It finally happened.
Sure, I can think of a number of things I would try first before dabbling with yoga, like trying Meghan Callaway’s pull up program or running hill sprints in lava up Mount Doom, or swiping left or right on my iPhone for finger strength, or sword fighting with Jon Snow, then convincing him to marry me.
Speaking truthfully, yoga was never at the top of my list when it came to my fitness goals: namely, improving my body composition and speed/power output on the soccer pitch.
But look. You’re not tripping on magic mushrooms reading this or anything. This is real life: I think yoga is pretty sweet.
So with a bit of courage, open mind, and Lulu Lemon pants that made my butt look legendary, I took the leap back into yoga world.
Before I get into why I like yoga, I’d like to address some common misconceptions first.
1. It Builds Long Lean Muscles.
I never understood the concept of “muscle lengthening” in the yoga, pilates, and Pure Barre realms. Perhaps it’s a marketing tactic or people just don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, but either way, it frustrates me.
To that end, muscle lengthening is impossible. Why? Muscle has a fixed origin and insertion point, and unless you have Game of Thrones Warg powers, you’re not lengthening anything.
This reminds me of something else I noticed in class: my yoga teacher told me to “lengthen my spine” as I struggled through the downward dog position, and I wondered how that was possible from an anatomical standpoint.
I’m willing to bet 0.00000000000001% chance. However, I can see how this may be a common coaching *cue* from yoga teachers to get people to shoot their hips to the sky, extend their arms and legs, and dorsiflex the ankles. Nothing wrong with coaching cues, but it’s important to understand anatomy and what our bodies are really doing.
2. It is the only means to better flexibility.
“Do yoga. It will make you flexible,” is a common phrase I’ll hear.
To some extent, I agree. Yoga hones in on hip, shoulder and ankle mobility. Fantastic.
But what’s problematic is when people are deceived into thinking it is the only activity that will make you a supple string of spaghetti.
If you’re an athlete, yes, yoga will help with flexibility, but given you’re executing a proper dynamic warm up before competition, you’re getting flexible there as well.
In fact, I can think of a few “yoga” moves we do at my facility, JDyer Strength and Conditioning:
These are just a few we sprinkle into our dynamic that can count as “yogic.”
Benefits for Athletes
After looking at the myths, what benefits does yoga serve in terms of athletic performance?
Here we go:
1. Improved breathing.
It wasn’t until doing yoga that moved me into awareness of my whacky breathing. Normally a heavy chest breather, I learned to inhale and exhale through my diaphragm, the muscle that allows for efficient oxygen exchange and proper movement of the abdominal organs. After all, the diaphragm is a part of the core, so when we learn to breathe through this muscle, we increase core strength.
Chest breathing sends our bodies into flight or fight mode, which can be detrimental to athletic performance. Fight or flight = stress = overstimulated athlete.
In terms of recovering from a 100 yard sprint on the soccer pitch, I would focus my breathing back to the depths of my belly, which sped up my anaerobic recovery and put my body back in calm mode.
Here is a video:
Be sure to keep your mouth closed and inhale and exhale through your noses. If you need extra cueing, place your hands on your belly and focus on expanding it like a balloon.
2. Improve performance.
The mobility and stability components of yoga are a great way to take your athletic performance to the next level.
For one, something as simple as the downward dog position can improve ankle dorsiflexion, which is critical for pristine running mechanics and a clean heel strike on the balls of feet at top speeds.
Or how about the warrior and star pose in which we must fire our quadriceps and glutes to hold our balance? There’s also hamstring flexibility, shoulder stability/mobility, and hip mobility all going on here.
Don’t judge the yoga pants, please. To say I lost my soccer tomboy soul is an understatement. But yoga pants do make yoga poses WAY easier. Science.
There’s also something to be said for core strength.
Many of the “core” poses in yoga have a huge carryover to sports. Being able to prevented unwanted movement of the limbs, and being able to withstand the forces of an opponent.
I wrote an extensive article on proper core training here.
So yoga is a good baseline for building strength and knowing which muscles to activate, but challenging yourself with progressive overload in the weight room will always win in terms of truly getting stronger for sport.
Especially with upper body strength, where yoga lacks is in the pulling motions which are critical for restoring posture and alleviating internally rotated shoulders.
3. Improved balance and spacial awareness.
If your balance is mediocre, yoga can be a solid start to gain spacial awareness of your body.
I tried my best to look as graceful as possible, but the tree pose exposed me to my shit balance:
Certainly, there are a ton of single leg strength exercises we perform in the gym, but basic balance is good to master first before adding load.
For the record, I’d argue I didn’t perform a tree pose. It was more a “a tree blowing in a hurricane” pose.
5. Excuse to wear yoga pants.
This is self explanatory. And I’m not going to lie, yoga pants are sexy and I enjoyed setting the sweatpants and soccer shorts aside for a bit. ;-O
So that’s that.
I went out of my comfort zone on this piece and would love to hear your thoughts.