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YOGA and the Athlete

Some say there is no greater thrill than of crossing a finish line or the high you experience after you've engaged in a game of contest requiring strong physical exertion, focus, and determination. There are athletes, those who train rigorously in preparation for a game or exercise event for a reward or pay, and then there are the athletic who exercise rigorously, full of vigor who taut a finely fit body. Either way, many well exercised people can easily become muscle bound and so hard that they evolve into stiff bodied people.

However, athletes don't retire early because of muscle issues, but rather becasue of joint, backs and knees. Athletic folks often come to a screeching halt with joint issues or surprise back problems that seem to have come out of nowhere. In my own history of being naturally sinewy by blueprint and having been a dancer, competitive runner, skiing enthusiast, and bicycle touring guide, I have body stories of knees that hurt, tight hamstrings, and bound shoulders, not to mention flips over handle-bars. There are always injuries and other complications that are part of the life of the very active.

Most runner and bikers will say they stretch, but the truth is, it may not be enough to maintain balance in such a tuned body. Basketball and baseball players and other team sport enthusiasts often suffer from repetitive movement issues. One of the gifts a yoga class can give an athlete is the focus on alignment. Extension and elongation poses in yoga, realign the bodyand help correct spinal deviations over time, as well as offer a great antidote for repetitive movement misalignments.

Yoga provides a balance between muscular activation and passive stretch, addressing the breakdown of body armoring which inhibits smooth, efficient movement. Some asanas provide light traction on the ligaments and fascia and can actually rehabilitate connective tissue. There more you exercise without sufficient stretch, the tighter you get. As you age or become injured the connective tissue shrinks creating stiffness.

If the aforementioned benefits of yoga aren't convincing enough, realize the most transforming gift of all is the mental and psychological tending that transpires. Yoga breathing technique (pranayama) and synchronization of breath with movement, quiet a busy mind and soothe the nervous system. Asanas or yoga exercises can contract, lengthen, or relax muscles, pulling excess tension from the body. With less stress and tension, one can reach optimum preformance with reasonable flexibility in both mind and body.

Ask yourself a few questions.

1. Do you find it difficult to fold forward and touch your toes without upper back rounding?

If the answer is yes, you need stretches for working the hamstrings. Use a strap and engage in head to toe pose (Supta Padangusthasana). Lie on your back, elongate the spine, lengthen and muscularly activate both legs. Bring the right knee over the chest and place a strap around the ball of the right foot. As the head of the femur bone sits in the socket, extend outward through the leg and toes and reach this leg toward the ceiling. Breath smoothly. When you reach the final edge (a place of sensation giving you a healthy stretch but not going into extreme), bend the knee to the chest and lower the leg to the floor. Repeat on the left.

2. Do you feel pain in your calves when you bend sideways?

If so, you may have swayback legs and tight hips. Try standing at the wall with your hips and shoulders on the wall, firm through your legs, cup your elbows. Lift the elbows over your head and sideways bend to one side and then the other (Half Moon variation, Ardha Chandrasana). Keep elbows back and buttocks and shoulders on the wall.

3. From seated pose, if you were to fold forward, would your trunk body rest on your thighs if you maintained straightened legs?

If the answer to this question is no, you must stretch your hamstrings and carefully stretch your low back area. You have lost some of the curve of your low back and should tip your pelvis more forward in seated poses.

Try a more upright forward bend, using a yoga strap. In Janu Sirsasana, sit on the edge of a folded blanket. Lengthen through both legs, then bend the right leg, placing the bottom of the right foot on the inner left leg. Place the belt around the ball of the foot, not to pull on the foot but to help extend upward. Extend through the trunk and bend forward from the hip hinge, extending the trunk out and over the thighs. Only go as far forward as you can still maintaining a natural curve in your spine, with the heart lifting. Keep your ears, shoulders and hips all in line. Make no effort to round in this variation. This works the tilt of the pelvis and hamstrings. Hold for three breaths and repeat on the other side.

With each pose start slowing in the less strech or easiest variation. After warming, continue to a little deeper place, or wrk slowly over a period of time (days/weeks). Continued progressive stretching with smooth ujjayi breathing will relieve stiffness and enhance the body's immunity to injury and quicken healing potential should injury occur.

How can yoga benefit the athlete? Does a highly fit athlete have to start in a beginning yoga class?

There is an intimate play between the body and mind in the practice of yoga. Yoga requires precise attention. The degree of flexibility achieved in this fine art does not determind success. Because yoga is introspecitve and a science of self study, it is a natural for the athlete who needs to maintain a focused mind in order to perform well and improve technique in their sport.

For the competitive athlete who tends to train and push too hard, a yoga practice of slow, easier movements, with no strain and less intense focus will help bring balance to the body and mind. For a more high-strung, fast talking, fast walking athlete, predominantly still poses with longer holds and slow steady consciousness breathing will bring stability. This athlete should challenge himself to be still. Athletes that have difficulty sticking to a solid practice should hold poses for longer and breathe deeply.

Even the very fit should join a beginning yoga class for the first yoga experience to learn the basics of foundation: basic breath techniques, proper alignment, history and philosophy, how to relax and mediatate, and an understanding of of the universal language of yoga, and the self realization of one's own body's patterns, limitations, and potential. Remember, beginning yoga is not about begining at excercise.

Athletes and the athletic have nothing to lose and everything to gain by adding yoga to the personal training or exercising program. Many professional teams and public and private schools across the country are incorporating yoga. Having recovered from bicycle accidents and knee injuries without surgery, I know firsthand the value of this powerful mental and physical therapy, handed down through the anicent peoples of highly relevant to this day. Let yoga be your coach, your personal trainer and watch yourseld soar! The sky is the limit!

Photo: Tim Kemple/The North Face

Originally published in Healing Garden Journal

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