Last week a post circulated in the Okanagan region asking a really important question, “is yoga good for athletes?”. In the article the author asks some really honest questions which are far from unique to his own perspective. In fact, these questions and misconceptions are something I come across on a monthly basis. I will first offer many thanks to Chris at Okanagan Peak Performance for opening up this discussion with his post and for his ability to stay open and respectful as he answered each response on his site. Thanks also to Chris for caring so much about his athletes that he truly wants to dive into the reasons an athlete might choose to do yoga.
Next I would like to preface this response offering a bit about me, since we can never be 100% unbiased as human beings with life histories and specific qualifications! I am a Moksha Hot Yoga studio owner, yoga teacher and Registered Physiotherapist with much experience working with athletes of all levels. In addition to that, I am a former high level athlete that is now dealing with the years of pushing my body to extremes that ended up in chronic pain by my mid-twenties. The sports training today is even better than it was even 20 years ago, thank-goodness! This newer knowledge and varied approaches may have helped me to prevent many of the injuries, muscle imbalances and“hyper-mobility” that came from my training. But the other thing that really would have helped is if I had found a consistent yoga practice sooner!So for the remainder of the article I have placed quotes from the original article in italics and have offered my thoughts below. I will (mostly)focus on the physical aspects of the practice but yoga is a term encompassing so much more and sometimes the subtle effects can be even more profound than the physical! Here we go!
“…..yoga has me perplexed.Because I hear constantly of the purported benefits of yoga. And especially the benefits it lends to sports performance.”
There is so much information out there that there is bound to be misinformation and a broken telephone effect! It can be frustrating when you are unsure of the sources of the information or when you have difficulty finding “reliable” information. Hopefully the answers below will start any reader further on a path of questioning information regarding yoga and to critically appraise the source, rather than spreading pseudo-science or half overheard truths.
“In fact there is power yoga which sounds like it would be perfectly suited toathletes that are seeking more power and to move more quickly. Power is the definition of the amount of work done per unit time. And work is equal to a force applied over a distance. So you need to move a substantial force quickly over some distance to train for power. Holding bodyweight poses for extended periods of time hardly meets the criteria for power development.”
“Power Yoga” and “Iyengar Yoga” and “Yoga for Athletes” and “Yoga for Dudes” and “Flow Yoga” and “Ashtanga Yoga” etc, etc, etc. Are sometimes a “style” name denoting a lineage or a system. Other times it’s marketing to differentiate one yoga studio or class from another. Navigating the yoga name world can be really confusing for sure but it’s best to go try for yourself or ask more questions about the style or what someone means when they have labeled a bunch of postures in some way. So “Power Yoga” is not “force applied over distance yoga”. Rather an attempt, I think, to differentiate from a slower moving, quieter, softer class! Regarding the development of power, longer muscles with the appropriate strength along the full length of the muscle will create more power than shorter muscles. When length is gained in a muscle it must then be worked properly along that new length to specifically strengthen for the demands specific to a sport. The benefits of stretching for athletes is well documented and I won’t go into that here. The yoga postures can help create that length (and also stability – read on), the sport specific training helps create the type of strength needed for the sport. Chris also speaks in his article about isometric exercise and the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands). He correctly notes that isometric holds will only strengthen muscles at that very specific ROM (range of motion) in a specific way, but there is also engagement of muscle as you move into, and out of each of the postures. And you can, and should, practice postures at slightly different depths to change up where you are getting strong. Of course, this strength is not the type you need for a sprint. That’s why you also do sprint training. And it’s not directly connected to your vertical jump. That’s why you do plyometrics. But it does help with proprioception (the ability for you to sense where your limbs and joints are in space – something that is often impaired with injury or imbalance), joint stability and more! One principle in a properly formed pose is “containment”. Far from “hanging out” in a pose for a long period of time, the point of a yoga pose is to move into your individually appropriate alignment and engage all the right muscles to get there and hold it and breathe. The engagement of all of the appropriate muscles, including all the little stabilizing ones creates joint congruency (good alignment) and stability. All the while the athlete/yogi focuses on their breath which is a really big missing link in core stability. The athlete learns to really listen and connect to those smaller muscles that can get bypassed or blown past in their heavier, faster (and necessary) work. Perhaps, if you are an athlete or trainer reading this, you have seen the benefit of backing off of bench press work to create more shoulder stability and rotator cuff strength which then directly impacts how much weight can be moved. Yoga asanas (poses) are great at working this type awareness and stability.
“We ascribe to the joint-by-joint approach to training and understand that our structure dictates our function.”
