Mixing yoga and sports

One of my yoga students, “Sara,” does endurance sports. Before her annual summer triathlon, she stops attending yoga classes as she ramps up her training. Time is limited and she believes that “loose” muscles are diminished in strength.

Another student, “Chris,” will celebrate her birthday next year by running a marathon. Swimming was her original sport, and she’s a lean mesomorph body type, with tight shoulders and hips. Now that she goes on long runs on Sundays, she’s forgoing her Monday evening yoga class because she needs a post-run “total rest day.”

These cases got me thinking about yoga, sports, and mixing the two. Personally, I see yoga and sports as complementary. Why stop doing yoga while training for a race or competition?

Strength versus flexibility

Are strong muscles are inherently hard, even tight? Sara finds that increased running and cycling both strengthen and tighten her hip flexors. She wonders if it makes sense to work on stretching during training season.

I’m no expert on athletic training, but watching the London Olympic Games, I noticed how remarkably flexible elite athletes are. In virtually every sport. It’s a given that gymnasts and divers are acrobats, but look at track (running hurdles is like doing splits in motion) and tennis (deep lunges, backbends, spinal twists!). It seems that having supple muscles prevents imbalances and injuries.

Seasonal change versus seasonal consistency

Changing one’s routine by season is only natural. In a past post, Hina Matsuri, cherry blossoms, and seasons, I applauded Sara’s seasonal lifestyle changes, perhaps because I tend to keep the same yoga practice year round. That said, isn’t some consistency essential to any practice? Why stop asana during training season? Why neglect aerobic activity during off season? Instead, one might change the ratios seasonally. Otherwise one is always starting from scratch in either endeavor.

Beyond stretching

While yoga is typically associated with stretching and flexibility, it’s also about strength, stability, and balance. That’s obvious simply by holding any standing pose for two minutes or doing a dozen sun salutations. Actually, even stretching isn’t only about stretching: it often requires stabilizing one muscle group while lengthening another.

So the idea that yoga is “stretching” and sports are “strengthening” is a myth. Further, in Iyengar yoga, each class is unique. Literally. Even with the same teacher, each class is different. This kinesthetic novelty surely helps develop body awareness and control, which can only help athletic performance.

Total rest day

Is yoga class ideal for “rest days”? Chris considers it too much additional muscular stress. Indeed, for her body type, my classes do take effort, focus, and some sweat! Likewise, Sara commented, “… I’m more sore in my hip flexors and upper back from your yoga class than from the triathlon I did two weeks ago. If I were still training to race, my soreness from yoga would cut into my training.”

Hmm, maybe my experience of asana differs from theirs. Unless I attend a very challenging class, I don’t need much recovery time. To me, doing asana daily is doable and welcome. I’d certainly need rest days from endurance training—and yoga would be my antidote of choice.

But if even basic poses are overly exerting, perhaps what’s needed during heavy training is restorative yoga, which would not tax the body. (In class, I could tell them to ease off while training, but neither is the type to go easy.) Regular home practice, too, would keep yoga class from being too strenuous.

What’s the point of Sarvangasana?

Sara appreciates asana’s effects, but wonders about more “extreme” poses. Regarding Urdhva Dhanurasana, she wonders if ” hyperextension of the spinal cord serves any useful functions unless one is into acrobatics, diving, or gymnastics.” She’s also concerned about Sarvangasana (especially after she read William Broad’s The Science of Yoga.)

Here’s my take regarding poses beyond the basics: When one is ready, physically and mentally, to do them, they will not seem extreme. They will come as a smooth, organic progression from prior poses. In Urdhva Dhanurasana, if the shoulders, upper back, and hip flexors are open enough, there is no crunching in the lumbar spine. Same in Sarvangasana. With a stack of blankets for support and with enough preparation, there is no risky pressure on the neck. (Broad does highlight the positive physiological effects of the pose, quoting Mel Robin, author of A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers, on my wish list.)

Let’s turn the question around: What’s the point of endurance sports? Why run 26 miles? Doesn’t heavy running hammer your knees, ankles, and foot joints? What are the long-term effects? Why not run five miles for a decent aerobic workout?

But I do see the point of going further, in asana or in running: By pushing to our limits, we heighten our experience. Ultimately we must choose our innate ideal direction in which to push—and to work toward “extremity” gradually, safely, and enjoyably.

Image: Colt Pini; Wikipedia, Triathlon; Urdhva Dhanurasana, Yoga Journal asana column

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Mixing yoga and sports

  1. Really wonderful post on the benefits and cautions around more “extreme” asanas.

    As for yoga and sports, when I taught some classes for my local professional football team years ago, not all the players took to it. These guys were elite athletes and had a very high level of kinesthetic awareness, and thus, a very fast learning curve. But some of them were were so large of both muscle and frame that it was too challenging for them to relax and and enjoy practicing asana, although they certainly would have benefitted from a consistent practice of gentle stretching. However, some of the athletes really “got it” and remarked on the difference they could tell in both their running and their throwing as their flexibility improved.

