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.

 

Athletes need muscles that change length and generate high levels of force. Sorry yoga :(

Athletes need muscles that change length and generate high levels of force. Sorry yoga :(

 

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?

It depends.

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.

Namaste,

Chris

 

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26 Responses to Yoga – Is It Good for Athletes?

  1. Chris, I have practiced yoga on and off for over 10 years now, and I have to say that I have experienced benefits. Most are these that can’t be measured with a tape, including better sleep, less stress and more awareness of my posture. Personally, I feel that yoga helped manage pain after my motor vehicle accident. I did not practice it as my sole form of training or exercise, but believe these benefits are a positive contribution to my program, much like better nutrition or hydration. Maybe this sleep and a reduction in stress could aide in recovery and compliment my efforts in training?

    One comment I would voice, having tried several different types and studios especially in Kelowna, is that much like trainers, not all yoga instructors are created equal! I have taken classes with very qualified instructors, and also with those which have taken the yogi weekender course. My brows are often raised at some of the poses these instructors encourage, and that many of these classes are not based on levels or experience at many of these studios. Instead they are mix of many different abilities thrown all together doing the same routine. Could you imagine asking someone with no gym experience at all to clean and jerk on their first day of training? Scary!

    • Chris says:

      Hi Jennifer: Thanks for your post. You make some great points.

      You state very well the benefits that you realize from going to yoga. And you state that this is one practice of a comprehensive approach to your training.

      I totally agree about the benefits via recovery and stress release. And good for you for examining the various studios to find practioners that understand what the practice offers and what it does not.

      All the best,

      Chris

  2. Greg Redman says:

    Chris,
    Thanks for writing an article I too might have written 2 years ago, before I started to do yoga. I also have to commend you on being pretty “ballsy” by inciting great conversation as to the benefits of yoga to an athlete.
    However, I have to make a few points.
    1) re Power: In my experience yoga is great for strengthening the deeper core as well as increasing mobility. If mobility means increasing the DISTANCE that you can apply a FORCE then surely you are increasing an athletes ability to create WORK and therefore POWER.
    2) re “We ascribe to the joint-by-joint approach to training and understand that our structure dictates our function.”, my thinking is that the body is composed of multiple joints functioning independently whilst working cohesively (conjointly) together to produce complex movement patterns. Whilst working with a PROFESSIONAL yoga instructor (agree with Jennifer’s point) this complex movement pattern can be retrained. This is why I highly recommend athletes to Okanagan Peak Performance to athletes as you embody this same principle of training the whole athlete rather than taking the uniplanar one movement strengthening approach that some old school Strength and Conditioning facilities do. And no Yang yoga is not isometric (that would be more Yin) but rather a complex concentric and eccentric loaded movement pattern.
    3) re “specificity of training” agreed Yoga is not specific if you are a hockey player or cyclist but nor is Strength and Conditioning. They are essential training components to an athlete as to produce a strong, stable, mobile, kinesthetically aware, human machine.
    4) re “easy”, I equate a session of Power Yoga with the likes of Laura Martini, Shauna Nyrose, Kylie Sutton or Sarah Martin as to doing 50 Turkish Get Ups in 5 minutes….repeat x 10.

    Namaste

    Greg
    Ps: challenge you to 9:15am Friday “Hips and Hammies” Nyrose class (Oranj) or 7:30pm Wednesday Moksha with Martin.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Greg: Thanks for your comments. It means a lot to have someone such as yourself comment.

      Regarding your comments:
      1) Power – I agree that there are a number of factors that will lead to increases in strength and power production. Biting down on a mouth guard i.e. CAP, may elicit higher force outputs in a strength test. But it is the strength training that yields to force development and the mouth guard that may provide a benefit. If all an athlete does for training is bite on a mouth guard there will not be the same improvements in power.

      2) Thanks for the referrals and the clarification on Yin & Yang yoga.

      3) True but we aren’t training the technical side of hockey i.e. skating, slap shots. We are specific in developing strength and power abilities.