Great! So do we! In many ways….. Joint by joint training is important and so is the connected whole. Research being done on the fascial system of the human body over the past 20 years is showing that muscle combos do not only work around a joint in isolation, they are part of connected chains running the full length of the body and criss-crossing the body, and stress and strain in one area is spread out along a very connected web of fascia (Anatomy Trains – Tom Myers is a great first resource). The way a yoga pose properly stresses multiple and interconnected areas of the body at once can help in more subtle ways to allow the athlete to generate power in their specific training. Just one example of this whole body connection is how a baseball pitch is generated from the lower body first. Another would be a hockey player with a really integrated top and bottom part of the body is harder to push off the puck. This interconnected view of training is often the missing link in rehab or pre-hab where the focus ends up being on the injured joint to get it pain free, functional and strong to get back in the game….but what about the distant areas of the body that have also registered this strain? It might not be a problem now, but it might (probably will) show up later as a different seemingly unconnected injury (something I see often in my physiotherapy practice)! Yoga can be part of the training process to work on connecting all of the areas of the body in addition to sport-specific work.
“For example the lumbar vertebrae have a unique structure and very different function than, say for example, the thoracic vertebrae. The lower segments have a primary function associated with stability and are not meant to move very much, if at all. The upper thoracic segments are more important for mobility and are vital for upper back and shoulder health and function”.
Chris brings up a great point here and it’s a true statement but he did not address how this relates to yoga postures. I’ll elaborate! When yoga postures are taught and done correctly you are using the body in the way it is meant to move for the individuals’ anatomy (because we are all different). For example: a spinal twist should be focusing on just how much each of the spinal segments should be moving. Less in the lumbar where we only get about 3 degrees of rotation in each of the 5 segments and more in the thoracic spine where we get 7-8 degrees of motion in the 12 segments! And let’s not forget about the function of the pelvis in standing or seated twists, side bends or folds. All of this is addressed by moving properly into yoga poses led by a good yoga teacher. If you try to get your whole twist out of lumbar segment 4/5 you are missing the point of the pose! It might look like it’s a “bigger twist” but you are moving that twist through one little area, away from balance, rather than re-educating your spine to twist as it should. Since we lose rotation in the spine as we age (beginning in our twenties) or as we train for sport, properly performed twists are necessary to maintain or regain this appropriate rotation. Same goes for forward and backward bends when we pay attention to where the motion comes from and how we might be compensating.
“Apart from the hyper-mobility that can result from some forms of yoga I’m not entirely sold on the concept of hot yoga.”
I will address the hyper-mobility first: This a common and rampant mis-conception about the practice of yoga asana. Hyper-mobility(actually a really ambiguous and debatable term a whole articles worth in and of itself!) is simply not an outcome of correctly performed postures. Yoga is about developing an awareness of how the body moves and beginning to balance out areas of the body that move “too much” by using containment, with areas of the body that aren’t moving as well. The overall effect is balanced and functional movement. This is one reason a good yoga teacher encourages you to focus your attention on different areas of the body, to be really present with how you are moving and where you are moving. When you are actively engaged in learning about the poses and listening to the signals from your body as you move into, hold, and move out of poses you will be moving towards the proper balance for you.
“Don’t get me wrong I enjoy a good steam room as much as the next person. But let’s use the right tool for the right job. If increased mobility is sought use the best tools to achieve this. The increased extensibility that is achieved from sitting in a hot room is not necessarily maintained after when returned to a moderate temperature room. There should also be concerns of athletes that may become dehydrated from hot yoga as 2% dehydration impairs sports performance.”
Hot yoga is far from a steam room (46 deg and 100% humidity) or a sauna (70 deg C). While different forms of hot yoga have different temperatures. Moksha Yoga uses a safe 38 deg heat at around 45-50 % humidity and water drinking is encouraged as needed in class. We believe in developing the skills to listen to your body including listening to thirst, while not drinking too much at one time (again another long debate could insert here). There are certainly extremes in hot yoga where the temperature dials up to 42-43 deg and water drinking is “not allowed” which may indeed affect athletic performance afterwards if the athlete feels they cannot hydrate well before and after. Hydration is an all day job and athletes who are doing high levels of training should always be concerned that they are getting the right balance. An hour in the heat while drinking enough water (but not too much) every 15 minutes should have no different effect than maintaining hydration during a training session. And now to move on to the misconception that you are more likely to “overstretch” in a hot room vs regular room temperature. When a warm muscle is stretched it will go further just as warm toffee will stretch far and cold toffee will snap. In the stretch creep occurs where the muscle fibers become a little longer. Whether you are stretching a warm muscle after a run, or a warm muscle in a hot room you will experience this creep effect. That is one main reason we stretch. Hysteresis after the fact (the process of the muscle returning to a shorter state – but each time it’s a little longer than it was by millimeters or so) happens no matter what temperature you stretch in. You are no more likely to over stretch a muscle in hot yoga as regular temperature yoga or in your stretch on the field after practice. At different temperatures, different levels of stress, difference mood states, your muscle achieves different lengths. Then when you have new length you have to strengthen this new length specific to your sport. In a yoga pose this new length is strengthened with containment. For any given sport there will be different demands to strengthen this new length.
