Mobility Trainer Dana Santas Teaches Pro Athletes How to Breathe
Dana Santas, yoga mobility trainer for three Major League Baseball teams (the Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, and Philadelphia Phillies), an NBA team (Orlando Magic), and NHL team (Tampa Bay Lightning), as well as private trainer to dozens of other pro athletes including NFL and PGA players, explains how her yoga-based moves help prevent injury and give players the full range of motion they need to excel in their sports. Plus: The breathing exercise the guys love … and the poses they “love to hate.”
YJ: You call yourself a “yoga mobility trainer.” What does that mean?
Santas: Because there’s such a huge connotation between yoga and flexibility—and, flexibility often implies a lack of stability—it’s been very important for me to distance myself from that. Like so many of the strength and conditioning coaches who hire me to work with their players, I don’t believe that “stretching for flexibility” is beneficial in pro sports. Increasingly, research shows that static stretching can actually inhibit athletic performance and—beyond that—because most muscular tension is caused by dysfunction and compensation, if you lengthen overworked, compensatory muscles, you’re not fixing the true cause of the tension and will only increase injury risk. I work very specifically to use yoga-based moves to take my athletes through functional patterns of movement, focusing on activation and inhibition of muscles as opposed to stretching. Consequently, I’m training my clients to restore proper (muscular) kinetic chain firing that supports the stable, full range of motion needed for their sport—hence, enhancing functional mobility.
YJ: How does breathing play a role in improving mobility?
Santas: My understanding and teaching of breath work is quite different from most traditional yoga breathing exercises. Teaching proper breathing biomechanics is the foundation of ALL of my work. Few people understand breathing’s profoundly important impact on mobility, strength, and power. Your ribcage position is dictated almost entirely by the quality of your breathing—essentially your ability to properly move your ribs during respiration to accommodate and facilitate diaphragm function. Your scapulae (shoulder blades) ride on your ribcage, so their position and your shoulder girdle function is also influenced by your breathing quality. If your breathing is consistently chest-oriented, your ribcage will be lifted and malpositioned, taking your scapulae with it. Muscles in your chest, neck, and upper back will be dysfunctionally recruited out of their primary roles/kinetic chains to hold your repositioned ribcage and scapulae in place, while assisting as accessory breathing muscles (since your diaphragm won’t be able to function properly). This, of course, causes chronic tension, pain, and limitations in neck, back and shoulder mobility, while making you more susceptible to injury. All because of poor breathing! You can stretch out all of those muscles for temporary relief, BUT if you don’t permanently correct breathing mechanics, the pain and mobility limitations will remain chronic. This is why I work on breathing mechanics first and foremost. Instead of stretching those tight muscles (which would only give temporary relief, or worse, exacerbate injury risk), I can spend just two minutes working on breathing mechanics and immediately, significantly restore mobility.
YJ: How do you use breathing mechanics to strengthen the core?
Santas: Because everything comes back to breathing for me, I always tell people that the diaphragm is the king of the core. If the diaphragm is dysfunctional, so is the rest of your core. If [your diaphragm] isn’t used functionally for breathing, it won’t work functionally for posture either, wreaking havoc on your ability to move. A properly functioning diaphragm feeds a properly positioned ribcage, which feeds properly positioned core muscles. When the ribcage is lifted and flared for chest-oriented over-breathing, the core muscles are pulled long and inhibited—namely, the internal obliques and transverse abdominus. This is why you can never truly strengthen your core without addressing the breath. Also, when an athlete has a lifted and flared ribcage with an anterior pelvic tilt, their pelvic floor is no longer under them. That means their respiratory diaphragm and pelvic diaphragm aren’t aligned for synchronous function, which is a necessity for pelvic floor strength and overall core integrity. An athlete’s vertical jump is definitely impacted by the strength of their pelvic floor.
YJ: Give us an example of a yoga-based move that your players love.
Santas: Players love breathing with their legs up at 90/90, a variation of Legs-Up-the-Wall pose that sets the pelvis optimally for access to the diaphragm.
How to achieve the pose:
Start with feet up on a chair or other surface that positions the knees above the hips. Keep the knees and ankles hip-distance apart, with the feet dorsiflexed (flexed upward). If the knees and/or feet splay out, put a foam yoga block or rolled towel between the legs to encourage adductor engagement and avoid external hip rotation. Arms should be next to the sides. Relax your upper trapezius muscles (the large triangular muscles in the upper back). If your head can’t be placed comfortably (neck is arching), place a pillow under your head. Engage your transverse abdominus to position the pelvis in a neutral to posterior position that presses the low back down into the floor. Focus on breathing with ribcage mechanics that expand and externally rotate the lower ribs on inhalation and drop and internally rotate the lower ribs on exhalation. The chest should only rise WITHOUT neck and shoulder muscle engagement. Emphasize the biomechanics of exhalation by engaging the internal obliques and transverse abdominus to internally rotate the ribcage and move it downward. Hold it there without taking another breath for a 5-count. This allows the diaphragm to functionally dome and initiate a proper inhalation. The count should be: 5-count inhale, 5-count exhale, 5-count hold. Do NOT hold breath after inhale—only after exhale. Repeat 8 times (approximately 2 minutes).
YJ: Which poses challenge them the most?
Santas: Some of my guys “love to hate” the following two poses because they know they’re good for them but challenging to practice:
Cross-behind lunge into Warrior III balance
This move is designed to increase mobility and stability in the hip rotators as well as enhance hip-hinging, glute-firing, and single-leg balance—all great things for athletes!
How to achieve the pose:
From a Chair Pose/semi-squat position with hands at the center of your chest, inhale as you shift your center of gravity into one hip and lift the opposite foot a few inches off the ground. While balancing, exhale and move your back leg into adduction/internal rotation to take it diagonally behind you, allowing your toes to touch the mat. Inhale as you flex your knee to let it touch the ground (it should be aligned behind your forward knee) and lift your chest and gaze; your center of gravity should shift back into your back hip now. Inhale to push through your forward heel and propel your center of gravity back into your front hip as you lift your body into Warrior III balance. Hold for two more breaths and exhale to come back to standing. Tip: Perform this pose slowly and with control.
Segmented Forearm Plank
This is a forearm plank that encourages proper core firing and eliminates typical compensation patterns, like pushing forward into the shoulders. Come into each segment with an inhalation, pausing for exhale and then come out of each segment with an exhale, pausing for inhale.
How to achieve the pose:
From a face-down position with your forearms down and elbows under shoulders, lift only the ribcage first, then belly button, then front of hips, then quads all the way to kneecaps, then curl the toes under in dorsiflexion and fire the quads to straighten the legs. Do NOT reposition to push weight forward into arms. Keep the transverse abdominus engaged. Hold for five breaths or more. Exhale to bring each segment down one at a time in the reverse order.
Ahnu YogaSport Tip: BUILD A BETTER BUTT
Santas’ athletes “love to hate” her cross-behind lunge into Warrior III balance. Click here for more great poses to strengthen, tone, and firm up the glutes.
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