Yoga for Athletes Is Not Athletic Yoga: Special Considerations for Teachers

As a formerly competitive athlete, an endurance sports coach, and an experienced yoga teacher, I understand how yoga can complement—or be at odds with—training. I know that many athletes are turned off by yoga because it seems too easy (and becomes boring), too hard (and thus painful and intimidating), or out of sync with their training (leading to fears that they’re undermining their hard work). My goal in an open class for athletes and in a visit to teach a team is to create an environment that is easy enough, challenging enough, and can be modified to suit students’ needs.

What I teach doesn’t follow a secret formula. It’s simply yoga—as we define yoga in the 21st-century West—explained in common-sense terms that make it accessible for athletes. But there are a few modifications that appear in my classes, based on my experience as a coach and an athlete.

To put it succinctly, yoga for athletes is not necessarily athletic yoga. It certainly can be: At various points in the training cycle, yoga is a wonderful way to build strength and even provide some cardiovascular benefit. But most athletes are getting their workouts in their workouts. Adding a strenuous yoga practice to an already-tired body is a recipe for overstressing the athlete. Athletes, teachers, and coaches must be clear on the intention for including yoga as a part of training, so that it complements the other work an athlete is doing instead of undermining it.

Yoga aids athletes by increasing holistic, organic strength; by creating enough flexibility in the muscles and range of motion in the joints so that they can move fluidly; and by sharpening mental focus. Yoga, then, is an approach to balance: balance of the body in space; balance between strength and flexibility, sthira and sukha; balance between work and rest, doing and being; balance of mind, body, and spirit.

Yoga offers a system for connection, not just exercises or workouts. Yoga asana was developed to prepare the body for meditation by making the core strong and the hips open, leading to less distraction from the physical body as the practitioner seeks the union of self with Self. Happily, cultivating a healthy back and freedom in the hips improves both sport performance and general comfort. But yoga offers more than physical freedom, and its emphasis on breath, concentration, focus, and meditation can help us all toward connection.

The Physiology of the Athlete in Class

While yoga is a system for connection, and not a sport, yoga asana is definitely a form of exercise, subject to the rules of exercise physiology. Most notably applicable are the overarching principles of periodization, specificity, and gradual progression.

Most athletes, whether they are professionals or weekend warriors, follow a training cycle. That is, at certain points in a year or season, they are working harder than at other points. The timing of the training cycle can be determined by the quadrennial Olympic schedule, a competitive season, the popular fall marathons, or even the weather. Training is periodized, in exercise-physiological terms. It’s comprised of separate, sequential periods, each with a specific focus. If you think about it, you might see that your own physical training, whether it involves sports or simply yoga, is also periodized.

You’ll best serve your students when you understand the work they do in their sports training. A quick online search for “[any sport] training plan/program/schedule” will give you critical insight into the kinds of training you can expect your athletic students to do.

When you teach athletes, you need to be aware that their energy level for yoga varies depending on where they are in their training cycle. In the off-season and the base period of the season, when athletes are working to build an aerobic base and improve strength, a stronger practice may be in order. As sport-specific work intensifies, yoga can work to maintain core strength and flexibility. The closer an athlete gets to a key competition, the more relaxed and internal the yoga practice needs to be. Your role as teacher includes making sure your students are not spending too much physical energy being competitive in class.

Specificity means that to improve at a movement or to target an energy system (e.g., aerobic, anaerobic), you must execute workouts specific to that demand. To get better at running long, you must run long; to improve upper-body strength, you must complete exercises that tax the muscles of the upper body. The asana practice you teach should be specific to the demands of the sport, building both strength and flexibility where needed. Consider the strengths cultivated in the sport, and work to maintain flexibility in the strong areas. Consider the places the sport does not address, and work to strengthen them.

The principle of gradual progression states that you must stress the body, then give it time to build itself back stronger before applying an increased stress to the body. This means that workouts should grow progressively more challenging, with incremental stressors added in a dosage that the athletes can absorb. This is easier said than done, as there’s no hard-and-fast way to know when someone has recovered from a previous workout. (This is the subject of my book The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery.) There are, though, general guidelines for recovery time. Remember to slot in recovery within the practice, as well as between asana sessions. Also schedule an easier day each week, week each month, and month each year.

Proper application of stress is critical, and we can tweak its application by modifying the intensity, duration, and frequency of workouts. In yoga asana, that means finding the appropriate intensity, staying for the right amount of time to reach the goals of the pose, and choosing the right number of times to take a pose both in a session and in a day. Different athletes will have different needs; your job as the teacher is to help them realize the appropriate way to stress their bodies and then to rest for absorption of their work.

Find out more about Yoga for Athletes programs and teacher trainings with Sage Rountree at Kripalu.

Sage Rountree is a pioneer in yoga for athletes and an endurance sports coach whose books include The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga, Racing Wisely, and Lifelong Yoga. She teaches nationwide and online at YogaVibes, Core Strength for Real People, and Sage Yoga Teacher Training. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Sage Rountree, PhD, E-RYT 500, author of several books on yoga, trains teachers from all disciplines at the 200 and 500-hour levels.

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