“I'm not flexible enough for yoga."

“Yoga isn't for me."

For those who don't practice yoga these are two very common excuses. These statements are said with conviction knowing full well that once you draw them into a debate, they usually concede and agree that yoga would be good for them. Athletes, and more commonly male athletes, use these excuses the most often.

There are a few reasons for this:
  • First, stretching is uncomfortable, boring and difficult, so it doesn't get a lot of attention. People who are committed to activities like running, basketball or functional fitness don't usually stretch after long training sessions, which makes them less flexible than the average person.
  • Second, athletes are competitive. They are competitive by nature and it's one of the main reasons they love playing sports. So going to a yoga class knowing they will be one of the least flexible people in the room, doesn't sound like that much fun.
  • Third, the language of yoga can be intimidating or difficult to relate to. Not only is it taught in Sankrit or using names like Camel or Twisted Monkey, but most yoga teachers use flowery poetic language to help students deepen the postures or explain the philosophy of yoga.
Athletes can benefit greatly from yoga which is why teaching yoga for athletes is such an important thing to understand.

Teaching yoga for athletes means we must take a different approach than teaching a group of seasoned yogis. Most yoga studios offer classes for athletes but just because a class incorporates pushups or 10 minutes of core strengthening exercises doesn't mean it will work for all athletes walking in the door.

It's not about teaching only a power vinyasa flow or yin yoga class, but creating a yoga practice that fits the athlete and not trying to fit the athlete to the yoga practice. Teaching Lotus for example, the classic seated yoga pose that requires extreme mobility in the hips, doesn't help them. It is an advanced hip opener and most athletes don't have the mobility required to get close to it. I know I don't. Pigeon pose is a much more effective way of using the yoga practice for improving mobility in the hips. With athletes, the goal of the physical yoga is different because their needs are different.

Teaching athletes means that we look at the athlete as a whole, what sports they play, current or past injuries, their mental state, and trouble areas of the body that hinder them performing at their peak. We need to consider where they are in their training, how often they train, whether they are peaking for a marathon, or recovering from a challenging workout. All of these factors will determine how we teach. We use the yoga practice, what we know about sequencing, anatomy, breath and philosophy as a tool to improve athletes' overall well-being and their performance.

Experiencing how your body moves, responds and recovers from playing different sports will help you understand the best way to guide athletes through yoga. I am an athlete first and have studied, participated or competed in a variety of sports such as rock climbing, competitive cheerleading, running, triathlons, basketball, ballet and functional fitness. When a marathoner asks me how yoga can improve their training, I can answer with first hand knowledge about how I used yoga during my own marathon training. Using what I know about different types of sports, movement patterns, training cycles and yoga, I can prepare yoga classes designed to improve performance.

Below are the 5 yoga poses I teach most often to athletes:

Here are some quick tips and reminders before you start:

  • These poses stretch the main muscle groups used during most activities and are trouble spots for most athletes but remember to adapt the yoga practice to the athlete and not the other way around.
  • Allow for up to two minutes in each stretch either pre or post workout.
  • Breath slowly in and out through the nose to calm the mind and relax the body while performing each posture.

1. Downward Facing Dog or Adho Muka Svanasana

Starting in plank pose, shift the hips back and walk the feet towards the hands about 2 inches. Place the feet hips distance and the hands shoulder distance. The first finger of each hand should point forward. Bend the knees, press through the palms as though to push the mat away extending the outer hips up. Feel your tailbone lengthen towards the ceiling. Once the maximum extension of the spine is reached, begin to slowly straighten the legs, drawing the heels down. Relax the neck and gaze in between your feet.

2. Upward Facing Dog or Urdhva Muka Svanasana

From Downward Dog, shift forward into plank and bring the thighs down onto the ground. The hands should be underneath the shoulders. Press down through the palms and tops of the feet to allow the hips to slowly lift of the ground. Feel the chest move forward and up through the gateway of the shoulders as you lengthen your tailbone towards your heels.

3. Twisted Monkey or Parivrtta Eka Pada Rajakapotasana

Starting from low lunge with the right foot forward, walk the foot a couple of inches to the right and then bend the back knee and grab for the left foot with the right hand. If that is not possible, use a strap/band and wrap it around the foot. To deepen the stretch, you can drop down onto your left forearm and turn the right side of the chest down towards the ground.

**I have had numerous athletes' cramp during this stretch because they are contracting their hamstring to grab the back foot. My best suggestion is to shift the hips back to stack over the left knee, grab the foot, shift slightly forward, let the foot fall into the hand (turning off the hamstring) then shift the hips all the way forward to find the stretch.

4. Clasp Hands Forward Fold or Uttanasana Variation

Start standing with the legs hips distance. Clasp the hands by the low back, squeeze the shoulder blades together. Extend the arms while keeping a soft bend in the elbow. On an exhale fold forward sending the hand up and over the head.

**If clasping your hands behind your back is not accessible, use a strap or PVC pipe; widen the grip to a place where you can fold forward.

5. Pigeon or Eka Pada Rajakapotasana

Starting in Downward Dog, bring the right shin forward and place it on the ground. Keep the right foot flexed. The right knee should be to the right of the hip. Extend the left leg back. Roll towards the front of the left hip so the hips are square towards the ground. Depending on tightness, shift the right heel forward, but only if this doesn't hurt the right knee. Once you feel an intense stretch in the glute, walk the hands forward, resting the forehead on the ground or on your hands.

About the Author: Stephanie Ring, creator of Endure Yoga, is an athlete who absolutely loves yoga. Movement has always been a part of her life starting with ballet at age 3 and moving to competitive cheerleading at age 16. She started practicing yoga in college but it was years later when she was inspired to compete in triathlons that than her yoga practice was taken to the next level. Stephanie utilized yoga to increase her overall performance and complete more than a dozen races including two Marathons, a Century Ride and two Half Ironman races. Yoga continues to be a big part of her life as she has transitioned to running and CrossFit and she continues to use yoga during training seasons for cross training, mental focus, stress relief and injury prevention.

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