“To read more about some of the potential injuries that may result from yoga check out this article from the New York Times about one of the top yoga instructors in the US who has given up the practice due to his own injuries and these risks.”
This article you reference is incredibly sensationalist and biased written to generate publicity for the authors controversial book. The yogasphere has already addressed this through many outlets so I won’t dive into that here. However, the reports of injury in yoga classes is over-blown. In my experience, in 5 years of treating people involved in sport and yoga, I have only seen 2 people injured “from yoga class”. One was due to an over-zealous and ill applied hands-on adjustment and the other was due to very poor form in several poses which led over the years to a strain on the upper part of her hamstring. I feel that if we were to really look at the agenda of those behind reports of yoga injuries we would get a clearer picture of the risk. More commonly I see people after a few weeks or months of yoga practice because they have finally decided to take care of some nagging issue that they have largely ignored for months and years. I think some people may become more aware of areas of soreness in a yoga class as they become more aware of what is going on in their body period. Since many people, including athletes, walk around suppressing a lot the information the body is giving our brain they may not notice soreness ortightness in the same way until they start to develop this awareness through a yoga practice. Certainly as I mentioned a poorly trained teacher giving an ill-timed or inappropriately pressured hands-on adjustment could do some harm to muscle tissues and that is the importance of finding yoga teachers you trust, just as you would find a trainer or a therapist you trust. However, easing into a yoga pose to your “edge” and easing out presupposes that you are moving just the right amount. Besides, if you go “too far” once, while moving slowly, you certainly won’t do great damage, just some soreness. And what a wonderful learning experience that can be. If you ignore this ease in, ease out principle and let the ego run wild into pushing beyond your max then you might do some more harm. But than that’s not the yoga…..
“So if there are minimal training benefits for athletes ad potential harm to key joints at the low back, knee, shoulder and neck why is yoga so popular?”
I feel I have partly addressed this already but there is no more, and arguably less potential for injury to these key joints in a yoga class than in a tackling drill or a plyometric workout or even walking down an icy street. Yoga classes can also be a time to really be present, to work with self acceptance rather than feeling inadequate, to ease up on goals for a few minutes, to be reminded to breathe (and all the affects that come with that) among many, many more benefits. So popularity of this practice comes from many levels besides just feeling good physically.
“Well part of it has to do with the fact it is easy.”
Yoga is far from easy. This is another common misconception. Easy means you are falling exactly into the patterns your body naturally wants to escape to (“release valves”) rather than creating the balance and engagement that yoga asana (postures) mean to achieve. Easy also means you might not be paying as much attention as you could be to the engagement of your muscles and the focus on your breath! Yoga is also a practice of engagement of mind-body, breath focus and stillness and that is so hard as our tendency is to try to be anything but still – rather choosing to live our lives distracted, over-extended, over-scheduled etc.
“So holding static postures is not going to develop the necessary energy systems for hockey, soccer, basketball, football (insert any other sport here) unless your sport is yoga. Then, specificity of training is achieved. And although today when I write this yoga is not an Olympic sport I don’t like the way the IOC is going and I may end up eating my words.”
As outlined earlier in the article our muscles do respond to the SAID principle. If you were only attending yoga classes and expecting that you would automatically have the explosive strength or the specific skills to perform on the field or arena then you would be wrong. I do not know of any athlete that is performing at a high level without thousands of hours of training very specific to the skills needed for their sport. In many styles of yoga the heart rate is sustained at an elevated rate for at least 25-35 minutes which is good for the cardio-vascular system generally but certainly isn’t pushing any lactate threshold. Anyone who knows what they are speaking about wouldn’t even make that claim. There is however some research showing that athletes who exercise in the heat are receiving similar benefits to altitude training and hot yoga counts here! From experience, athletes who engage in a correct and regular yoga practice will show a faster first three steps on the ice, a heavier max bench and a faster recovery time. I would hypothesize off the top of my head that this comes from creating the whole body core connections, better stabilizing muscle engagement, and better breathing! I would love for more athletes to take up the challenge to see for themselves! I’d also love to see more well-done, randomized controlled trials on yoga and athletes but on the other hand, if there is a sensed or felt benefit, then there is a benefit!
