How to Revolutionize Athletic Performance with Yoga (Science-Backed)
First of all, you’re flexible enough to do yoga
If you’re like most athletes, you’ve avoided yoga in the past because you don’t think you’re flexible enough.
Yoga isn’t like a theme park ride. There are no “you must be able to touch your toes to enter” signs outside of any yoga studios and I’d bet most studios would go out of business if they did.
If you can get past this excuse and any others floating around in your head (Isn’t yoga for weird people? Do I have to chant? What if I’m not good?) you’re ready to give yoga a chance to revolutionize your athletic performance.
So, how can yoga help athletes? Here’s how it happened for me:
How Yoga Made Me a Better Athlete
As a college baseball player, I had good years and bad years. In my good years, I was physically and mentally well. In my bad years, I was either struggling physically or mentally.
As a sophomore, I developed an elbow injury from doing overdoing it with strength and conditioning (not the best idea for a pitcher to get obsessed with pull-ups). I needed a change, so I turned to yoga to bring my body into balance.
The next year, I had a perfect 7-0 record and made the all-conference team.
As a senior, I lost my humility and control of my emotions. After a few bad starts, I found myself sitting on the bench. I had gotten away from yoga and thought I could coast by. As my performance struggled, stress and anxiety climbed higher than they ever had in my athletics career.
In desperation, I turned to yoga and gave myself space to observe where I was mentally and identify areas I could improve on.
By the last two weeks of my senior season, I was back to my old self, in control of my emotions thinking more about what I could do for my team.
I was lucky. I didn’t let my level of flexibility get in the way of trying yoga and experiencing both its physical and mental benefits.
So, give your hamstrings a little pat, let them know they’re good enough, and let’s dive into how you can start improving your mental and physical game with yoga, just like I did.
Physical Benefits of Yoga for Athletes
So, what does yoga do for your body anyway?
It’s all about balance.
I’m not talking about balancing on one-leg type of balance (though yoga does help with that), I mean the type of balance that makes your body feel right.
A balanced body isn’t too strong or too flexible. It’s in the sweet spot, performing at its best without constant nagging injuries or a higher risk of a big one.
So, if you’re that person talking about being too inflexible to do yoga, what you’re really saying is you could use some yoga to balance off all that strength.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of hypermobile athletes afraid that yoga will make them even more flexible. For them, their use of yoga would be to build more strength to balance off all that flexibility.
I’m essentially arguing that yoga can be more than just a bunch of stretches for building flexibility. It builds balance where athletes need it most.
Before explaining how yoga is able to do that, I want to make sure you’re convinced about what yoga does for the body. So, here’s some quick science:
Science-backed Physical Benefits of Yoga
Yoga does a lot of great things for the body and science is just starting to chip away at understanding all of its effects.
Keeping it to what we can confidently support with science, yoga helps build flexibility (I prefer “range of motion” but I’ll get to that in a moment), strength, and balance.
One article discusses how sun salutations, yoga’s primary warm-up routine, correlated with significant increases in strength in both males and females. This gets me excited because it goes against the common assumption that yoga is just a bunch of stretching.
On the topics of flexibility and balance, Here’s an excerpt from the first article:
Results suggest that a regular yoga practice may increase the flexibility and balance as well as whole body measures of male college athletes and therefore, may enhance athletic performances that require these characteristics.
Can you think of any sports that require these characteristics: flexibility and balance? Yup, me too. All of them.
I’m not a scientist, but this information combined with my personal experience builds a pretty convincing picture for me. Doing yoga as an athlete made me strong in ways that normal strength training and weight training didn’t.
I felt more in control of my body in motion, but it wasn’t because I was more flexible, per se.
Range of Motion, Not Flexibility
Of course, the body control I developed came from my improved strength and balance, but the control was also stemming from the functional range of motion (not flexibility) that I was building.
As we’ve already seen, the word “flexibility” is problematic: either you don’t think you’re flexible enough or that you need more of it.
But, you don’t actually want flexibility.
Better than “flexibility” is enough flexibility to stay active in your sport and control of your flexibility.
So, what you actually want is functional range of motion: enough flexibility that’s fully in your control.
No wet noodles up in here. You want your muscles al dente, soft enough to bend, firm enough to hold structure.
At the end of the day, yoga is good for the athletic body, and its benefits can be summed up in one term:
Uh-oh. Long word alert!
Take a deep breath. We can do this.
Let’s start simple. What does it mean to compartmentalize something. I like Google’s simple definition:
divide into sections or categories
Add “de-” to the front, and we’ve got the opposite of the above definition:
unite sections or categories into a unified whole
My point? After doing yoga for enough time, you see your body as a unified, interconnected whole.
To me, this is the foremost physical benefit of yoga — to sense the body as a unified operating system.
