve been running or lifting for 30 or more minutes, your muscles have been contracting for that whole period of time,” says Poracari. If you don’t do cool down stretches, your muscles are going to relax in a shortened position. Stretching, or doing yoga poses, after your workout encourages your muscles to get back in a more elongated state, says Poracari.
How to cool down with yoga
“My best advice for athletes using yoga to recover is ‘do what feels good,’” says Megan Hochheimer, founder of Karma Yoga & Fitness in Valrico, Florida. “There are plenty of asanas (poses) that will specifically stretch the muscles that an athlete in a particular sport uses most. But one of the best things about yoga, and one of the gifts it can give athletes, is remembering the focus of a yoga practice is self study.” So, just get on your mat and move around with yoga-inspired cool down stretches, be playful, but be tender with yourself. “Hold poses that feel good longer and don’t force the ones that feel uncomfortable.”
The best way to create a yoga cool-down routine is by paying attention to your body during your next yoga class. “If a yoga class is paced slowly or moderately, with cues designed to keep your focus inward, you can not only enjoy the class you are taking, but also use it as a way to understand your body’s needs beyond the mat,” says Ariele Foster, DPT, yoga teacher, and founder of Yoga Anatomy Academy.
During your class, notice if one side feels different than the other (like if it’s harder to lower the back knee from crescent lunge to the floor on the left side, or if you have more trouble balancing in Tree Pose on the right side) and which body parts “feel it” during different poses. For example, you might feel your shoulders opening in Dolphin. Make a mental note, or write it down, and then revisit those poses after your next hike or run, Foster suggests.