“However if an individual is seeking to get stronger, more powerful, developtheir energy systems, move better and become a better athlete yoga is not their best option.”
I would say that to move better yoga is exactly the type of practice athletes should be incorporating into their training program. Here are just a
few reasons why:
1) Learning to breathe: Many athletes have incredibly dysfunctional breathing patterns, bracing in their core (rather than using real strength) while using only the upper chest is just one small example. Yoga class is at least an hour of time where (when properly taught) athletes are being reminded over and over to link full diaphragmatic breathing with their movements. To breathe fully during those static holds and to connect exhales to the more dynamic motions (exhales being where the core can naturally engage more fully). Another benefit in learning to breathe is that athletes can learn to modulate their own stress responses: helpful to find the appropriate arousal state for the different demands of their sport. Examples are settling into a free throw in basketball, a serve in tennis, a penalty shot or any other place that over-arousal has detrimental effects.
2) There is a common statement that athletes have developed amazing “body awareness”. I would argue that athletes training at a high level have developed an amazing “body denial” in which they have to learn to ignore a lot of pain to get what they want from their bodies. They treat their bodies as machines that perform a function and can often be really good at dissociating from sensation. This may serve in the short term but what is the effect in their overall life, or later on in their “life after sport”. Yoga is a practice of really listening, connecting to, and working on all of the ways that the body-mind is in imbalance. Practicing this awareness and connection throughout the sporting career as well as afterwards has a ripple effect through their whole life whether in injury rehab or pre-hab, mental health or general life balance.
3) Creating left, right, front, back body balance to aid in injury prevention from the consistent patterns developed during their sport specific training. Think of the thousands of throwing motions of a pitcher in training and games over many years. The tissues wind up along a very specific pattern which, while very helpful for the throw are also creating an imbalance that only serves the athlete until that athlete starts to break down. Certainly a balanced weight training program can also help with this balance! So would Tai Chi or Pilates or other whole body practices. But the very specific and mindful motions that use the whole body in combination during a yoga class are another effective tool for developing balance along the appropriate connected lines in the body.
4) Time to see themselves as other than a machine. To set aside goals for a few minutes and just be with that which they already are. To develop deep appreciation for the body they have, particularly in sports that are wrapped up tightly with body issues of all kinds.
5) A whole body “stretching” routine that is guided and interesting so they will actually do it!
“What it comes down to is why are you practising yoga? If someone can easily answer this and yoga is their best option they should carry on. But when you examine what the best tools are for athletic development yoga may not be one of them”
Sometimes to answer “why do you practice yoga”, you actually have to practice yoga and see the benefits for yourself as ultimately yoga is a personal experiment. As soon as we begin to speak about an experience, we remove ourselves from the experience itself. Sport specific training is 100% required to be “the best you can be” at your chosen sport but yoga has benefits for athletes and non-athletes both measurable and immeasurable as well. In science and sports training we are often too quick to discount the immeasurable. Finally to blanket the term “yoga” as in “I tried yoga and I didn’t like it/it didn’t work” is an error (I am not quoting Chris in saying this, just bringing up a common phrase). There are as many types of yoga classes and yoga teachers out there as flavours of ice cream. It can be a whole exploration unto itself to find the type of yoga which serves you. Numerous NFL football players, NHL hockey players among many other high level endurance or power athletes are finding measurable and immeasurable benefits from the practice. Some even hit a hot yoga class rather than the ice bath and are feeling great! Sometimes the research either doesn’t or can’t keep up to the practice of yoga since it is more than the physical. The subtle effects, though immeasurable, are most definitely real but will not be seen from the “outside”.
I thank you for reading and look forward to hearing what everyone has to offer to the conversation. Wishing much peace to all of you on and off of your mats!
Julia RPT, BHK, RCAMPT, CYT
Julia has been “doing” yoga for 11 years but it wasn’t until she walked through the doors of a Moksha studio as a physiotherapy student that she really found her practice.
She and Eric began practicing regularly upon moving to Kitchener/Waterloo and soon after she realized that this would be her life practice. Julia brings her physiotherapy
expertise in manual therapy to the community and is a certified Moksha Yoga Teacher with level 1, level 2, moksha flow and yin training.
Moksha’s many therapeutic benefits quickly became clear to Julia in dealing with her own chronic pain issues stemming from injuries sustained as a competitive figure
skater and varsity soccer player in her youth. From her knowledge as a registered physiotherapist Julia also continues to discover more ways that a regular yoga practice
can help both physically and mentally in the rehabilitation of many injuries. Julia hopes to help others open to the joy of breathing, moving and sweating along
their path to health.