Yoga offers holistic approaches to athletics

by Anne-Marie Botek

Why should serious athletes care about yoga?
This question is most often answered with a laundry list of research-backed physical benefits that includes:

  • Greater flexibility and balance

  • Increased muscle strength and tone

  • Enhanced endurance

  • Better breathing

  • Improved circulation

This list, while impressive and important, fails to highlight the potential for a well-rounded yoga practice to help transform a primarily physical athlete - someone who plays sports and performs athletic skills with a certain degree of expertise - into a holistic athlete - someone who harnesses the full power of body and mind to become more present and proficient in life, not just in athletic endeavors.
Even though “everyone loves a winner,” the ultimate aim of athletics is to teach a person how to remain present, open, and willing to engage with whatever life places before him or her in that moment. Even Tony D’Amato, the hard-charging head coach in the gritty football drama Any Given Sunday, acknowledges the power of the present moment when he tells his players, “That’s what living is. The six inches in front of your face.”
By actively engaging with multiple aspects of yoga, not just the physical practice of asana (or “postures”), an athlete obtains the opportunity to practice the techniques that can help him or her make the most of those “six inches,” regardless of whether he or she is playing on the field or participating in the game of life.
Yoga’s unique physical benefits for athletes
Athletic training often prioritizes the sharpening of sport-specific skill sets as well as increasing muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. While these are essential elements of any practice regimen, a narrowly-focused training plan that emphasizes certain muscle groups and neglects others can cause dangerous imbalances in an athlete’s body. Sport-specific stretching routines are designed to combat these imbalances and help athletes stave off injury, but research indicates that the effectiveness of these programs is minimal.
But what happens when a well-designed asana practice is added to the mix?
According to a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga, male college athletes who were given a 10-week yoga practice to follow in addition to their regular training routine demonstrated greater increases in flexibility and balance than their teammates who followed a regular, sport-specific stretching routine. The authors of the study explain that a yoga practice is so beneficial because it requires an athlete to recruit multiple aspects of fitness at the same time (strength, breath, flexibility, etc.) as opposed to a more targeted training effort that focuses on an isolated area of the body.

Dr. Jay Paslgrove, lead author of the study and researcher at North-Eastern Illinois University’s Department of Health, writes:
 "The physical practice of yoga consists of maintaining regular and steady breathing while changing the positioning of the body through a series of Asanas (static postures) during which all the targeted and supporting muscle groups are engaged (under tension). Connecting breathing mechanics to an engaged musculoskeletal system while performing the poses provides a holistic challenge to the whole body."
In addition to strengthening sports-related skill sets, yoga can be helpful in preventing injury in all sports, especially those that require athletes to perform frequent explosive movements. In addition, the greater body awareness that a mindful yoga practice cultivates increases an athlete’s ability to detect minor physical issues before they become full-blown injuries.
Helping athletes play the game of life
It’s clear that asana alone can bestow a wealth of benefits on a competitor, but is there anything an athlete can gain by exploring some of the other elements of a yoga practice?
In yoga philosophy, “play” (or lila), is the source of the entire universe; everything came into being because The Absolute decided to play. As human beings, we are called upon each day to engage as skillfully as we can in the playing out of life. Through literal play, athletes learn to cope with the ups and downs of the lila of life. They acquire the skills to remain strong, resilient, and adaptable in the face of difficulty, and gracious, humble, and kind in the face of fortune. This is where the true value of combining yoga with athletics lies.
When it comes to sports, the attention is most often placed on win-loss records and championship trophies. However, this approach cheapens the true nature of athletics and the concept of “play.” A regular yoga practice can also help athletes reconnect with their playful sides and navigate the challenges of stress and performance anxiety.

Luxmi Sharma explains this connection in her article in the 2015 edition of the International Journal of Physical Education:
 "The attention to breath during yoga can be considered one of the most important benefits to athletes. Learning to stay focused and centered through uncomfortable poses by concentrating on even inhalations and exhalations sets up the athlete to stay focused during a race or challenging workout. The mind-body connection in yoga is essential to helping athletes develop mental acuity and concentration."
In addition to asana and pranayama (breathwork), the yogic principles of focused concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) can be useful practices for athletes. Even just 10 minutes a day of silent contemplation can help an athlete more effectively regulate her or his stress response.
The details of specific competitions will fade, and the medals and trophies will collect dust, but the life lessons learned through a holistic approach to sport will remain vivid. Incorporating multiple aspects of yoga practice into life will ensure that the athlete has the strength and flexibility of mind and body to make the most of the six inches in front of his or her face.

Samira Shuruk