      4) I’m going to end up eating crow on this one :) I will be taking some classes to atone for this. To be clear, and I posted this on another’s comment, I was referring to one rep maximum. If an athlete performs a bodyweight exercise or at low intensity (i.e. 30-50% of 1 RM) an athlete would typically describe the set as easy.

      Ps…Sounds great. Will message you when I am going.

  3. Shauna Nyrose says:

    There are countless, well documented and measurable benefits to practicing yoga, for athletes and everyone else for that matter. But don’t just take my word for it…

    http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-4806/Why-Every-Athlete-Should-Do-Yoga.html
    http://www.trifuel.com/news/2008/01/03/yoga-makes-good-athletes-better-the-athletes-guide-to-yoga-helps-endurance-athletes-
    http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/for-sports-performance

    Yoga is not a sport. It is not a competition. It’s not something you ‘do’. It’s a personal practice that is highly variable based on each individuals needs – not unlike what you do at OHP. Everything we practice in yoga is intentional, and designed to prevent future suffering by consistently moving towards balance not just in the body, but in the mind and spirit as well. I am not really debating what you are saying. It seems valid from purely analytical perspective. But as a yoga teacher, I can defer to is the experiences of my students. From triathletes, cyclists, long distance runners, professional hockey players and fitness competitors to chiropractors, physiotherapists, massage therapists, coaches – I have the honor of leading them in their practices weekly. They are committed and dedicated and bascially affirm what I already know to be true.

    Still a skeptic? Come try! I would gladly host you and your team to a Power Yoga class (as luck would have it, I teach Power Yoga at oranj!). I will drop some passes by your office and really look forward to seeing you! :)

    Namaste.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Shauna: Great post!

      I like that you recognize yoga is about your students. And the fact the classes are intential and designed to help achieve a particular goal.

      While the title was a little attention grabbing I am not necessarily a skeptic. I would simply argue that if a client/athlete/student’s needs were to increase strength and power there are tools specific to this task.

      Thank you for the invite. I may get up the courage to come and try your class.

      All the best,

      Chris

  4. Shauna Nyrose says:

    Sorry – I typed OHP… I meant OPP!

  5. Lynn says:

    I have been a dedicated yogi for 8 years. That means practicing at least three times a week for 90 minutes. I have explored a variety of approaches: Iyengar, a form of Hatha Yoga that focuses on precision of alignment in the performance of postures (often using props) and breath control. The postures are held for long periods to build strength, stability and flexibility. For example head stands for 15 minutes. Ashtanga (sometimes called Vinyasa Flow) is a powerful linking of postures and full rhythmic breathing. The postures are held for 5 breaths and you are moving/flowing through a set series for about 90 minutes. This is the most athletic form and has various levels that increase in technique and challenge.

    Many would agree that Yoga alone would be insufficient training for an athlete—mainly because it lacks a cardio component—but certainly has strength and endurance. From my experience, yoga tones your body, improves focus, balance, strength and flexibility. Inversions, arm balances, twists, forward fold and backbends provide a well rounded work out that not only stimulates organs and stretches muscles— but there is a meditative element of focusing on breath, being fully present, and awareness of how the body moves and performs.

    I am not a fan of some of the newer forms of yoga performed in hot and often humid studios. The classes are 60 min–including one or two period of resting on your back for 5 to 10 min and there is little regulation in the training of teachers in terms of adjustments, body alignment and sequencing of postures. I have witnessed people slip on their sweat during standing postures, pass out from the heat, and push their limits of flexibility that results in hamstring tears and other injuries. Yoga is a holistic practice that relaxes the mind and strengthens the body—with the aim to be able to do long seated meditations. I am not sure Yoga was ever intended to be competitive or designed for athletic training. The postures are just one of the 8 limbs of yoga.

    I practice because there is a beauty in what becomes a flowing meditation that makes me feel strong of mind and body.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Lynn: You bring up some great points. And do a very good job of explaining what the benefits of yoga are for you.

      As with any practice you will find a range of abilities and experiences which is not limited to yoga.

      All the best,

      Chris

  6. Stephen Mckenzie says:

    Ok listen there are a few things we must clear up so people may understand.
    1 Yoga is meant to be a supplemental modality.It is not a stand alone exercise regime and should not be used as such.

