Yoga for Athletes: A Little Goes A Long Way

By Brie Galicinao.

A little yoga goes a long way with athletes.

There is growing research available that outlines the benefits of yoga for athletes related to their athletic performance – both physically and mentally. Assuming the great benefits of yoga for athletes, how can athletes and coaches make time for another training regimen when they already dedicate five hours to their sport daily? For the elite college athletes as well as up-and-coming young athletes, their commitment could include practice for their sport, weight lifting, agility and speed training, physical therapy for recovery or injuries, and most importantly, their actual competition.

I am a college softball coach who also teaches yoga to college athletes from all sports and directs softball camps for high school athletes. From my experience, a quick yoga practice is something that can be integrated into the training schedule of time-strapped college athletes and fit into the sports camp experience for younger athletes. Athletes have experienced both the ‘yoga fog’ in as little as three restorative postures as well as the energizing qualities of vinyasa breath after a few sun salutations.

Regardless of scheduling challenges or available space to practice yoga, the main emphases of a shorter practice are breath, awareness of how their body responds, and general mindfulness.

Breath. Sport psychologists often start with noticing breath and what it feels like to breathe intentionally and from the belly. Some athletes do not even have time to take full breaths or forget to breathe when they compete. One of our most successful athletes remarked after her final season that she wished she had practiced breathing before she arrived at college in order to avoid almost passing out from holding her breath and to help her settle her nerves at an earlier age. Athletes can start in any comfortable position (lying down or seated) to connect with their breath and understand how they can calm themselves or get focused simply by bringing awareness to their breath. To show the effects of breath, they can also try alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhan) and skull shining breath (kapal bhati) to experience how different types of breath (pranayama) affect them physically.

Recognizing what is going on with their bodies. Mind over matter is a common mantra for competitive athletes, especially when it is a matter of the body. Most athletes are concerned with doing their jobs regardless of what their bodies are capable of doing and will recruit whatever muscles needed to be explosive, dynamic, and endure the rigors of a competition. Spending time in any yoga posture while tuning in to alignment and noticing where the restrictions in movement or compensations happen can benefit athletes by simply being more aware of how their bodies feel and move.

Guided mindfulness. To help integrate both breath and being present in their bodies, space, moment, and breath, I like to end with guided mindfulness or meditation. It could be incorporated into their final corpse pose (savasana) or when breaking down a posture. Athletes can focus on feeling their alignment or noticing their body’s physical or emotional response to different postures. This is especially useful with postures that target the hips, spinal column, or side bodies – these areas are often tight in athletes. If time allows, a guided meditation with attention to counted breath or a general body scan is another way to guide athletes toward mindfulness. The New York Times recently printed an article about a study that revealed that meditation helped a team of Division I football players withstand the physical demands of training.

Athletes can read about the benefits and hear rave reviews from yoga practitioners, but they may not understand yoga’s value until they actually experience yoga themselves. For the teams or athletes who feel there is not enough time in their training schedule for yoga, even 10 minutes could make a great difference. I recommend integrating 10 minutes of yoga, whether before or after more traditional sport-specific training workouts or at a completely separate time, in order to experience its benefits. No extra equipment is needed – athletes can do yoga anywhere (outfield grass or swim deck) and be creative with their yoga props (helmet, towels, or team sweatshirt).

About the Author

Brie Galicinao is the Head Softball Coach at The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and a yoga teacher who strives to bring mindfulness practices to collegiate and high school athletes. She has enjoyed coaching and teaching since college in Princeton, New Jersey and is currently studying with Tiffany Cruikshank for her 500hr Yoga Medicine certification. Brie lives in Santa Barbara where she takes advantage of the area’s splendors, like hiking and playing beach volleyball. She also earned her MA/PhD in Educational Leadership and Organizations at UCSB and is a NASM certified personal trainer.

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"Just shifting your ability to approach your yoga practice as a form of medicine can be really powerful." Tiffany Cruikshank