Yoga for Athletes
by The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute

To quote Power Yoga by Beryl Bender Birch, a book written in a down to earth style for mainstream Americans and the traditional athletic community about the astanga yoga system of Pattabhi Jois, "Sports don't really get us in shape. In fact, sports get us out of shape. Sports develop tight muscles and uneven use of muscle groups, or the uneven use of one side of the body. Running, for instance, is great for the cardiovascular system. But it dramatically tightens the muscles at the back of the legs and does virtually nothing for the rest of the body. This intense shortening or disproportionate strengthening results in muscular and structural imbalance."


If training continues without alternative work to open the tightness and realign the imbalance, injury is inevitable. Stopping training isn't the solution because injury or imbalance that has resulted from or been aggravated by a particular sport can't be fixed by simply discontinuing the training at that sport or exercise. Yes, rest may give the torn connective tissue or muscle tissue a chance to heal, but it doesn't eliminate the source of the problem. Once training starts again, the same limited range of motion or biomechanical imbalance will cause the same injury over and over again.


If only flexibility and balance could be regained by just not training for a few weeks. The muscles could simply "remember" their original limber state and go back to the way they were. But it doesn't work that way. We could quit training for 20 years and, of course we would have lost our fitness, but we would still be as tight as the day we quit training. Tight muscles simply do not get longer by themselves. The alternative work to open the tightness and balance misalignment is yoga practice! The physical discipline of yoga, especially the combined systems of Jois, Iyengar, and Desikachar, has proven to be a uniquely effective method for restoring range of motion to tight muscles and therapeutically realigning the body. Yoga works in a way that no other system of "stretching" or "specific muscle" strengthening can equal. With the emphasis on correct biomechanical alignment, strength within a posture in the form of static muscular contractions, and specific breathing techniques for heat and energy, this intense and physically challenging methodology, particularly that of Jois and Iyengar, appeals to the modern athletes because of its multi-faceted approach.


Yoga can be practiced anywhere in any weather, without a trainer, special equipment, or health club membership. One workout develops strength, flexibility, range of motion, concentration, cardiovascular health, and reduces stress, tension, and tightness. The most outstanding benefit of adding yoga to a training program, in addition to preventing and/or rehabilitating injury, is the effect it has on performance. It enables an athlete to train harder and at a higher level because range of motion is greater and the fear of injury has lessened. The practice also develops sinewy strength, as opposed to bulky strength, and while that might not be an advantage for all athletes, it certainly is a plus for endurance athletes.


While all these physical benefits are truly remarkable they sort of pale by comparison to the mental benefits of a serious yoga practice. Yoga, after all, as defined above, is about learning to pay attention. As athletes seek higher levels of excellence in sport, the part played by mind in training and competition, increases exponentially. The ability to direct energy, concentrate on the present moment, and shut out noise and distraction becomes an essential skill. In astanga yoga developing proficiency in concentration, focus, and breath control is part of the asana practice. Although asana refers only to the third limb of the astanga path, the other limbs come into play as the practitioner trains the mind to focus on the postures and the breath. The fourth limb of pranyama, or breath (energy) control, the fifth limb of pratyahara, or "withdrawal of the senses", the sixth of dharana, or concentration, and the seventh limb of dhyana, or meditation are continuously interwoven into the practice. And that is why astanga yoga is unique and runners, cyclists, hikers, skaters, dancers, skiers, climbers, swimmers, tennis and golf players, baseball, basketball, and football players and so forth, men as well as women, can all be found in today's yoga classes.


Often yoga seems extremely difficult to beginners, especially tight athletes who are very "fit", at their own sport. It is hard to get "into" something that is so downright difficult and discouraging. These people will eventually find, however, if they stay with it, that it will get easier. On the other hand, to some people when starting, yoga seems relatively easy. These people actually have a tougher time of it, because for them, it's "batten down the hatches." Things will become a lot harder. The secret to success in yoga lies in three things: practice, practice and more practice. Practice with earnestness. Practice without a break. And practice for a long time. Transformation will come. There is no short cut. If there were, someone would have figured it out already. No one can understand what it is going to be like to do yoga. There is only one way to know, and that is to have the experience of doing yoga, and that only comes from one's own practice. And with our own practice comes the understanding of what people mean when they say why they do yoga. "It sets me up for the day." "It smoothes out life's rough edges." "It makes my day go better." "Everything else seems to flow better after practice." "It keeps me healthy." "My back pain and stiffness are gone." "I can breathe better." "It gives me a sense of accomplishment that nothing else ever has." "It quiets my mind." "I feel better about myself and the rest of the world." "I'm a better person because of it."