    2 Yoga was designed to re-set the human body into the most bio-mechanically neutral positions,as we were in when we were born.Basically yoga is a technique that allows us to use our bodies the way they were meant to be used ,nothing more.

    If you do yoga too much it will hurt you,if you only do yoga it can also hurt you.Yoga will not make your muscles stronger but it will allow you to use the strength you have more efficiently because you will be able to get into the best biomechanical positions to use that strength.
    People over analyze things and try to make yoga out to be what it is not.
    It is all about balance of the mind body and soul.It is about neutrality and inner strength.
    It is one of the greatest tools any athlete can ever use no matter wht sport they play because it stops the natural tendencies to compormise posture and form because of repetitious movements,it’s as simple as that.
    People talk about flexibilty being a benefit of yoga.It is a by product of yoga.You need some flexibility to be able to assume proper posture and ranges of motion.Too much flexibility is quite detrimental and unstable flexibilty is downright dangerous.The purpose of this quest is not for flexibility itself ,it is to allow one to assume propoere posture and to able to maintain this posture in motion.
    Please do not confuse things.
    Lastly,as was said earlier not all yogi’s are good and they don’t all know why they do what they do but a good instructor can help you attain a pain free, strong, and dynamic body.I am a world ranked powerlifter and I have proven that one can actually be weaker and stronger at the same time.One can lose absolute strength but be able to perform better and lift more because of proper posture.
    It is fact.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Stephen: Great points! This is the point that some athletes may believe that some forms of training will take care of everything, which they don’t.

      While yoga may help reset the body , via the parasymthetic benefits, some of the poses may be beyond what an athlete needs and create a situations or hypermobility and joint laxity.

      You are right that yoga is a tool and the job of a coach, fitness professional or other employed by an athlete is to apply the best tool to meet the needs of the athlete.

      All the best,

      Chris

  7. Pam Rader says:

    Easy? I invite you to be my guest to one of my power yoga classes.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Pam: Thanks for your comment. I have no doubt that yoga can be challenging and I may struggle with certain poses. The use of the term easy is in a strength or power context related to a one rep maximum. When a training session has a strength emphasis bodyweight or loads of low intensity (i.e. 30-50% of 1 RM) would be considered light or easy.

      But I may still take you up on the offer.

      All the best,

      Chris

  8. Hi Chris, I read your article and I must say it seems to come from a place of being miss educated on yoga. I’ve now owned my yoga / fitness studio for over 5 years and before I opened up my studio I was the Regional Marketing Manager for lululemon athletica where my job for over 6 years was to get proffessional athetes into yoga classes. I have worked with Olympic athletes, NHL hockey players, Volleyball players, cyclists, ultra marathoner etc. I have healed many athetes with yoga. The reason I say your article comes from being miss educated is the fact that I would typically NEVER recommend power yoga for an athlete who is already doing a lot of power movements in their weekly routine. There are many different types of yoga out there and when it comes to professional athletes yoga is AMAZING for them as a tool to cross train. It stregnthens muscles that they typically don’t focus on with their “power” movements or with their repetative physical training. It also heels injuries for athletes (depending on what movements and poses you do…there are hundreds and hundereds to choose from). I do agree with the fact that most proffessional athletes can’t just be “plugged into” any regular yoga class. Private classes usually work better for them because you can personalize what they need for their specific sport. I’m not going to go into anymore detail on this, but I must say, with all due respect, your article makes you sound really un educated and it clearly shows you haven’t tried yoga at all or really put that much effort into research. I’d be slightly embarrassed if I claimed to know a lot about fitness and then wrote an article like that. I’d suggest looking up the following styles of yoga and then see if you still think yoga is not good for athletes: yin yoga, restorative yoga, easy yoga, happy medium yoga, moksha yoga, anusara yoga, hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga, iyangar yoga, vinyasa yoga, baptise yoga, foundations yoga, happy hips and hammies, pilates yoga fusion, Maya yoga, kundalini yoga….just to name a few. There’s so many different styles of yoga out there…you’ve really generalized such an amazing tool for cross training.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Sheila: Thanks for your comments.

