With the likes of Andy Murray, Ryan Giggs and the NZ All Blacks regularly using yoga in their training regime, the ancient Indian art of bending now sits comfortably alongside more traditional strength and conditioning techniques as part of an athlete’s daily regime.
I say ‘bending’ jokingly as yoga is not just about developing flexibility, although that is one of the key benefits. Yoga can also build strength and tone in muscles, particularly the smaller postural muscles not targeted by traditional gym machines or weight training. This gives greater stability in the body for balance, quick twists and turns in dynamic sports and endurance.
Yoga wasn’t actually developed for physical development, however. The ancient books about yoga describe it as a practice to quiet the mind. Secondary to that was to develop the flexibility to sit for hours in meditation… to help quiet the mind.
So athletes who are using yoga as part of their sports training benefit from greater mental focus and strength, particularly to cope with performance anxiety and the often gruelling routine of training.
Yoga is also an essential part of recovery – stretching after exercise helps to release acidic toxins from the body more quickly and restore muscle length. It can also be extremely relaxing, helping the athlete to wind down after competition or prepare for sleep.
The final aspect of yoga which is often left out in Western yoga classes is breath control and manipulation. Learning how to better control your breath develops respiratory strength for endurance in sport, but also adds to your ability to settle nerves before a big performance or challenging task.
My sport of choice is swimming, more specifically swimming whilst holding my breath. I recently broke a British record for pool freediving and credit this achievement to my yoga practice, dedicated training effort and a patient coach. My yoga helps keep my body flexible and strong in the right places for efficient swimming. It helps me to take a full final breath so I have the maximum amount of oxygen to take into the dive with me. And it helps me to keep calm in the final minutes before a big performance when keeping my heart rate low is vital.
So what can yoga do for you in your sport? Runners, cyclists, swimmers, golfers, climbers – all are now benefiting from yoga as strength and conditioning training.
To try it for yourself join me in a class at YogaSpace in Bristol, beginning 8 November on Fridays from 5:30 – 6:30pm.