Yoga – Is It Good For Athletes? (Part II)

Recently I attempted to initiate a dialogue on the topic of whether or not yoga is good for athletes. Because a number of athletes use it as part of their training.But is it something that benefits them? Is it a need to have or a nice to have?The last post was meant to examine yoga as to how it meets the needs of athletes. And I wanted to focus primarily on what 99.9% of athletes that come through our door are asking for which is to get stronger, to get faster and to become fitter.Yet in the comments section on the previous post the proponents of yoga didn’t address those questions. Instead we heard about many of the other benefits of yoga, some of which I agree with, a listing of the various types of yoga as well as offerings as to new spellings of words. The urban dictionary will be calling.

Just before my first yoga class.

Just before my first yoga class.

What I’d like to do with this post is see if there is agreement as to what develops strength, power and fitness? I will also share what my first experience with yoga was like. Lastly, I am going to pose another question regarding yoga not so much from the athletic development perspective but in a more general sense.

So rather than hide in my squat racks with weight vests on like Salman Rushdie I want to continue the dialogue and get some more feedback. Here we go.

If we are to discuss increasing strength then there needs to be consideration to resistance. There are a number of ways to apply resistance to a system. It can be variable such as bands and tubing or constant such as body or free-weight. We can move the resistance through or against the field of gravity. It can be without change in the length of the tissues involved i.e. isometrics or with change i.e. eccentric and concentric contractions. We can incorporate the resistance into a program with low volume and high. And with varying speeds. Whatever program we decide on to develop strength, ultimately there is a requirement to apply external resistance to the system.

And while there are many more considerations as to the resistance of an exercise program the key ingredient is that the program must elicit an adaptation and be the best fit as it relates to the needs of the athlete. Body-weight exercises, yoga included, may develop strength in the short term. I’m not denying that. But it is hardly the best tool for the job and will elicit minimal strength gains after the initial adaptation phase (maybe around 6-8 weeks).

When it comes to power there has to be consideration as to the rate of force development (RFD). How quickly can a given force be moved? I remember reading some research a while back which discussed quite effectively why this is so important for athletes. In the paper a number of athletes performed vertical jump testing. And a few of the athletes recorded the same vertical height. However when they looked at their ground contact times there was a difference. One of the athletes spent more time on the ground than the other. And this compromised his power output. In a game like basketball, where jumping much past 10 feet is of little benefit, it becomes more important which athletes can off the ground the quickest.

So we can see that to increase power we need to generate a force quickly which just doesn’t apply to yoga.

And the last area of athletic development to consider is the conditioning effect. Sometimes this is referred to as energy system training and there needs to be consideration of heart rate zones, lactate thresholds, aerobic capacity, intervals, intensity and frequency of training. Most importantly, the best energy system training is that achieved by practicing or playing the sport itself. Athletes do not perform yoga to perform energy system training.

And regardless of the tool being used to develop strength, power and fitness there is one thing in common to all. This common feature is that it must be something that can be measured and tested. We need to know loads, volume, sets, reps, rest breaks, heart rate variability, power outputs and many more variables that indicate results and the effectiveness of a program. Again the detailed note keeping needed with an athlete training program is not a feature of yoga.

But does mean yoga is useless for athletes? Not unless it is primarily being used to develop strength, power and energy system development.

There are other secondary benefits of yoga however. These were made clear during my yoga class with Shauna Nyrose in Kelowna. Here are some thoughts:

With yogi Shauna Nyrose

With yogi Shauna Nyrose

* Shauna does a great job of using analogies to coach the movement. For example, to describe a relaxing breath through the nose she said to imagine fogging the mirror in your bathroom.
* There are a variety of poses which separate the upper and lower parts of the body. This is important for athletes, especially rotational athletes, and I liked the variety incorporated.
* I liked how the arms and legs were used as drivers to enhance mobility. For example, in a downward dog (I believe) the instruction was to push the hands forward and away.
* There was a good effort on Shauna’s part to set levels for various poses. For example, level one would do a certain version and levels 2 and 3 could try something else.
* At a certain point the movements flow quickly and it is difficult for a newbie to hear, look to see and then attempt before moving on to the next one. This is not a teaching comment but maybe more as to the marketing of the classes which have many people at different levels but who all can’t be coached.
* There was strong emphasis on breathing which is great. I’m not able to recall if the cueing was ‘inhale and pull the navel to the spine’ or vice versa. Maybe someone will clarify in the comments section.
* The idea of navel to spine wouldn’t be a cue we would use. I would rather have our athletes learn to brace and develop three dimensional core stability than actively try to recruit the transverse abdominis by pulling the navel to the spine.

Blue steel meets warrior lunge.

Blue steel meets warrior lunge.

A few other general comments include the fact the class started and ended on time. The class was very relaxing and helped pump up my parasympathetic nervous system (a good thing). Shauna took some time to inquire as to who the new people were and to see if anyone had any pain or injuries that she should be aware. And she also welcomed me as a friend and took the time for a picture after.

I’ve got more to write on this topic and a few more questions for the yogis out there. But first I have a few for this post. Would we all agree:

1) Our clients and athletes lead busy lives and anything that gets them better results in less time is a good thing?
2) Our clients’ goal should be our #1 goal.
3) If we say we work with athletes than we have a responsibility to provide them with the best tools for the job.
4) If something is not measured than it is not a primary goal of the tool being used.