      I appreciate your passion for yoga and it’s great that you recognize one size does not fit all. We (coaches,trainers,teachers) must always put the needs and goals of our clients and athletes above all else.

      If you have any scientific research you could forward regrding the strength or power benefits attributed soley to yoga I’d love to read them.

      Many of the other comments on this post come from yoga practioners and teachers who have shared the benefits that they realize from practicing yoga. And in many instances I agree with them.

      But for the vast majority of athletes seeking increased strength, power and energy system development yoga would not be the best tool to accomplish these.

      I will be taking up some of the local practitioners on their offers to try some classes. Thanks as well for your offer.

      All the best,

      Chris

  9. I just noticed that one of my instructors Shauna Nyrose commented as well. I would love to invite you to a yoga class at oranj! If you are a high performance athlete and you would prefer a private session so we can really focus on some healing for your body i’m more than happy to arrange that as well. I have many instructors that are highly trained on working with athletes! xo

  10. Mitch says:

    Hey Chris,

    Seems like this article is getting a lot of attention! There seems to be a misunderstanding as to what scientific evidence is and what is yoga myth. I agree with the majority of what your saying however as with any supplementary practice, yogi can have a ton of benefits and carry overs into sports. Countless studies have proven that the cardiovascular benefits of yoga are negligible. So if you are looking to yoga to increase cardio you are in the wrong place, even power classes although able to raise heart do not effectively target heart rate to produce benefits compared to interval training or cardio specific training. As for flexibility there seems to be contradictory studies on whether isometric stretching is beneficial to increased flexibility. I personally have notice my 1rm in squats and deadlifts to increase when I add in supplementary yoga to my weight training. This may not be the case for everyone. I believe in a dynamic warm up pre workout but on rest days yoga seems to help with recovery and increased flexability.

    Anyways I think if you were to team up with a yoga instructor it would be a symbiotic relationship as a yoga instructor could benefit from a more scientific understanding of the human body. I’ll swing by OPP when I’m back

    If you contact Laura martini with Martini yoga it might be a beneficial partnership. She has trained Olympic athletes, NHL players (like you) and various other sports professionals. Including cfl kicker Hugh o’neill

    Take care

    • Chris says:

      Hi Mitch: Thanks for chiming in. No doubt there are benefits of yoga as you mention the benefits to your recovery and lifting. Good of you to recognize these are added bonuses to the strength training effect and not primarily responsible for results in force production.

      Looking forward to seeing you next time you’re in town,

      Chris

  11. Jula says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your article. It is an important practice to ask questions and explore the reasons for anything we choose to do. I would like to take the time to respond to some points in your article which I feel could use some clarification and it seems that in the way you wrote your article that you may sincerely be wishing to dive into these questions!

    First I would like to preface this offering with a bit about me, since we can never be 100% unbiased as human beings with life histories and qualifications! I am a Moksha Hot Yoga studio owner, yoga teacher and Registered Physiotherapist with lots of experience working with athletes. 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 in my mid-twenties. The sports training these days is even better than it was even 20 years ago, thank-goodness! This newer knowledge and approaches may have helped me to prevent a lot of the injuries, muscle imbalances and “hypermobility” that came from my training. But the other thing that really would have helped is if I had found a consistent yoga practice sooner!
    I have placed quotes from your article and have offered my thoughts below in point form. I am also sharing this with yoga teachers in our community so in defining some of the terms or in speaking in “laymen’s” terms I am just trying to be accessible to the whole audience. I am also going to mostly focus on the physical aspects of the practice but yoga is a term encompassing so much more and sometimes the subtly effects can be even more profound than the physical!

    Finally, I have absolutely no knowledge of your facility, training programs or knowledge base aside from what is listed on your website and by no means intend for this to anything other than open a conversation regarding the points you are questioning.

    Here we go!

    “And yoga has me perplexed.
    Because I hear constantly of the purported benefits of yoga. And especially the benefits it lends to sports performance.”
    – I hear you! There is so much information out there that there is bound to be mis-information 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.

