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Yoga is an ancient practice rooted in Indian philosophy. Originally observed as a method of reaching spiritual enlightenment, yoga is a combination of physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation that aims to bring balance to the mind and body.
Yoga’s popularity is growing. Many use it to relieve stress and anxiety, as well as ease physical conditions like high blood pressure or stiff muscles.
While studies are ongoing, recent trials have examined yoga’s effects on back pain and reducing stress levels. Following a 24-week trial, researchers at West Virginia University found that yoga decreases "functional disability, pain intensity, and depression" in people with chronic low-back pain.
For athletes used to intense workouts and competitive atmospheres, including regular yoga practice in their training routine can offer many benefits. Yoga for cross training helps improve flexibility and balance, works parts of the body that may be overlooked in the regular fitness routine, and teaches stress-reduction techniques.
Yoga requires precise technique and mental focus. The combination of breathing work, meditation, and postures is meant to bring clarity to the mind while increasing strength and balance in the body. Athletes in particular can benefit from the relaxation techniques of yoga, developed through poses such as the corpse pose. This posepromotes relaxation and clearing of the mind.
Though it may look easy, corpse pose requires the total release of your entire body. To enter this reclined pose, gently extend each leg, relaxing the pelvis towards the floor. Allow your arms to fall beside your body, palms facing up. To center your spine, roll gently from side to side. Once comfortably in the pose, continue to breathe deeply, concentrating on your breath and quieting your mind.
Part of the complexity of corpse pose comes from trying to relax all parts of the body. This includes calming restless eyeballs, softening the tongue, and relaxing the forehead. After holding corpse pose for about five minutes, roll onto your side and gently lift your body up, bringing your head up last.
A common yoga myth is that yoga is reserved for the very flexible. While one of the main benefits of regular yoga practice is better flexibility, it is not a prerequisite. The practice of yoga is open to everyone. Each individual works at their own personal level and pace.
The stretching element of yoga can help release the tight muscles of a runner or the stiff shoulders of a tennis player. Even for the average person who may not run every day or play a major sport, stretching eases the aches associated with daily repetitive activities. Slouching while at the computer and driving a car multiple times a day are two examples of repetitive activities that eventually take a toll on the body.
Runners and cyclists tend to get tight hamstrings, and both activities can lead to injuries and overused muscles. Effective yoga poses involve opening up the hips and lengthening the hamstrings and calves.
From a seated position on the floor, bring the soles of your feet together in front of you. Your knees should remain wide apart. Keeping your back tall and straight, take a deep breath and inhale. On the exhale, lean forward, keeping the back flat. The goal is to focus on relaxing your neck and sinking deeply and comfortably into the pose, stretching your hips without rounding your back or dropping your head. If you can’t extend your face to your toes, only go as far as you feel comfortable.
Whether you’re a professional swimmer or you go swing dancing for fun twice a week, it is important to have good core strength for good posture. Poor posture can lead to muscle imbalances. Most athletes face the challenge of muscular imbalance. If you are someone who only dances, for example, and does not engage in other physical activity, your dancing may cause more harm than good, placing excessive stress on the knees, hips, and ankles. For this, yoga offers a method of bringing balance to the whole body, including the core.
Regular yoga practice builds core strength and offers an additional form of isometric training for athletes. Isometric training, which involves holding a position without moving, can help maintain strength. Upward plank pose, for example, helps provide the leg strength, hip flexibility, and agile arms required for kickboxing.
From a seated position, lean back so you are balanced between the buttocks and the tailbone. Keep the upper body leaning back with the back straight and tall, and raise the legs to a 45 degree angle with the arms raised at your sides. You can bend the legs if holding your legs straight is too difficult. Hold this position for 15-30 seconds, Rest and repeat.
From amateur to athlete, the strain of sports can affect your physical and mental health. Athletes who use yoga to increase flexibility, relieve chronic pain, and reduce stress will also discover the benefits of yoga for improving their performance.
Written by: Amy Boulanger
Medically reviewed on: Jul 15, 2014: Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE
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