This perspective allows us to build strength and flexibility with yoga, but in a balanced way.
We’re able to fine-tune the practice to balance the strength of smaller and larger muscle groups, as opposed to isolating targeted areas.
We’re no longer “inflexible”. We’re more flexible in some areas than others, and this is an opportunity to improve and level the range of motion we have in all corners of the body.
This is what keeps athletes performing at high levels and doing it over a long period of time. In a balanced physical body, athletes are less prone to injury and able to command movement with minimal risk.
There is another on union that’s possible for athletes: uniting the body with the mind.
Mental Benefits of Yoga for Athletes
Ok, back to my roller-coaster college baseball experience.
After a great junior year, my senior year was plagued by stress and anxiety. I had always had a little here and there, never really a problem. Then things started to spin out of control.
Yoga is what brought me back, but what actually changed my state of mind?
I remember a yoga class during the darkest times of my senior year where I was getting into a pretty deep stretch, but it didn’t feel right. Everything felt stuck and uncomfortable. It was like my mental state was playing out in my body.
The teacher noticed my struggle and reminded me to breathe.
I wouldn’t say that everything changed in that moment and I magically felt the pose perfect itself, but it completely changed my state of mind in the pose.
By simply breathing, I calmed down. By calming down, I felt more in control of the pose.
I would later learn that the breath unifies the body with the mind, and coding this into my system had a major impact on my psyche during the final weeks as a competitive baseball player.
Let’s do some fact checking to see if there’s any support for my experience with yoga improving my mental game.
Science-backed Mental Benefits of Yoga
The mind is a complicated place. There’s all kinds of factors that influence athletic performance, so let’s keep it to two that we can all associate with:
Stress and anxiety.
These little buggers often go hand-in-hand and raise obvious concerns in the way of furthering and maintaining athletic performance.
Having practiced yoga regularly for well over a decade, I can see where these results are coming from. It’s not like I’m never stressed or anxious, but I often feel like I’m less stressed or anxious as other people might be in the same situation.
To better understand what’s going on here, let’s build a more detailed picture of what we’re grappling with:
Stress and Anxiety
Stress is just the body’s reaction to any change (positive or negative) that requires an adjustment or response.
Anxiety is the nervousness that generally accompanies uncertainty about decisions or situations we see as important.
Put together, stress and anxiety revolve around the concept of change. In stress, we’re responding to a change that occured in the past. In anxiety, we’re concerned about a change expected in the future.
This all ties back to our survival instinct. If we know we’re surviving in the present, where there’s no change, it might make sense to prevent any change from happening at all.
Ultimately, we’re afraid of change because it challenges the status quo we’ve gotten used to. When we’re unable to control the change that just happened or the change that is coming we feel stress or anxiety.
So, how can yoga help with managing our response to past and future change (i.e. stress and anxiety)?
Relaxation and Acceptance
Yoga teaches us how to relax and, then, to pay attention.
As athletes, our first instinct is to compete in yoga. Every pose is a personal challenge and an opportunity to compete with myself and/or everyone else.
A good yoga teacher will guide you in a different direction, towards non-attachment.
Without attachment to results, we have no reason to feel anxiety about our performance in a yoga class. For many athletes, this is the first physically-engaging experience that’s also relaxing.
And, by relaxing, anxiety is reduced.
With guidance to not worry about what’s about to happen (the future), we can pay more attention to what just happened (the past).
If you recall the definition of stress from earlier, it revolves around our response to change. In our relaxed state with little to nothing to worry about, we have space to notice our responses in a yoga class.
At first, our responses in yoga are a bit out of our control. Frustration is a big one — “this is so hard and stupid!!!” ringing in your head.
Of course, these responses aren’t very helpful, and you’re given space and time to notice that on your own.
Over time, class after class, you start to notice that whatever just happened is in the past and there’s no emotional response that’s going to change it.
In effect, in yoga’s relaxation-first approach, there’s no pressure to worry about the future or the past. The present moment and your current action is all that’s left.
Translating this into the world of competition, when similar feelings arise, like performance anxiety or stress arising from a win or loss, athletes that do yoga are equipped to manage these forces by staying in the present moment and acting without fear.
As someone who has experienced the benefits of yoga on my own athletic performance, all I can do is express what I’ve learned in words, whether as anecdotes from my past or excerpts from scientific journals.
Regardless of what science or I say, you can only know for yourself if you try. Not just a yoga class here and there, but a consistent practice of 1-2 sessions per week, for an average of 30 minutes each.
That’s my recommendation to all athletes. It’s manageable, productive and, most importantly, consistent.
So, if you’ve gotten over the excuse on not being flexible enough, are you ready to unite all parts of your body together, link them with your mind, and begin to live in the present moment without fear of the past or future?