Yoga is a discipline, a path for physical, mental, and spiritual growth. While a person may come to yoga seeking a solution to tightness and tension, she might eventually find that yoga becomes truly a "practice", unto itself. Not something done for some other reason, like done "for" flexibility in order to run a marathon, or done "for" range of motion so as to climb better, or done "for" steadiness of mind in order to be a better surfer or stockbroker. No. Practiced as simply yoga for yoga.


Tips for athletes (NOTE: there are photo thumbnails on the existing site for each) you have to be hot to stretch.

Without heat; any attempt to stretch or realign the body is a complete waste of time. You have to be warm while stretching. This is accomplished by doing strength work concurrently and continuously along with the stretch.


Strength, not gravity, develops flexibility

Power Yoga is about STRENGTH. Flexibility comes as a result of the strength work. Without the strength work, the heat is not there and, consequently, the stretch work is not effective, safe, or even possible.


Sports do not get us into shape. in fact, sports get us out of shape.

Sports develop tight muscles and create imbalance because of repetitive training and uneven use of muscle groups, or the uneven use of one side of the body. This intense shortening or disproportionate strengthening results in mind-boggling muscular and structural imbalance. The harder you train, the tighter your body will become, and this is true of nearly any sport.


All injury in sports is caused by structural and muscular imbalance.

Although chronic injury in most cases comes on slowly as the body goes further and further out of alignment, eventually the imbalance breaks through as debilitating pain. We must then either do something to address the imbalance, or face stopping our training. We were too focused on our training to notice the slow, incremental decrease in our range of motion and agility which has come about from our imbalances caused by training.


Muscular imbalance and structural irregularities do not fix themselves.

This is what you use the Power Yoga workout for, among other things. No one sport perfectly balances and complements any other in strict biomechanical terms. Some sports complement one another well, like cross-country skiing and distance running; others not so well, like basketball and distance running. Some sports have a good direct muscular crossover effect, like Rollerblading and cycling, or climbing and kayaking. Others have very little muscular crossover effect, like cycling and running. Only a program designed to specifically open, realign, and build power and flexibility will work effectively as an antidote to the negative effects of exercise and keep us on the road.


Even iron will bend if you heat it up.

In many of us who've been active exercisers for years, our muscle and connective tissue are starting to feel like the iron in our cars. The only way to get rid of the dent (unless you just want to hammer it out cold - and some of you actually try that method!) is to heat up our frame and remold it. Surgery might correct a structural imbalance, but it does not restore the tissue to the pre-injured elastic, supple state. Drugs may get rid of pain, spasm, or inflammation, but not the cause of same. The "memory" of the injury will stay there forever until we do some body work to heat, correct, and re-align.

Stopping training does not correct an imbalance.


It may give the injury time to heal, but as soon as we begin to train again, the injury will come back; the misaligned moving parts resume rubbing against each other - causing friction, or what we feel as pain - as soon as we start training again. The parts are still in the same biomechanical relationship to one another. Even though we may have rested and healed the injury, we did nothing to heal the misalignment. You have to take the "dent" out to stop the rubbing. You have to get in there and knead it around like bread dough and work out the trauma. You have to take the tissue in every direction, both in a stretch and in a contraction. And remember, without heat, the realignment is not safely possible. The primary ingredient of Power Yoga practice is HEAT. Think of what a glassblower can do with a piece of glass tubing when it is heated.


No matter how fit you are at what you do, when you start something new you have to ease into it.


This program does not promise or even remotely hint that we can get you fit overnight, or from one-sided to balanced, injured to healed, unconscious to conscious, out of control to in control, sloppy to disciplined, or fat to fit in 21 days or less. This practice encourages you to begin slowly, practice regularly, breathe deeply, pay attention, and build on the small, gradual changes you observe as you progress.


About the Author


The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute: Our focus is on presenting a non-dogmatic, non-exclusive, non-injurious (both physical and mental) style of yoga. Our teachers are trained extensively in the moral and ethical tenets of yoga, as well as the anatomy of asana. It is extremely important to us that our teachers understand ethical and moral appropriateness. We also believe it is important for a teacher to be visually and verbally confident, interesting, and energetic. Our training includes work on personal hygiene, public speaking, voice training, leadership qualities, etc.









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