    “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. 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” etc, etc. Are sometimes a “style” name denoting a lineage or a system. Other times it’s marketing to differentiate one yoga studio 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!

    -Longer muscles with the appropriate strength along the full length of the muscle will create more power than shorter muscles, when worked properly along that new length in their more specific training. 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.

    -Isometric holds will only strengthen muscles at that very specific ROM (range of motion) 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. And 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 and 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 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. You have probably 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. This 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 show up later as a different seemingly un-connected injury (something I see often in my own physio practice)! Yoga can be part of the training process to work all 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.”

    -This is definitely a true statement but you haven’t explained how this relates to yoga postures! You used the spinal example so let me 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).
    – 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 L4/5 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-education your spine to twist as it should.
    And since we lose rotation in the spine as we age 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!) 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 at 46 deg and 100% humidity. Or a sauna at 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. 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.
    -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 fibres 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 reports of injury in yoga classes is over-blown. There is a lot of peer reviewed research out there! Also, for good summaries on how to properly move through yoga poses check out bandhayoga.com a site and books by a board certified orthopedic surgeon and yogi Ray Long. Great information there!
    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 of the information the body is giving our brain all of the time they may not notice soreness or tightness in the same way until they start to develop this awareness through a yoga practice. Certainly, 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 pre-supposes that you are moving just the right amount. And 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 then 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 be reminded to breathe (and all of the affects that come with that) among many, many more benefits. So popularity of this practice comes from many levels aside from 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 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.
    – 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 you to take up the challenge with yourself or some of your staff or athletes! 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, develop their energy systems, move better and become a better athlete yoga is not their best option.”

    – I would say 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 breath: 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 breath fully during those static holds and to connect exhales to the more dynamic motions (exhales being where the core can naturally engage more fully). One benefit in learning to breath 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: example 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 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 prehab, 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 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 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

    “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 you 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. As a Moksha yoga teacher and studio owner I will only speak from my experience in that the Moksha yoga series is a well balanced, safe and effective series that can add to the training of athletes as we work with all parts of the body in both standing and floor poses. With 60 or 90 minute class options and the ability to drink water and really listen to the body it’s ideal for recovery days or even at the end of a long work-out to help with recovery. Numerous NFL football players, NHL hockey players among many 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”.

    Thank-you, Chris, for taking the time to question when you hear seemingly unsupported benefits! Thank-you for caring so much for your athletes that you want what is best for them! I do not know how close you are to Moksha Yoga Kelowna but it would be so cool for you to head over there and try out the practice! I am also quite open to continuing the discussion as my answers just barely scratch the surface of what could be talked about!
    Much peace,
    Julia Cowan RPT, BHK, RCAMPT, CYT
    Mokshayogaburnaby.com

    • Chris says:

      Hi Julia: Thanks for your comments. All of them! If it’s alright I would like to connect with you in Burnaby at some point. I will be stopping into the Kelowna studio soon as well.

      All the best,

      Chris

      • Jula says:

        Hi Chris,

        I would love to connect if you are in our neighbourhood. Give the studio a call when you might be planning a visit and we’ll have a mat and towel ready for you…..!

        Cheers,

        Julia

  12. Hi Chris-
    I hope your new facility is going well.

    My wife, Sonya forwarded me this blog post, as I am about to get a little more involved in the yoga community, and she encouraged me to speak up. As you know, I run a small studio, and a teacher training program (200-hour Spring YYT begins in March). No big letters after my name, but lots of experience, about 32 years in yoga, 22 teaching.

    I have seen this discussion before, in the larger yoga community worldwide. Lots of passion! This is good, and good for you for courageously offering your post. I like how you spoke, and responded, within your scope of practice. This is all I can really comment from as well. There is a plethora of info. out there right now around yoga benefits and contraindications. Some common sense, some well sourced, and some just ‘out there’. I will address just a couple of points, and not try and get out there too much.

