A Dozen Ways Yoga Boosts Athletic Performance

A Dozen Ways Yoga Boosts Athletic Performance

“No pain, no gain!”

That slogan has found it’s way into the minds of most athletes who tell themselves “just five more push ups… just three more reps… just two more miles… just one more lap, etc.” Unfortunately, it’s a slogan which creates problems. While some muscle soreness and stiffness after a serious workout is acceptable, pain is not because pain is the body’s way of saying something has gone wrong, either doing too much, too often or doing it incorrectly. When that message is ignored, eventually the result will be an injury requiring rest, recovery time and possibly surgery.

It doesn’t have to be like that. There is a way of making demands on the body so that athletic performance is optimal but without pain and injury. And the path for doing that is through the ancient body science of yoga. Here are a dozen ways yoga helps with athletic recovery and, in the process, makes you better at any sport.

#1. Yoga builds strength. A common error about yoga is that it’s merely about stretching and flexibility. The fact is that yoga develops muscle definition and size. I was at a yoga workshop with an instructor whom I had not met before. When he walked into the room I was amazed at how much muscle tone and shape he had all over his body. I asked “do you lift weights?” His response was memorable: “Yes, I lift my own body weight through yoga!” He explained that he did arm balances and inversion poses to strengthen arms; that he held longer leg poses such as warrior and triangle to strengthen leg muscles; and that he did yoga balance poses such as tree and warrior III to increase leg strength simply by putting all the body weight on the one standing leg.

#2. Yoga restores flexibility. “Only when you can be extremely pliable and soft can you be extremely hard and strong,” is an insightful Taoist teaching. It’s a reminder that flexibility and strength belong together. However, athletes generally use the same muscles over and over. That makes them tighter and tighter stressing the joints, forcing other weaker muscles to assist in the motion and creating body imbalance. This combination produces a high potential for imminent injury. That’s the reason stretching is recommended after a hard workout. The problem is that most athletes never stretch long enough or deeply enough. A yoga class, which is usually an hour or more, provides ample time and opportunities to get the body stretched out. Sage Rountree, author of The Athletes Guide To Yoga, outlines the powerful benefits of a limber body: “Tight muscles are more prone to acute injury, in the form of muscles trains and tears. Loosening up those tight spots not only will help prevent such injury, but will help prevent repetitive use injuries by allowing the body to move smoothly. A freer range of motion means more economy, since you can find the most efficient path for your body to move.”

#3. Yoga expands emotional resilience. In every sporting activity there are moments of ecstasy when one wins or does very well and there are moments of agony when one under performs and feels like a failure. Because yoga develops body, mind and spirit, it has the power to help an athlete rebound from loss and refocus after victory. This is something noted by B.K.S. Iyengar in his book Yoga For Sports: “Yoga builds the mental courage to withstand failure, clarity to identify its cause and solutions to retool and re-tune the body and mind to overcome these shortcomings. It also prevents one from being overwhelmed by success.”

#4. Yoga enlarges lung capacity. To perform optimally an athlete’s body and brain need steady and ample infusions of oxygen. A proper yoga class always incorporates pranayama (breath exercises) to increase lung capacity and improve breath efficiency. Also, the various yoga stretches, back bends and twists open up tight chest muscles and expand the rib cage allowing the lungs to take in even more oxygen, something very beneficial for the muscles. Furthermore, the deeper breathing promoted by yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system keeping the body calm and relaxed. This gives an athlete an important competitive edge over those who struggle with their breath. One of the best breath exercises and one often offered in a yoga class is called “equal” breathing. The Sanskrit name for this yogic breathing is Sama Vritti. ‘Sama’ means ‘equal’ and ‘vritti’ means ‘move’ indicating equal movement of the breath. Our English word ‘same’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘sama’. Doing equal breathing is simple: one inhales through the nose to a count of five and then exhales to a count of five. With practice the cycles can naturally be prolonged to counts of eight, ten and even twelve, effectively increasing lung capacity.

#5. Yoga improves balance. Outside of yoga there are few, if any, other exercise systems which require you to stand on one limb for a prolonged period of time. Yoga is filled with a variety of challenging balancing poses such as tree pose, balancing half moon, eagle pose, extended hand to big to pose, dancer pose, warrior III pose. In addition, there are other types of balancing poses to practice and master such as headstand, handstand, side angle. Yoga balance poses intentionally reduce stability in order to challenge the central nervous system to control the body. This improves our proprioception, the process by which the body can respond to the environment and sense which muscles to activate or deactivate to maintain a desired position. When proprioception is optimal, movements are natural, quick, responsive, and protective. We don’t lose our balance when something in the environment surprises the body.

#6. Yoga heightens mental focus. According to a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, those who did a mere twenty minutes of yoga “were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively” than other subjects who did aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging for twenty minutes. An athlete who can maintain mental focus is better equipped to maximize confidence while minimizing disappointments, doubts and distractions.

