More and more you hear about some world-class athlete who uses yoga as a form of cross training. To name a few, Athletes across all kinds of sports such as NBA’s King LeBron James, legendary center Shaquille O’Neal, former heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield, tennis stars Monica Seles and Pete Sampras and UK soccer stud Ryan Giggs, incorporate yoga in their fitness routine.

But what gives? What’s the deal with athletes incorporating yoga? Depending on who you ask, you will more than likely find that they are using it for a method to improve their overall athletic performance by preventing injuries, centering their minds and achieving success with more ease and self awareness.

Physical Benefits of Yoga:

1. Balanced form of cross training between flexibility and strength:
Flexibility and strength are like two sides of the same coin. You will never know your maximum strength unless you find that opposite healthy balance within your flexibility (this goes beyond fitness/sports as well). Think of our bodies like a soaring California palm tree. If you have ever watched one in the middle of a vicious wind storm, it is kind of cool to watch how it’s flexibility paired with it’s strong roots (strength) keep it grounded as it casually goes with the flow and doesn’t resist the wind, but moves with it. If the palm tree where to get stubborn and flex with all of it’s might to stand straight and tall through the storm, it would snap in half. Our flexibility is the same when paired with strength. It makes the foundation of our bodies unshakable. A regular yoga practice offers that needed balance between creating lean muscle mass, muscle endurance and flexibility at the same time.

2. Know thy body
A regular yoga practice will give you a new level of awareness with how your body feels, performs in different planes of motion and handles speed and resistance. Knowing this is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to injury prevention, rehabilitation and even just taking your game to the next level. When you are in tune with your body, you will know when you shouldn’t run that extra mile because your knee can’t take it this time. You will be able to feel that there is a certain group of muscles that need your attention that will help you have a quicker change in direction to beat your opponent to that loose ball during crunch time. There is only one way to know the details of your anatomy and performance and that is to genuinely pay attention to it  while keeping  a pulse on how it evolves over time. Yoga offers a natural and productive environment/practice for doing just that.

3. Tool for restoration and injury prevention:
Athletes push their bodies to their physical max day in and day out. If you don’t have some type of proportional restorative system in place, you are making yourself incredibly prone to injury. Most training programs do not properly address or educate an athlete on the importance of restoration and methods of achieving this. A restorative yoga program can help athletes achieve proper recuperation while relaxing their bodies and releasing undesired toxins created during an intense workout.

Ryan Giggs & yoga
Ryan Giggs & yoga

4. Playing against your sport and gender odds
Certain sports and genders are more prone to certain injuries. For example, women athletes in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, gymnastics and alpine skiing are anywhere from 4-8 times more likely to injure their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Now, in knowing this and hopefully having a halfway decent strength and conditioning coach they will help you focus on promoting healthy joint health and overall strength in your lower body. A lot of strength training programs do a good job of hitting major muscle groups and not so great of a job of creating strength in those itsy bitsy stability muscles in the pelvic and foot area that will really help create lower body stability, strength, joint health and prevent injury.

Spiritual/Mental Benefits:

5. Getting in the zone:
The highlights of almost every athlete’s career involve one common element: The Zone. That inexplicable but fabulous element that seems to take over your mind, body and soul and guide you into performing at a level that is better than your imagination could ever fathom. Every single second, breath and graceful movement you make during a yoga practice works on harnessing and building harmony in all that you do. The beauty that comes from living in the moment helps you to gracefully move beyond an airball, hecklers, a call that didn’t go your way, the fight you had with your significant other earlier that day. Having that kind of space and peace within allows for your mind, body and soul to connect and deliver you more moments in The Zone.

6. Know Thyself:
Like most of these, this one goes way beyond the track, the court or field. Yoga is a really dynamic tool that if you give into it genuinely, will allow you to know yourself inside and out. Knowing yourself on the inside allows for you to know how to motivate yourself through all of the different varieties and challenges that can make being awesome seem like a hurdle. To be able to reach your highest potential as an athlete, you have to develop some sort of grace that helps you to healthily deal with situations and make environments that may not be ideal conducive to you and your goals. Just like with your body, the only way to know yourself like that, is by spending the space and time watching without judgement and letting your gut naturally develop healthy support systems and mechanisms.

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