The benefits of yoga for sports performance is a topic I have wanted to explore for a while. Due to a little niggling injury I was forced to slow down for a few weeks and stop doing any CrossFit (particularly weights). In the absence of CrossFit training I started looking for alternative ways to keep active! I had been doing yoga once or twice a week but more for active recovery purposes.
Both Emilio and I like a challenge, and love to try something new that might add to our current training routines. We both decided to add more yoga into our routine to see how it would affect our general wellbeing and our training! The results have been overwhelmingly positive!
Yoga teaches you how to use your strength in a different way, and in contrast to CrossFit how to be super gentle and smooth with all of your movements. This actually requires a lot more core strength and balance and is extremely challenging! If practised correctly, yoga can in fact improve every element of physical performance, from stamina to power to pace, while also encouraging general health and wellness.
Better Range of Motion and Flexibility
Flexibility is a critical component of a balanced fitness regimen that is often overlooked, particularly by those who have tendencies to gravitate to strength-based workouts. A full range of motion around your joints is extremely important and necessary if you want to execute loaded movements. The inclusion of joint stability and mobility work (through yoga) can also tackle prevailing muscle imbalances and allow for greater ease and proficiency when performing any activity.
Yoga is a complete workout for the entire body and works towards an improved range of motion in all the joints of the body. Regardless of what sport you practise, we all have overworked muscle groups. Yoga can help by strengthening the muscles that are not used enough and by releasing the overburdened muscles. This work can be very demanding, but the results are well worth it!
Greater Core Strength
Yoga is a great tool for developing core strength. From standing poses to twists, inversions and balance poses, yoga moves you through poses that demand balance and stability. The key to yoga is strength through flexibility, which requires a well-developed core. It also forces us to engage our core through dynamic movements, which is an essential tool for all athletes. A good teacher will show you how to engage your core correctly throughout your practise which translates across into all sport disciplines.
There is still a misconception that core work is all about doing sit ups and crunches. The truth is, you can engage your core in a number of ways that don’t involve any sit ups! Irrespective of the style of yoga you practise, it is guaranteed that there will be poses that consist of core strengthening exercises. The raising and lowering of your legs, seated twists, even standing poses will work the muscles of the core while developing strength and stability.
Injury Prevention and Enhanced Recovery
As we all know injuries can bring our training regimen to a grinding halt. Yoga can radically lessen the chance of injury, by improving both body mechanics and awareness. Many people actually start yoga post injury as a part of their rehabilitation process (myself included!). Paradoxically, yoga could have prevented the injury in the first place! Consistent yoga practice can maintain healthy and flexible joints and muscles. Time invested in yoga should not be considered a treat or a chore, but rather an indispensable part of any training regimen. Yoga certainly helped to speed up my recovery process and has now found a very solid place in my training!
Additionally, slower forms of yoga can be a perfect way to practise active recovery. Mobility is a great form of active recovery and can have huge benefits on performance. The mixture of stretching and releasing muscles encourages the blood flow to broken down muscle tissues. In order to reduce post workout soreness, working through gentle and full range movements can prevent any delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Another benefit of yoga is an enhanced body awareness, this includes balance, stability and proprioception. This results in greater performance and efficiency in movement. A greater sense of stability can do a lot more than protect us from future tumbles. It can lead to greater mobility, reduced injuries and even an increased capacity to push harder!
Working on balance poses can be extremely hard and is often more challenging to the mind than the body! To stay in a balance pose, it is essential to remain focused. This was a real challenge at first as I kept mistaking it as a physical failure. Without focus, we will not be able to balance our body. This is a great technique to use in all other sports, when we perceive something as being physically too demanding, maybe all we need is a little more mental focus!
When I started yoga, this was probably the area that left me feeling the most uncomfortable. Many yoga classes will start with a focus on breathing and will take you through a couple of different techniques. I was initially a little bit uncomfortable with making any noises, and not really knowing exactly what I was doing. However, over time and with some instruction I have learnt to very much appreciate the yoga breathing techniques and I have found that these have translated over to other sports and have been hugely beneficial. Yoga teaches us to work with our breath to quiet our nervous system and to allow us to hone all our focus on the task at hand.
One of the goals of yogic breathing is to allow us to choose the relaxation response over the stress response. By breathing deeply and slowing our body and minds down we can calm any anxieties. I use the focus on breath to allow me to work on uncomfortable positions, it allows me to concentrate my efforts and push through things that may initially feel uncomfortable. This is actually a fantastic technique for CrossFitters!
With a significant focus on the breath, yoga actually has the ability to increase respiratory capacity, which is invaluable to athletes. Beyond helping with other sports, breathing techniques can also be a fantastic way to combat stress and anxiety. By focusing on our breath (this also applies to balance work or holding a posture) we can learn to find moments of quietness and calm and tune out the other stresses of life.
Picking a style of yoga
Yoga is definitely an asset to athletes. It offers several advantages: it provides cross training, develops core strength and balance, encourages recovery and enhances mental focus. However, not all yoga is created equally! It varies from sweaty and swift Power yoga to relaxing, peaceful Yin. There is no single style that is appropriate for an athlete. While there are of course some styles that I prefer, the type of yoga practice should be determined by your goals. My advice for those who are yoga newbies is to read up a little on the different styles (this article has a pretty good round up of the most popular styles.)
For a long time, I considered yoga as a lesser form of exercise, perhaps something for a Sunday morning, or something I would do after a hard workout. My opinions have changed radically of late. If you manage to find the right style for you and the right teacher (remember talking about ‘yoga’ is like talking about running! There are infinite ways to approach both!) it can be an extraordinary challenge and a serious work out! It is something I find myself really excited about, and really looking forward to. I feel like I have finally found the missing element of my training. I have slowly started back at CrossFit and already feel stronger than I did before! It goes without saying, that yoga, like all other sports can also cause injury. As with any other form of physical activity, the safest way to approach yoga is to learn how to perform the poses in a correct manner and to always stay in tune with your body!
We have been testing out a number of different styles of yoga lately and have both been loving it. It is so challenging and best of all it leaves you feeling fantastic afterwards. (Okay maybe we were a bit sore after completing 108 sun salutations at Fitness Art!) We have been fortunate to find some amazing yoga classes in Athens! If you happen to find yourself in Greece please go and check these guys out:
· Myrto’s Yoga – every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning Myrto runs fantastic yoga classes in Exarchia that offer a combination of great breathing techniques, power poses, inversion work and not to forget enormous amounts of love! (contact us here for info!)
· Afroditi @ Fitness Art – this is our favourite CrossFit gym and where Emilio is now working. Afroditi is a highly technical teacher who offers a great selection of classes throughout the week. She takes us through some power moves and flows and offers some great stretching and flexibility work in her mobility classes.
· Savvas @ House of Yoga- redefines anyone’s definition of the term strong! He is the owner and founder of House of Yoga in Glyfada. We have been practising with him weekly and really enjoying the challenges he keeps throwing at us!