Yoga – Is It Good for Athletes?
Everything we do with our clients has to serve a purpose.
The foam roll drills and stretches need to facilitate increased mobility. The nutritional plans need to provide the essential nutrients, energy and hydration. And the training plans need to fit the needs, goals and abilities of the individual doing the work.
So I’m always curious as to why people go to yoga?
A quick google search lead me to healthyyoga.com with the Top 10 Benefits of Yoga. Their list includes:
1. Stress Relief 2. Pain Relief 3. Better Breathing 4. Flexibility 5. Increased Strength 6. Weight Management 7. Improved Circulation 8. Cardiovascular Conditioning 9. Focus on the Present 10. Inner Peace
***I’ll look at 4,5 & 8 below. The rest are fairly subjective and therefore difficult to measure.***
There is no doubt that a number of people practice yoga but I’m always curious as to their reasons? I look at everything that our clients do as being beneficial and purposeful.
And yoga has me perplexed.
Because I hear constantly of the purported benefits of yoga. And especially the benefits it lends to sports performance.
In fact there is power yoga which sounds like it would be perfectly suited to athletes that are seeking more power and to move more quickly.
But 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.
Case in point India has one, count it one, individual gold medal in the history of the Olympics. Ever. And by the way that gold medal came in air rifle. Hardly a sport requiring power. Well, a powerful gun maybe 🙂
In a similar sense to the lack of power development afforded by yoga a similar example can be made for the strength benefits. For these purposes we can think of strength as the ability to develop force. And within strength training there is something called the SAID Principle which stands for specific adaptations to imposed demands. In other words the body will adapt accordingly to the demands placed on it. Lift a heavy weight and the body gets stronger to handle the weight.
The problem becomes that with yoga there is no external load. So the body does not need to become stronger to overcome an external resistance. Further, the load is maintained in a isometric contraction during a pose. In other words the muscles are not shortening and lengthing as they would in running, jumping, throwing or basically in sports.
So for someone to say they practice yoga for strength and power benefits it lends to sports just doesn’t make sense.
But let’s carry on.
Maybe it’s not for sports performance that someone practices yoga. Yogis love to share the benefits related to flexibity. If the goal is flexibility is this something that is ok to do?
I have some concerns about some of the hyper-mobile positions of the body in certain poses. We ascribe to the joint-by-joint approach to training and understand that our structure dictates our function.
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.
Apart from the hyper-mobility that can result from some forms of yoga I’m not entirely sold on the concept of hot yoga. 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.
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.
So if there are minimal training benefits for athletes and potential harm to key joints at the low back, knee, shoulder and neck why is yoga so popular?
Well part of it has to do with the fact it is easy.
Now I am defining easy as something that does not require high levels of strength, power or well developed energy systems. I’ve already covered the limits regarding strength and power development and with respect to energy system development the cells of the body become adapted to the type of activity. To improve your energy systems for cycling you need to cycle. Lance Armstrong won 7 Tour de France races but finished in the middle of the pack during the New York Marathon. He probably didn’t dope for the marathon, right?
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.
Does this mean I am totally against someone practicing yoga. Definitely not. If they go because they enjoy it I’m ok with that. If they find it relaxing or meditative then go. If they are like some of younger male athletes who seem to have figured out girls like yoga I’m also ok with it. Basically we as a society are under enough stress (sympathetic) and sometimes the thing we need most is to rest, digest and recover (parasympathetic). I’m sure for some of our athletes and clients, yoga serves this purpose just fine.
However if an individual is seeking to get stronger, more powerful, develop their energy systems, move better and become a better athlete yoga is not their best option.
What it comes down to is why are you practicing 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.