Reframing the Benefits of Yoga for Athletes
As athletes, we can get pretty obsessed with all of the physical benefits that come with doing yoga on a regular basis and, for a lot of us, it’s the reason we start doing yoga in the first place.
The outputs of our yoga practice make everything else we do better and better over time. More range of motion, less injuries, more time using and enjoying our bodies. We start to feel and experience improvements in our body and we’re hooked.
That’s when new and, I would argue, more profound things start to happen.
The first thing you might notice is an enhanced ability to focus. You might be reading a book and actually ingesting the words you’re reading for longer than you used to. You might be able to pay attention to someone in a conversation without drifting in and out.
In competition, you might develop an internal switch that you can flip on when you need to lock in and access your best mental game. Yoga challenges you to focus on what you’re doing with your body, your breath, and your mind at all times.
This develops the skill of being and staying in the moment, without distraction, competing at our highest internal level.
You might also sharpen your perception of sensation.
Physical improvement is a very different thing than physical perception. For example, we can get more flexible and we can also feel what it’s like to be more flexible. Yoga challenges you to pay attention to your body and everything you feel.
Whenever we do yoga, we’re exploring and experiencing our own physical limitations and, more importantly, making decisions based on the feedback our body gives us. Pose after pose, we explore today’s too deep, not deep enough, and sweet spot. Tomorrow’s may be very different.
We feel productive changes in the body and we begin to draw parallels outside of the studio. What tasted good yesterday actually doesn’t feel that great after eating it today — maybe I won’t eat that as much. I actually don’t feel great about the tone I used with my teammate — maybe I’ll say it a little differently next time.
Connecting with what we feel and learning how to make positive decisions based on this feedback is a special skill that helps us gain more control over who we are, how we act, and how we perform.
Over time, experiencing your body in new orientations relative to itself will advance your proprioception.
A sense in its own right, proprioception is the ability to perceive stimuli arising from the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium.
As a simple example, when we run we don’t need to look down to see where our legs are in space — we look ahead and sense our feet moving in unison beneath us.
In yoga, we find ourselves upside down, with our legs overhead, balancing on one leg while twisting. In these positions, left feels like right, forward feels backward, and we relearn how to move our body relative to itself. In time, we learn to counterbalance subconsciously. We feel our body’s position and what counteraction needs to happen to maintain equilibrium, balance, and control.
Understanding and mastering the body’s constantly changing position in space is crucial in advancing athleticism. With the ability to control body and adapt to external change on a more subconscious level, we deepen and expand our potential to compete more psychologically than physically.
In my experience, the most profound non-physical benefit of practicing yoga is an ever deeper understanding of ourselves.
Things come up on a yoga mat. The practice moves in a way that creates space for these things to come up. Distinct from other workouts where you’ll hear external prompt like “you’re almost there!” and “just three more!”, yoga emphasizes internal cues like “am I doing this right?” and “should I do this?”.
In other fitness modalities, the goal is often to push beyond self-imposed limits. The instructor calls and we respond. In yoga, this game of call and response is a little different: teachers simply guide (as an aside, these are the teachers to seek out, not the ones bent on getting you deeper into poses) while we do the calling and responding within and between each pose.
So, without the external prompting of a non-yoga class, how deep do you go in a forward fold? Are you adding an extra push-up in every transition? Are you shying away from trying a new, challenging pose that seems accessible for you? Do you choose to take breaks or push through when you start to feel fatigued? Is your mind wandering or still at the end of class? Do you notice?
When we’re given choices and the opportunity to reflect on the decisions we make throughout a class, we build a more detailed picture of who/how we are. This tends to spill into everything else we do and we become more mindful and conscious of our actions and their consequences. Ultimately, we assume more agency and control, responding as ourselves rather than reacting as we’re supposed to.
As athletes, we’re always chasing something and this keeps us moving and working. We tend to focus on optimizing our physicality through manual effort, which has tangible and rewarding benefits. As conscious athletes, we take it a step further. We see the body as a vehicle and ourself as the driver, a team working in unison.
With tools like yoga, we’re able to explore new possibilities for training the self with the body, simultaneously and separately, to sit in the cockpit of the body with more poise, presence, control, and awareness.