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Teaching Yoga

Teaching Yoga to Athletes

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As yoga grows ever more popular, athletes of all types are incorporating the practice into their training. But teachers need to pay special attention to athletic students’ needs: sports training can leave athletes strong in some areas but inflexible and even weak in others, and a competitive mindset can detract from their yoga experience. Here are some teachers’ guidelines that work both in general classes and in those specifically geared to athletes.

Understand the Athlete’s Body

Athletes is a broad term, covering everyone from recreational golfers to professional basketball players, and each sport will have a different effect on the body.

Baron Baptiste, who has taught yoga to many professional athletes and who spent five years on the coaching staff of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, sees one common theme in athletes’ bodies: one-dimensionality. “There is a lot of overdevelopment in certain areas, and in other areas there is underdevelopment,” he says. He recommends that teachers help students adapt their practices to suit their individual needs.

Runners tend to have tight hamstrings; cyclists often have tight quadriceps. Those engaged in throwing sports or swimming may complain of tired or aching shoulders; golfers and tennis players may have more freedom of rotation in one direction than the other. Talk with your students about their bodies, and show them a range of poses to bring their bodies into balance.

Use Proper Sequencing for Athletes

A class including, or specifically designed for, athletes should begin with a slow warm-up and proceed to moderate heat-building poses, such as Sun Salutations and standing poses. These will prime the body—especially the hips and hamstrings—for the flexibility work to follow.

Beryl Bender Birch, who has spent more than two decades teaching yoga to athletes, including those in the New York Road Runners Club, recommends teaching a few poses to showcase athletes’ abilities. “An athlete needs to feel successful,” she says. “They can’t feel humiliated, embarrassed, or like they’re the worst one in class.” She suggests Bakasana (Crane Pose), which allows athletes to feel successful. Utkatasana (Chair Pose) or a carefully executed Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) at the wall can also play to athletes’ strengths. Such affirming work in strength-specific poses salves the ego and helps students handle the flexibility poses that are more challenging for athletic bodies.

Athletes also benefit from yoga’s holistic approach to core strength. Properly strengthening the muscles of the core using poses such as Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) will improve alignment and lessen imbalances that lead to overuse injuries such as IT band syndrome (a common cause of hip and knee pain in runners), tendinitis, and plantar fasciitis (also known as “policeman’s heel,” a pain on the underside of the heel).

After generating heat in Sun Salutations, standing poses, and core work, be sure to target the hips and hamstrings. The forward-fold version of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose) is one good choice, as it targets many of the muscles that constrict athletes’ hips. Throughout the practice, athletes should use breath awareness as a way of managing the intensity of the poses—this skill will serve them in their sports as well.

Consider progressive sequencing both from class to class and from month to month. Be aware of the seasonal intensity of your students’ athletic training and help them conserve energy. If athletes complete too many tough workouts on and off the mat without time to recover, they’ll stress the body beyond its ability to compensate. Serious athletes should be especially careful during their competitive season, scheduling yoga in inverse proportion to the intensity of their training. The off-season is a good time for a strength-building practice; periods of intense sports activity are better matched with gentler, flexibility-specific sequences.

Treat Injured Athletes Kindly

Some athletes will come to yoga because of an overuse injury. Others will be at risk for new injury because of their tightness. Use a gentle approach, demonstrating and encouraging modifications.

Birch suggests being especially careful with adjustments. “It’s very easy to injure an elite athlete by coming on too heavy-handed. They’re strong and very tight. It’s like a guitar string that you tighten up and tighten up to get the highest possible resonance. But then you just turn it the tiniest bit and it explodes.”

Athletes with tight shoulders and hips are especially susceptible to two common yoga injuries—rotator-cuff problems and damage to the hamstrings’ attachment to the sitting bones. To protect these areas, stress appropriate alignment of the shoulders (when weight is borne in the hands) and of the pelvis (in forward folds).

When athletes do arrive in class injured, explain to them that yoga is not a quick fix. Athletes are eager to return to their sport, but they must allow time for injuries to heal and for deeper changes to take place in the body. Jean Couch, author of The Runner’s Yoga Book and director of the Balance Center in Berkeley, California, explains, “What’s the most expeditious way to get back in your sport? It’s to deal with alignment—you can’t [do that] when you’re competing with someone. If you’re just trying to do the pose like the person next to you, it’s more likely that you’re going to injure or reinjure yourself, or cause stresses in the area.”

Discourage Competition in Class

Baptiste says having athletes in class offers “a great opportunity to speak to how competitiveness can show up in [yoga] practice. Yoga is not a performance-based process, as a sport is.” Instead of comparing their poses to those of others, athletes should take special care to focus on what they themselves are experiencing from moment to moment. Encourage your students to keep the ir focus internal and to work at a personally appropriate levels.

Yoga’s emphasis on mental focus and being in the moment has direct application to sport. Birch tells her students, “Yoga is about learning to pay attention and focus your energy. It’s about learning to block out everything and focus on one thing, whether you’re shooting a free throw, or stepping up to bat, or standing on the starting line in a marathon, or riding in the Tour de France.”

Baptiste agrees. “It really can help athletes not only perform better but connect to their bodies, to give them a deeper meaning of what it is to be an athlete [and] to help their sport become another form of yoga,” he says. “Instead of living in a win-lose world, this actually lets the sport itself become a yoga practice, turning your tennis into your Zen-ness.”

Sage Rountree, author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga: An Integrated Approach to Strength, Flexibility, and Focus, teaches yoga and coaches triathletes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Find her on the Web at