#7. Yoga leads to quicker recovery. Many athletes experience post-workout issues such as aches, pains, sore and energy depleted muscles. Many yoga poses done after a workout can bring relief and open the body up for a quicker recovery. Rather than struggle with days of muscle discomfort or joint pain, yoga can renew and restore weakened areas. For example, after a long training run when the legs are totally exhausted legs-up-the wall pose is highly restorative because it reduces blood pressure in the legs when they are placed above the heart, drains tension from the legs, feet and hips, calms the nervous system, and evokes a meditative state especially when done for 10 to 15 minutes.

#8. Yoga strengthens the core. Poses such as forearm plank, boat, warrior III, one legged downward facing dog, side plank, crow, and chaturanga strengthen and stretch the abdominal muscles. When the muscles in the core – those around the trunk and pelvis – area are healthy, strong and supple, they take pressure off the spine preventing back pain and injury and provide better balance and stability. Furthermore, strong core muscles make it easier to do routine daily actions such as getting something from a high shelf, bending down to tie your shoes, lifting heavy bags of groceries. Weak core muscles leave you vulnerable to poor posture, low back pain and muscle injuries.

#9. Yoga strengthens the “other” core. There’s a reason why yoga is done in bare feet and it’s this: barefoot activities can greatly improve balance and posture while preventing common injuries like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bursitis, and tendonitis in the Achilles tendon, says Patrick McKeon, PhD., a professor of sports medicine at Ithaca College’s School of Health Sciences. Dr. McKeon says that foot muscles provide core strength for the legs as abs to for the back. Going barefoot, he says, improves the communication between the larger “extrinsic” muscles of the foot and leg, the smaller “intrinsic” muscles of the foot and the brain. That communication is a powerful tool for maintaining healthy foot core strength preventing injuries from the knees down which plague many athletes. Dr. McKeon says the major source of communication breakdown between feet and brain are shoes. He recommends shedding footwear as much as possible and doing yoga because it’s a done barefoot.

#10. Yoga increases endurance. Some dictionary definitions of endurance include: the ability to do something difficult for a long time; the ability to withstand hardship or adversity; to bear, to tolerate to keep up. These are all qualities important for any successful athletic endeavor. Yoga develops this not only in the body, but more importantly in the mind, something noted by Mr. Iyengar: “Endurance is not only about the body, it is also about the mind. The mind plays a crucial role in pushing the body beyond its limits. All actions are initially performed with physical strength and power but beyond that, it is the power of the mind and will. The power of the mind is much more than that of the body. There is a limit to which a physical body can be developed, but there is no limit to how much the mind can be trained. It’s powers are limitless.”

#11. Yoga prevents cartilage and joint breakdown. Paul Grilley, author of Yin Yoga: Outline of A Quiet Practice, writes: “Athletes don’t retire because of muscle problems, they retire because of joint problems. Bad ankles, bad backs, bad knees – these are the injuries that force athletes to retire and old people to shuffle around.” The issue is cartilage damage. Cartilage is a thick, slippery tissue that coats the ends of bones where they meet with other bones to form a joint. It’s located at the end of bones to provide cushioning and help the bones move smoothly and easily. A lifetime of daily movement as well as physical exercise takes a toll on the cartilage causing it to degenerate creating chronic inflammation and pain. Yoga prevents cartilage damage. Dr. Timothy McCall, author of numerous books about yoga, including Yoga As Medicine, says: “Each time you practice yoga, you take your joints through their full range of motion. This can help prevent degenerative arthritis or mitigate disability by “squeezing and soaking” areas of cartilage that normally aren’t used. Joint cartilage is like a sponge; it receives fresh nutrients only when its fluid is squeezed out and a new supply can be soaked up. Without proper sustenance, neglected areas of cartilage can eventually wear out, exposing the underlying bone like worn-out brake pads.”

#12. Yoga develops the whole body. This kind of physical balance and harmony is absent in most athletic endeavors. In her book, Awakening The Spine, Vanda Scaravelli observes: “In some sports only a part of the body is developed, for example the arm in tennis, the legs in football (soccer), the twist of the hips in golf, where one single side of the body is extended along the leg and arm. This will unbalance the structure of our bones and create a disharmony in our movement. But in yoga the physical adjustment to the poses if total, we play with the whole body. There is unity in the different members where all of them participate working together in the same time. This is the beauty of it.” One who appreciates yoga’s ability to develop the whole body is Tony Horton, fitness authority who created the popular P90X exercise system. He says that “if a law were passed” limiting him to one type of exercise he’d pick yoga explaining: “”Yoga is resistance, it’s balance, it’s coordination, it’s stamina, it’s even cardiovascular, depending on how you do it. I can turn yoga into anything.”


A regular yoga practice can prevent these ten common athletic injuries and, if they occur, can help by bringing relief and quicker recovery. Most athletes, recreational or professional, usually experience two or more of these at some time.

1. Tennis elbow
2. Hamstring pulls
3. Knee pain
4. Shoulder strain
5. Low back ache
6. Wrist issues
7. Ankle sprain
8. Plantar fasciitis
9. Neck strain
10. Shin splints

Victor Parachin

Victor M. Parachin, M. Div. is a yoga/meditation teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma and author of several books including Sit A Bit: Five Minute Meditations For Greater Health, Harmony and Happiness. Find out more at www.dharmaroundup.blogspot.com and www. tulsayogameditationcenter.com