I think we all want the best for our clients. And many of us want to improve our skill-set and knowledge to achieve this. These posts are a means to that end.

The feedback from the first post was great. I look forward to more of the same.

Chris

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5 Responses to Yoga – Is It Good For Athletes? (Part II)

  1. lynn says:

    I think the breathing dimension of Yoga is about focus and moving through long holds. it reminds you to stay calm, to be attuned to the body (where is resists) and to attempt to endure the long hold or difficult posture. Focus on the breath is training to stay present during difficult times–what ever that may entail. Lots of brain research on the benefit of this in terms of self regulation.

    One needs body awareness and yoga cueing helps with that. It takes time to understand what those cues actually mean in your own body. What is the significance or objective of those cues in terms of technique? It doesn’t take years of training to become a yoga teacher–just 200 hours–so people can become teachers without first having a sustained, deep personal practice. Not sure of accreditation and required deep of knowledge of anatomy or body mechanics is involved. That means that classes can vary in quality.

    Finally, the key benefit comes from core stability (balancing and standing postures), long holds, and body awareness and acceptance. Back bends are interesting because they involve vulnerability, and are unfamiliar–we don’t do much of this sort of movement in everyday life or sports. Requires open shoulders, strong back muscles and risk. Lots of assisted props and mediated versions of back bend to get you there. Dropping back from a standing posture–when was the last time you had to do this–maybe as diver. So there is an athletic dimension to more advanced yoga but need to learn the foundations to not injure yourself from desire to power through to achieve the posture. This requires good instruction.

    • Chris says:

      Lynn: You write very well. Might have to hit you up for a guest post.

      I like your comment about breathing through movement. This is key for athletes especially during stressful times of competition. And thanks for clarifying the issue of certification and thus the difference one might experience in different classes. And good points regarding some of the poses such as back bends. Definitely requires progressions and may not be suitable for all.

      All the best,

      Chris

  2. steve ganton says:

    I have been a competitive athlete for most of my life. My mind is always open and scientific. I will openly try new things. I am especially enthusiastic if new ideas are supported by valid research or trials, but failing that as long as they are not hurting my body I will try them. Through the years I keep what works for me. I have been to yoga including sessions of hot yoga. I believe everybody could benefit from yoga. It is very relaxing, it decreases stress, tension melts away and people learn to focus on the breath much as in Buddhist meditation training. I believe stress is the number one killer in our western society, high stress leads to cardiovascular dysfunction, immune dysfunction, and cancer. This is why I think yoga could benefit virtually anybody.

    Now the other side of the coin, yoga has many other claims such as strengh, improved cardio, weight loss, and the list goes on. My opinion is, these are unfounded. Chris has covered this very well, but I do want to comment on weight loss. This came up at my office following part 1 of the blog. Weight loss always comes down to calories in and calories out. An old coach once told me “You can not out work a bad diet”. So in my opinion anybody wishing to lose weight should look at their nutrition. Then if they want to increase the number of calories they burn there are a number of ways to do that, and accurately measure that. I do not believe yoga would be an effective use of time to increase calories burned.
    I hope this does not add fuel to a fire as I said I think yoga could benefit most people however it is not a panacea for health. Those who claim it is seem to stick to their claims with religious fervor. Chris has done a great job opening a discussion. There are multiple avenues to good health, and everybody’s goals are diferent. I hope this blog has opened some minds. One should always pick the best avenue for the goal desired, no one activity or sport will serve all goals.

    • Chris says:

      Steve: You win for the most balanced post. You present both sides really well.

      I hadn’t even addressed the issue of weight loss. This is the #1 goal of people who look to initiate a fitness program. Noted fitness expert Alwyn Cosgrove wrote a great article on the hiearchy of fat loss which details the amount and type exercise which works best for fat loss. Once nutrition is addressed the best types of training are activities which develop/maintain muscle mass, elevate metabolism and burn calories. Due to the lack of external resistance, movement and lower average heart rate yoga would have to be considered fairly ineffective in this regard.

      All the best,

      Chris

  3. lynn says:

    I think it is crap that hot yoga helps with weight loss or that yoga contributes to weight loss for reasons discussed. You sweat in hot yoga because the room is 38 degrees and in some studios humidity is added. You maybe lose weight because in hot yoga men often go shirt-less and women wear little clothing AND you are looking in the mirror. Yikes.

    Yoga can help with self acceptance and self compassion–not sure Bikram is about that. You learn to appreciate when your body is present and working with you and when it isn’t. You are mindful as you move through each posture of how your body is responding. The goal–to be fully in the moment. There is some research that inversions and twists have impact on self regulation of body–emotional release and regulation, as well as issues related to digestion.

    Yoga has been around for centuries and only recently fashionable –hence new versions such as hot yoga –Bikram, power yoga –designed to suit fitness movement of the day. Heck everyone looks good in Lululemon. :) Conclusion-not a silver bullet but adds to strength, stability, grace and mindfulness. Guess there is a reason I am OPP despite being a long term yogi.

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