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Yoga's Emerging Role in Professional Sports

When we think of all the big sports leagues, think NBA, NFL, and NCAA to name a few, we envision tall, muscular athletes who play to win. These athletes have developed a competitive drive that we as mere mortals can only imagine to have. So it may surprise you to learn from a quick internet search that an increasing number of professional athletes have incorporated a consistent yoga practice into their on- and off-season training schedules. It may conjure up an contradicting vision to imagine a 6’ 5” 310 lbs NFL offensive lineman or a 6’8” 250 lbs NBA point guard coming into a meditative state on their yoga mats, however many of these athletes have added yoga into their lives for one reason: longevity. Coaches and athletes alike are starting to learn that with yoga, athletes can train longer in the season, reduce the incidence of minor injuries on the playing field, and recover faster from games and training. All of this also means that players can remain active, and more importantly, in the league longer than they might have been able to without all the positive benefits of yoga.

Usually athletes in endurance sports will experience injuries because of the constant repetitive motions in their joints and ligaments. Not only that, but with runners, cyclists, and triathletes, most of their training is only done in one plane. So, when a runner has tight hamstrings and hip flexors, which many perpetually do, over time tightness in those areas will start to recruit support other joints that are not intended to be load bearing. Many football players also have to run a decent distance during a game, and having tight muscles, especially during the game, will impact everything. For example, tight quadriceps muscles will impact the hamstrings as both are involved in flexion and extension motions in the leg. The hamstrings are connected to the gluteal muscles, which are connected to the back, and before you know it, a football player will soon be complaining of back pain simply because the body is trying to compensate for tight quadricep muscles.

One solution to tight muscles from repeatedly moving in one plane is simple: yoga. On-season training for professional athletes is already heavily focused on strength and performance, so an on-season yoga practice would be focused on increasing mindfulness and flexibility. During a yoga practice, a practitioner will not only move just forward and backwards in the sagittal plane, but also side to side in the frontal plane, and rotation in the horizontal plane. To create an exercise regimen that is functional for daily living, it should incorporate movement and training in all 3 planes. This is especially crucial for football players because players are rarely just running to one end of the field and back. By adding yoga, these athletes are now empowered to take better care of their bodies and see gains in their performance, all because they are now making sure their muscles remain loose and limber.

As mentioned earlier, yoga and meditation are a great way to improve mindfulness. With that word being thrown around to have relevance with exercise, eating, and even daily activities, it can be hard to see how it would relate to an athlete. The concept of mindfulness is defined as the state of being cognisant of yourself. Even though it sounds a bit esoteric, being mindful can have very powerful application. Practicing mindfulness during a yoga practice means an athlete will be able to take that skill anywhere, most importantly during the game. On the yoga mat, an athlete can connect with their body to see what it feels during the practice. Are certain muscles tight? Which ones are not? Has more flexibility been developed? When you take this information into the field, it can help an athlete be aware of their body’s abilities and limitations. In fact, knowing the latter is even more powerful in the long run because it can prevent an athlete from making an otherwise haphazard or foolish move, which usually results in an injury, and then ultimately time spent away from playing as the injury heals. Since the goal is to maintain longevity in the sport, the more time spent on the field injury-free the better.

One of the most important actions of daily living is breathing. Under stress of the clock, the expectation of coaches, expectations of teammates, and the chant of praises (or taunts) by the crowd, it can be easy for anyone to hold their breath and wait for the moment to pass. If a player has 40 minutes left in the game, holding their breath under a stressful situation is not really idea. Here is how combining mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises can become an athlete's best weapon for successfully navigating through stressful situations. Employing deep breathing exercises during a meditation practices oxygenates the body. This has assisted many athletes to reach a more focused mental state right before their game. This is also really effective if focus is lost during the game, for example in an NFL game if the score is tied, 1 minute is left in the game, and the team is still a good 70 yards from the end zone. The same breathing practice employed before the game can be used to bring a player back into focus and have all the other distractions just melt away.

Another great benefit of increasing oxygen in the body is that over time, the body can adapt to improve its efficient use of oxygen, and ultimately this can improve the stamina of any athlete. Both being able to handle high stress situations and increase stamina go back to the goal of longevity. A player will have higher value to a team if they are not affected by the stressors around them, and instead, consistently be able to play through them. Additionally, every athlete looks to improve their stamina, as they can then go longer and harder in their training and during the game.

So far, the discussion has mainly been about yoga improving an athlete’s game on the field, but it can do so much more. Any good coach will always incorporate some sort of active rest into a training schedule. Recent research has shown that dynamic stretching on designated rest days can have an improved effect on flexibility, rather than the archaic model of static stretching or even pure rest. While pure rest does have its place, and an athlete should opt for that if it is needed, exercising a gentler practice of yoga on off days can be more beneficial. Since a yoga flow can be designed to have a dynamic stretching objective, moving between one pose to the next encourages blood flow to sore and tired muscles. Increased blood flow means faster recovery to those areas, and faster recovery means that the athlete will feel better sooner than later. These are all good things, especially for athletes who play high contact sports like football or rugby.

These are just a few reasons why yoga can improve an athlete’s longevity in their sport. Just in the last few years an increasing amount of research has shown that there is a neurological benefit of meditation and yoga in that it increases the neuroplasticity of the brain. What does that mean for athletes? It can mean improved reaction times to a play and quicker problem-solving on the field. Being an athlete that can think and move quicker than their opponents can result in scoring more points, avoiding moves that can result in injury, and increasing mental acuity during high stress, end of game situations. So the next time someone asks why so many NBA, NCAA, NFL, and even high school athletes are incorporating yoga into their training, the answer is simple: longevity.

Bhakti Chavda is a Joy Yoga employee and a Joy Yoga University student in teacher training. You can catch her welcoming yogis and yoiginis into class.

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