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Just breathe: yoga for athletes

– written by Tania Tetrault Vrga, originally published in the Free Press

What do crossfitters, runners, soccer players, and stressed out executives have in common?  The answer is that they could all benefit from adding yoga to their regular fitness routine.  As a personal trainer and strength coach, I find that most clients don’t have any trouble building strength and endurance, as long as they show up to the gym on a regular basis.  Most often, their limiting factors are the kinds of things that require a commitment outside the gym.  The most overlooked aspects of fitness are flexibility, mobility, sleep and stress management, recovery, focus, and breath.

 The beauty of yoga is that it provides a platform to improve all of these areas at once.  I’m not a yoga instructor and I don’t pretend to have knowledge of which types of yoga are most beneficial.  I also think that you can likely get all the benefits of yoga through meditation and stretching.  However, a qualified and experienced yoga instructor can provide all of the benefits of meditation, breathing practice, and stretching in a comfortable and affordable class setting.

Let’s look at the top four benefits of yoga for athletes:

Breath: Proper yoga practice starts with a full rhythmic breath.  This can be extremely difficult at the beginning, but learning to control your breath is one of the best things you can do to master your body and become even more skilled at your sport.

Focus: Many elite athletes experience a state of flow when they compete.  They often describe this as a heightened state of awareness, similar to deep meditation, during which time appears to slow down.  Spending an hour listening to your breath and being aware of your body is a great way to learn how to focus under pressure and get in the zone.

Flexibility: Perhaps the most obvious benefit of yoga is increased flexibility.  Lifting weights and playing hockey are not recommended if you can’t touch your toes or reach your arms overhead. It’s common sense.  Luckily yoga can help with that.

Recovery: There is an old saying ‘There is no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovering.”  I’m not sure that’s completely accurate but it serves to illustrate an important point.  In order to perform well on the playing field or in the gym, you need to rest and recover between sessions.  That means taking time to relax and get some sleep.  Think of yoga as a lesson in chilling out.

It almost seems like a no-brainer, but it’s hard for an athlete who only has 24 hours in the day to commit to spending one of those hours doing essentially nothing.

I’ve always dabbled in Yoga, but in the past few months, I have committed to doing at least two Yoga practices per week and I have embarked on a 200 hour yoga teacher training.  The result has been an unmistakable improvement in energy and performance in the gym.  I didn’t change anything else, my nutrition stayed the same and I did the same type of strength training I usually do.  So how does Yoga account for this?

One of the concepts that kept cropping up over and over again was the Yin and Yang of Chinese medicine and philosophy, the idea that yoga is beneficial in that its Yin properties balance out the Yang activities in our day to day lives.   As Yoga instructor Monica Angelatos notes in a recent article:  “Yang has energetic qualities such as active, rapid, fiery, explosive, hot and masculine. Yet, for every Yang quality there is an opposite Yin energy, like passive, slow, cold, and feminine.  Because in the Western world we engage predominantly in Yang-type practices, it is important to bring our awareness to its counterpart. Yang stimulates the muscles encouraging strength, physical fitness and health. Over time, however, if Yin is not practiced, the body will weaken and the less flexible joints of the body will become susceptible to injury.”

Being educated in the Western world, I struggle to reconcile the concept of Yin and Yang with something that I can recognize as a scientifically sound mechanism.   I suspect that the magic of the Yin and Yang is related to the autonomic nervous system, which handles many of the body’s unconscious bodily mechanisms.  It is composed of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  To put it perhaps too simply, the sympathetic system is the Yang, the “fight or flight” response, which mobilizes the body’s energy and resources, whereas the parasympathetic system is the Yin, the “rest and digest” response, which slows down breathing to focus on the body’s restorative functions.

The Yang is important, just as the fight or flight response is necessary in times of real physical danger.  However, any number of perceived stressors or psychological stressors can cause prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system, leading to chronic stress and all its modern physical manifestations.  It seems many of us could use Yin tools to help us control our body’s response to perceived stressors.

Meditation, deep breathing and Yoga can all be valuable Yin tools.  Interestingly, studies have shown that deep breathing upregulates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows the body to rest and heal.  Many Yoga classes in the West focus on the Asanas or the physical poses of Yoga, but the benefits become evident when the Yoga class becomes a Yoga practice, a practice of meditation, a practice of breath and a practice of awareness.   Cheers to less stress and better health.


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