Is Yoga Good for Athletes?

This past fall, I was invited to teach yoga to a group of high school football players. I will be honest, I have never taught that many young people at one time, and my very first class I was so nervous and I left quite hoarse from basically yelling for almost an hour to a group of 80 or so teen age boys.

Of course, when the invitation came, I was more than a little ecstatic. I have always said that yoga is the Original Functional Fitness, and I have read more articles than I can shake a stick at talking about the benefits of a regular yoga practice for athletes, but this was my first time to get to experience the changes first hand in a large test group of athletes. We have met weekly almost all season, the day before the “big game.” Each class was between 45 minutes- 1 hr, held mostly on the football field. Most of the boys did not have mats simply because between the school and my studio, we couldn’t round up enough for everyone!

Yoga is the Original Functional Fitness

It took me about 3 classes to figure out how to “speak” to the boys in a way that resonated with them, at least the majority of them. This is a group of a LOT of teenage boys somewhere between 15 and 18. Humorously, and maybe also a little bit of egotistically, I started my first class out pretty strong. I am a physical teacher, I came to the yoga practice from a life of athleticism, that’s what I love about the practice, and I sorta felt like the boys needed to be shown that yoga wasn’t “just for girls.”

Each practice contained some grounding postures that also opened hips and shoulders (like balasana or child’s pose and downward facing dog), the sequences also included a big emphasis on balance with poses (like Airplane Pose or Half moon) and of course lots of shoulder mobility and core work. The first week was HARD. The second week was harder…physically. None of the poses were considered intermediate (except maybe crow, which I like to call the “gateway” pose for all inversions), it was just that I held the poses a LONG time, and linked them together in such a way to create heat and (I hoped) fatigue in the working muscles.

With each of these classes, I found that some of the boys responded well, while others just sorta goofed off or half tried. I knew I was going to lose them if I didn’t shake things up, but I wasn’t quite sure how.

Inspiration Hit- Intensity and Stillness

On week 4 I tried something new. I wasn’t sure why exactly, but I noticed when the practice was really hard, many of the boys would just give up. If the boys gave up, that clearly meant that type of yoga wasn’t gonna be the most effective practice since they weren’t doing the postures. On week 4, instead of starting off with movement, I started off with a meditation. We did simple breathing techniques with equal parts inhale and exhale. After about 5 minutes of breathwork, I went back into the hip opening, shoulder mobility and balance work like usual.

The most interesting thing happened when we started out with meditation

The boys settled in, participated more fully, and smiled a lot more. Each session they would all practice (some more intensely than others) but when the sessions started with meditation, the boys participated more fully and the asked to end with more meditation before savasanas–where, by the way, I didn’t see any wiggling around.

It took a few weeks, but I found the magic sauce for teaching yoga to high school football players.

The very next week, I got a chance to talk to their coach (who I suspect was a bit of a nebulous believer in the power of yoga prior to my coming to work with them). He said, “I don’t know much about this yoga, but this season I have had the least amount of injuries ever.”

Something else I noticed, each week the boys came to practice and were focused on the practice–when I could get them calm, in tune with their breath, and centered, those were the weekends they won.

Is Yoga Good for Athletes?

I actually found a study that documented a group of college aged male athletes that performed yoga twice a week in addition to their regular exercises and tested for flexibility. The test results were resoundingly positive. Every participant in the yoga class showed improved mobility and balance.

Yoga inherently works your body simply by the nature of each posture. Each movement, especially when held for several breaths, allowing you to get into the best alignment for your body, creates strength, which is ultimately stability. However, these same postures also work with keeping your body moving-the mobility aspect is what seems to be so key for athletes today.

With such a big emphasis on strength and weights and even speed, sometimes the mobility of an athletes body can be overlooked. I’ve seen athletes that couldn’t do downward dog because their shoulders were so tight. They could easily pick their feet off the floor and do sort of a bent up strong hand stand of sorts without thinking or breaking a sweat, but they couldn’t straighten their arms to save their lives.

Let’s think about this stiffness for a moment. 

If you are an athlete (professional or just weekend) and you are strengthening your body so much that your body quits moving through a normal range of motion (say, reaching up straight overhead) then, what happens if, through the course of your activity, whether its a game or just throwing a ball with your kiddos, that joint is asked to go to full range of motion and it cant?

Yoga helps aid in Injury Prevention 

If, on the other hand, you spend 1-3 days working on mobility and strength, your mobility helps increase your normal range of motion that doesn’t stress your body’s joints out. Who doesn’t want more movement and less pain?

As seen in a very short football season, a regular yoga practice can be great for athletes. It can help to ground and center you, help you to focus. The physical yoga practice can help with your mobility but also stability. Whether you’re dodging 200 lb pad-clad football players, or chasing after a 30 lb toddler, having your body be able to withstand the rigors of movement, traumas (small or large) because your body can move and be stable is the best reason I can think of to include a little more yoga in your life.

If you’d like to learn about the different types of yoga, check out this blog post.

If you’d like to see how yoga can help you, try taking this quiz

If you are already convinced about how you need to build mobility and strength, then come join us inside Thrive Yoga and Wellness or Online!.
Thrive Online is the ONLY interactive online community that focuses each session on creating strength and flexibility. It is perfect if you are a retired athlete, weekend warrior, or just new to your exercise centered life. Moving is a vital component to living a healthy, pain free life, and I’d like to invite you to come check out Thrive Online completely free!