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The Benefits of Yoga for Professional Athletes

Betty Barker explains why Yoga techniques like mindfulness and breath control have started making their way into the world of professional sports.

After managing to win three Olympic Gold medals and a Bronze for Beach Volleyball, it wouldn't be difficult to imagine that Kerri Walsh is looking at retirement. The 38-year old athlete, however, is currently in training for the Tokyo 2020 Games, where she hopes to bring back a Gold medal once more.

Achieving this kind of greatness takes incredible focus and discipline and maintaining this kind of regimen requires that Walsh take care of her body and mind. Walsh is a firm believer that all work and no play makes Jill a frustrated girl and has commented more than once on the danger of burnout. For Walsh, yoga has been a huge tool that allows her to not only attain balance and maintain endurance, but also relax and rejuvenate as well.

But certain athletes required converting: when Keith Mitchell, an All-Pro NFL linebacker, first found himself in a yoga studio he was worried he'd made a serious mistake. He said the incense threw him, and he almost turned around and made for the hills right there!

Granted, this was back in the early 2000s, where the prevailing view amongst pro athletes was that, though titanium necklaces might well have magical healing properties; yoga was a strange throwback from the freaks of yesteryear. However, once Mitchell found the right yoga teacher, the linebacker got hooked. He has since stated that it is now an integral part of his life.

As Above, So Below

In the sense that once something occurs on one level it will generally occur on another, the world's attitude towards the value of yoga has changed in much the same way as that Keith Mitchell's did. Yoga participation grew from 5.1 % to 9.5% in the years between 2002 and 2012, and we can expect a similar rise when the time for the next study comes around. Thanks to its adoption by the sports world, with athletes from LeBron James to Walsh Jennings beginning to incorporate it into their training regimens, it's a safe bet that yoga will become even more of a go-to than it already is. NBA, MLB, and NFL teams have started bringing in yoga instructors to complement their training staff, and not in response to a fad, but because the asanas, or postures, really work. If the punters who enjoy NZ betting are to be believed, the improved performances that these practices are resulting in, which are evident in the returns the bettors are making on their favourite athletes as they play, speak for themselves.

Why Yoga Works

It is not unusual for professional athletes, their coaches, or their advisors to chase health fads that have not been substantiated by scientific research or even actual results. Remember the Phiten necklaces and Power Balance bracelets that claimed to be able to regulate the flow of energy in the body? Yoga, however, has significantly more evidence to support its claims of promoting wellness.

The movements made as participants move in and out of asanas, the focus on breath control, and the principles of mindfulness are all central to the practice of yoga, and these contribute to increased flexibility, improved balance, injury prevention, the ease of tension in the muscles, and a heightening of aerobic capacity.

The Evidence to Support Yogic Claims

There is mounting evidence which indicates that the deep stretches which yoga promotes, and the specific postures its practice is made up of, can seriously enhance athletic performance: a study published in 2016 revealed that college-level athletes who took part in a ten-week yoga programme remarkably improved balance and flexibility in the yoga crew as compared to people who did not participate.

Andy Galpin, a professor at the Cal State Fullerton's Centre for Sport Performance, has stated that yoga improves muscular endurance. He explained this hypothesis by using actual examples from those who practice it: Athlete A begins a yoga class, and, initially, is unable to hold an asana for longer than ten seconds. The next time, however, Athlete A can hold it for 40 seconds. This shows that muscular endurance has been positively affected. He went on to say that this kind of endurance is able to improve performance by helping players to maintain the proper biomechanics for longer periods during competitions, which, obviously, serves to give them an edge over their opponents.

The work that yoga does in terms of injury prevention is evident in that a simple variation in exercise can significantly lower an athlete's chance of doing any damage. When players train, they generally work the same groups of muscles repeatedly, but shaking things up, like those hopping on the yoga train do, reduces the tread, so to speak, confirms Galpin.

It's Not Just Stretching

Andrew Tanner, Chief Ambassador for Yoga Alliance, a non-profit association, has stated that it is vital when it comes to yoga that athletes do not simply go through the motions. The breathing aspect is just as important as the rest of the work these practices require. Tanner compares doing just the physical postures of a yoga session to eating pasta without the sauce.

Yoga teaches the proper mechanics of diaphragm breathing, and this sees more oxygen getting pushed into the body as more carbon dioxide is pushed out. VO2 max, the measure of aerobic capacity, is improved by yogic breathing, and this is one of the key attributes for endurance athletes.

Proper breathing, however, goes beyond just delivering oxygen: breath is the only biometric within our control. We cannot influence heart rates, hormone release, or sweat, but taking control of the breath can help us regulate everything else.

Science backs this up. When stressed, our body's fight-or-flight response activates, and our bodies get flooded by adrenaline. This makes us sweat more, as our muscles tense up, and shortens our breathing. These kinds of reactions can be counteracted at the moment by the deep breathing yoga demands, and we are calmed as well as reinvigorated by practising on a regular basis.

For example, when a difficult asana puts the body under stress, implementing the correct breathing ensures that muscles stay relaxed, and this calming of the mental and emotional states results in a vastly improved range of motion. Athletes are then able to take this kind of awareness, and ability, over into the stressful moments they encounter in the heat of play and are thus able to mitigate the effects of this kind of pressure far more successfully in the short- as well as long-term.


Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • BARKER, B. (2018) The Benefits of Yoga for Professional Athletes [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/article336.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Betty Barker has been working with athletes for over 20 years and has gained many insights into the health and fitness industry. After graduating from Loughborough University in the UK with an Exercise Physiology MSC, Betty has become a Biomechanist, applying physics to exercise, sports and movement to reveal how our bodies adjust to specific conditions. Betty typically works in research but has written a number of respected articles on various topics linked to her area of research, including the effects of repetitive motion on our bodies.

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