    You opened the discussion by mentioning the ‘top 10’. I would offer that the other areas not in your scope are absolutely relevant. I guess I would offer that the whole person practices yoga. To address the physical body is a start, but we must address breath and ‘self-awareness’. That might sound ‘out there’, but the science shows that an individual can be in a stress response and practice the physical postures perfectly. Someone can be in a pain cycle, and drive right through it. Someone can simply be trying to keep up with the instructor, and have no body awareness. I have seen and continue to see the long term effects of the above.
    If a person is not present, and self-aware in the practice, driven by the external form, they could be in trouble. Especially an athlete, who has a high pain tolerance, and can easily ignore the pain response. The pain response was described well in the recent book by local physio Neil Pearson.
    This is an issue because a driven student will eventually work to the end of the muscle and move in to the joint space, moving beyond tensile strength and release, and into critical joint spaces (compression). Even tricking the mechanoreceptors with heat. This is a big problem, the long term effects of joint space de-stability won’t show for a long time, and when it fails, it is not usually in a controlled yoga environment. (I know of a relatively famous Ashtanga yoga teacher, many years, who just had a major ACL, meniscus tear while ‘simply skiing on a Blue run, and the knee turned’). I realize this is subjective. That is all I have. The real data will take time, and commitment, as William Broad noted in his book.
    Lastly, I will mention a much more important part of this elephant in the room. The mental/emotional body. Our society is obviously struggling, externalization, body obsession, body enhancement, etc. That plays directly in to the ‘distraction’ of the physically oriented power practices. People basically don’t want to feel. Having worked with many folks who are suffering, including professional athletes,
    I can say this is an epidemic. Look at the severe dysfunction in professional athletics, suicide, depression, anxiety, and drug use. That is a mirror of our society. I am interested in offering the athletes and society an exploration of less unhealthy stress, with honest self-awareness.
    All this said, I appreciate the discussion. I am open to feedback with you or anyone in this forum.
    Best to you,
    Jeff Thomlinson
    Trinity Yoga Center

    • Chris says:

      Hi Jeff: Thanks for weighing in. And thanks for bringing up the concepts of pain, mind and body awareness. Your perspective will benefit your students and help bridge the gap between traditional strength and conditioning with other training modalities such as yoga.

      All the best,

      Chris

  13. Matt says:

    Wow! So enlightening to see such diverse and interesting comments. As Tim “The Toolman” Taylor once said back in the 90’s: “It’s important to choose the right tool for the job” – So is the goal power? Is it strength? Is it speed? Is it flexibility? Is it relaxation? Undeniably, yoga has its benefits, however as an athlete I choose to build my off-season strength with progressive resistance training, and not by doing the “downward dog”

  14. Leanne says:

    Love seeing all the different and similar views on here!
    As a high level athlete, I’ve tried a lot of types of training and combinations of things. Yoga for me has very little to do with my physical self. Yes the amazing instructor that I get to see when I’m back home does a lot of mobility work for my thoracic spine and shoulders (I’m a paddler) but it’s her way of speaking and interacting that makes me feel like the world has been lifted off my shoulders at least for a little while. No matter what has gone on in my day or week or months since I’ve been away, when I leave Ellen’s studio, I remember to take a step back and enjoy the life I have and the people in it.
    Having Type 1 Diabetes has helped with my body awareness so that hasn’t been an issue since I was diagnosed in 2006. I’m keenly aware of how different foods, different types of exercise and training and of course sleep affect not only my blood sugar but my body as a whole.
    Unfortunately I’m yet to find a yoga instructor here in the Kelowna area that makes me feel the same way, so until then I stick with my personal mindfulness exercises (I’m lucky to have colleagues that are psychologists) and leave my physical training and recovery in the amazing hands of my coaches (Chris, Megan and Matt at OPP), physios (Eric and Greg at Wave), Chiro (Travis at Health in Hand) and massage therapists (Wes and Sandra at Mission Massage).

    • Chris says:

      Hi Leanne: You truly do exemplify the concept of developing your team. And the success you’ve had on the water reflects this.

      It’s great to hear how the yoga instructor you go to helps you with mobility at the shoulders and thoracic spine.

      Keep training hard and best of luck,

      Chris

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