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Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines that originated in ancient India. The practice of Yoga has been thought to date back to pre-Vedic Indian traditions, possibly in the Indus valley civilization around 3000 BCE. Yoga gurus from India later introduced yoga to the West, following Swami Vivekananda’s success in the late 19th and early 20th century with his adaptation of yoga tradition. Outside India, it has developed into a posture-based physical fitness, stress-relief, and relaxation technique. However, Yoga in Indian traditions is more than physical exercise; it has a meditative and spiritual core. In recent years, Yoga has gained popularity as a form of physical fitness and exercise and has been said to improve strength and flexibility.
What are our thoughts on incorporating Yoga into training?
Many athletes have adopted Yoga for strength or conditioning purposes, and books have been written incorporating Yoga into athletic routines. Yoga is a relatively broad term, much like “cardio.” We refer to Yoga as low-intensity, sub-maximal, isometric exercises done at the full range of motion in an ordered series to support progressive muscular coordination and psychological relaxation. Normal yoga sessions are slightly less (calorically) demanding than walking or moderate cycling. The energy expenditure observed in a study from Sherman et al. (2017) for vinyasa yoga (approximately 4 METS) is of public health importance because this reflects moderate-intensity physical activity, typically defined as 3.0 to < 6.0 METS. This intensity of physical activity has been shown to be important for impacting a variety of chronic health conditions.
A study from Amin & Goodman (2014) evaluated the effects of a six-week Iyengar yoga intervention on flexibility concluded a significant increase in flexibility, indicating six weeks of single session yoga training may be effective in increasing erector spinae and hamstring flexibility. Many claim yoga improves balance and strength through range of motion. Although that may be true for seniors or deconditioned patients, we think that many dynamic athletes already have a high degree of balance and strength, exceeding anything Yoga can offer. Although Yoga has many benefits, we are not sold on the idea of Yoga on its own for performance enhancement.
How would we incorporate Yoga into training for our athletes?
Yoga’s mental and emotional benefits may be most significant for athletes. If our athlete has trouble handling stressful situations, nervousness from finals, relationships, or other stressors that may impact our athletic performance, then Yoga may help with external psychological stress. For hundreds of years, many martial arts forms have realized the benefits associated with meditation to precisely do that.
Offering Yoga to enhance physically gifted and well-trained athletes’ physical attributes seem like a weak proposition, considering that dynamic athletes already possess a high level of balance and proprioception that probably outshines yogis (in dynamic situations) tenfold. Athletes are beyond static poses in this respect and at a different level, called “dynamic balance.”
For a trained athlete to enhance measures of balance and motor control, dynamic movements might be more productive. Yoga for accelerated recovery may have merit in theory. But we wouldn’t teach our athletes to follow this principle in practice. Remobilization of joints and respective muscle groups may indeed increase blood flow, aiding in the recovery process. But at the same time, a certain point of added mechanical stress could potentially slow recovery. Advanced practitioners, who have intimate knowledge of Yoga and the capabilities of their athletes, might use Yoga as a form of accelerated recovery. However, we would hesitate to recommend Yoga for accelerated recovery as a rule for athletes, especially if they are already engaged in high-frequency programs or unfamiliar with the practice.
Sport-specific skill training, resistance training, and conditioning routines offer greater returns on time invested than Yoga for enhancing physical performance. Once these three aspects are accounted for, Yoga can enhance psychological well-being and mental aspects of performance and, in some cases, accelerated recovery. When integrating Yoga, daily practice at low intensity might be most beneficial. Practicing yoga first thing in the morning could enhance the presence of the mind and carry over to more complex decisions throughout the day.
We’ve seen this strategy in the workplace, and we see no reason why it shouldn’t apply in collegiate settings. Whether an athlete is preparing for a stressful set of practice rounds or final exams in chemistry and calculus, Yoga may curb some anxiety and better prepare him or her to focus on the tasks at hand. Most of the benefits of Yoga to athletes probably come after they develop a solid foundation which calls for relatively high frequency. Three or more days per week, 15 to 20 minutes per day, might be an appropriate recommendation for athletes learning new poses. Once they have acquired the basic skills, athletes may have a better basis for extending their sessions to focus on the meditative aspects, which undoubtedly take longer than 20 minutes for full effect.
In Persistence athletics, we program various kinds of Yoga stretches in our program as a cool down to increase the flexibility of our athletes.
Amin, D. J., & Goodman, M. (2014). The effects of selected asanas in Iyengar yoga on flexibility: Pilot study. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 18(3), 399–404. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2013.11.008
Beazley, D., Patel, S., Davis, B., Vinson, S., & Bolgla, L. (2017). Trunk and hip muscle activation during Yoga poses : Implications for physical therapy practice. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 29, 130–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2017.09.009
Ganpat, T., Nagendra, H., & Selvi, V. (2013). Efficacy of yoga for mental performance in university students. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(4), 349.
Sherman, S. A., Rogers, R. J., Davis, K. K., Minster, R. L., Creasy, S. A., Mullarkey, N. C., … Jakicic, J. M. (2017). Energy expenditure in vinyasa yoga versus walking. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 14(8), 597–605. https://doi.org/10.1123/jpah.2016-0548
Raju, P.s & Ramana, K & Reddy, M & Kjr, Murthy. (2013). Effect of yoga training on respiratory functions in athletic coaches. Journal of Rehabilitation Med in Asia. 1. 51-5
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