    The bottom line on yoga and sports performance, as I see it, is that flexibility increases both range and efficiency of movement. When you are more flexible, your muscles don’t have to work as hard to move your skeleton in space; you can move farther and with more ease. For example, a major reason that standing poses become easier is that your contracting/stabilizing muscles don’t have to work as hard to hold you in the pose as the stretching muscles become more flexible. This translates to a longer stride when you run, better range of motion when you throw a ball, and also, not tiring as quickly. I think if all of this this were better understood, athletes would be able to have longer careers with fewer injuries.

    Don’t take it from me, though. In the words of this Stanford football player: http://heismanpundit.com/2012/09/19/heisman-player-of-the-week-stanfords-stepfan-taylor/

    1. I remember your work with the Oakland Raiders! Thanks for the link to that Stanford player (but Go Bears!).

      Good point about the interplay between flexibility and effort. The key is sticking with it until that transformation (agony to ease) occurs.

      1. Totally, YogsSpy — Go Bears! (Actually, there is a Cal Bears/Oregon Ducks rivalry in my family, haha.)

        And yes, sticking with it until that transformation occurs is key. Even if stretching is intense at the outset, with regular practice, your nervous system will rapidly learn to reinterpret those sensations and understand them as healthy because of the results they produce in overall well-being!

  2. Great article. I’ll have to use some of your points the next time a student brings up the yoga/running debate. I used to be a long distance runner and once I started yoga I noticed that my knees hurt less and my endurance improved. Also, flexibility in the hip flexors and hamstrings definitely enhances running stride.

  3. Yeah there seems to be alot of misconceptions out there (still) about yoga and what is ‘best’ for us. It’s great that the two athletes you cite have found yoga to be complementary to their athletic pursuits and that will have enduring payoffs. It wasn’t long ago that a serious runner would even consider yoga as part of their athletic regime. My sense is that ‘Sara’ and ‘Chris’ will, as their practice progresses, find that their athletic regime becomes a part of their yoga. Let’s hear it for the yoga of running!

  4. GREAT post YogaSpy. 🙂 As a yoga teacher, I think it’s important to respect people’s goals in broader life and meet people where they are. In my teaching I have noticed 3 types of athletes:

    1) Event athletes, like your students, who are training for a big event
    2) Casual athletes, who use sports for fitness over the long term
    3) Professional athletes, whose sport is their full time job

    In my experience, type 1 are most likely to drop yoga in the lead-up to a big event, because they want to focus on their performance and they probably only have limited time to train. Since these events are often yearly or even once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and mean a great deal to people, I try to be supportive their move away from challenging asana practices and recommend pranayama, meditation/visualisation and restorative yoga as a part of their training programme in the lead-up to the big day. Once the event is over you can ask them how their bodies felt during and after the event and help them build back up to a more intense asana class and while focusing on key muscles (psoas, hip flexors) and joints to help them avoid injuries and improve their performance in the next event.

    Type 2 and 3 are more able to integrate yoga into their long-term body/mind routines, although for different reasons!

    1. Interesting point. Perhaps people shift from one category to another over time (whether over a year or over a lifetime).

      Maybe we can observe such categories of yoga practitioners. Are we committed but casual, once-a-week students? Are we “professional” teachers or otherwise committed to yoga? Do we vary by event, such as an intense workshop? How do we incorporate yoga into our households, families, careers, sports, and other priorities? Do we drop our social lives for our yoga lives? Or vice versa. Etc.

      1. It’s interesting to think about this from the yoga perspective! There are definitely differences between yogis who are using yoga as part of a diverse mind/body routine, and those who are soley practicing yoga. Likewise the balance of your practice is bound to shift as you go through the different stages of life – from being young and single, to having a partner & family, to aging. Balance is not a constant… But we are constantly in search of balance!

  5. hi Yoga Spy…interesting post. I don’t believe that there is a separation between sports and yoga. Mental preparation as part of the training in whatever sport of choice is important. Mental preparation has been shown to improve physical performance because of the sensitivity the brain acquires in being able to do the physical activity. It primes “the engine of the body” to move. Maybe your student is stuck in the physical aspect of yoga and not the more subtle mind body connections. It would certainly allow her longevity in her sport if she practiced mind body connections. Athletes don’t typically age well and it is a young person’s profession. Older athletes often will combine a more integrative approach to their bodies. The wear and tear on the body from repetitive weight bearing forces does cause joint break down and if you only use your joints one way you will be looking at trouble from arthritis down the road. The endorphin high from aerobic activity is hard to duplicate in yoga which is why sports really are addictive both to the mind and the body. I would just let this person “be” until either an injury MAKES them stop for a while or something else occurs. You can’t make people want to do yoga. They have to want it.

  6. Hi Yoga Spy…. YES, we are with you. Yoga can be a deepening tool to enhance any sports practice or art form. In fact, Inflextion Publishing’s next yoga e-book features a sequence on Yoga for Cyclists. We are very excited about this upcoming release, and would like to send you free download links to review the book, if you are interested.

    In the meantime, check out our latest book, Visvamitrasana: Volume 1 of the Sage Series by NYC teachers Nikki Vilella and Emily Stone: http://www.inflextion.com/visva/

    I can also send you a free download copy of the Visva book, if you send me an email address.

    All the best,
    Ali

Please post a comment. Your email address will be kept confidential.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s