How Athletes Have Benefited From Yoga Teacher Training in the Past
When I was first considering taking a 200-hour yoga teacher training in Vancouver with Karma Teachers, one nervous hesitation kept ringing through my head: “Is it even possible for me to sit still, cross-legged on a yoga mat for 10 hours a day?” I had been practicing yoga for about a year and frequently joked that, for me, “easy pose” was the hardest pose. It was also particularly intimidating living in Canada, namely where Vancouver Yoga practitioners are everywhere and are excellent at making you feel really uncomfortable with their exquisite poses! Even Yin Yoga is intimidating here in Vancouver Downtown! Sheesh!
Rewind my story back about 2 and half years and you’d find me down in Boston, running my fifth marathon. Back then, I didn’t even stretch my legs much less attend yoga classes. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that my hips, quads, hamstrings, and calves were extremely tight. I needed to sit on a large bolster and use blocks to support my knees to be comfortable sitting in easy pose.
Still, it shook me a little to think that my supposedly healthy hobbies—like distance running and cycling—were throwing my body so out of balance. It got me wondering whether I could heal my body through yoga and whether I could someday maintain harmony by combining a yoga practice in Vancouver with other sports I love. It got me curious about how athletes have benefited from yoga in the past.
Yoga Teacher Training and Athletes
In the world of professional sports, one of the most well-known athletes to publicize the benefits of yoga for his career is American basketball player LeBron James. His integration of yoga into his pre-game practice drew attention last year through an Instagram video that shows him balancing on inflatable yoga bubbles while simultaneously tossing around basketballs.
Yoga and Injury
As with many athletes, it was the onset of injury that first prompted James to explore the potential healing benefits of a physical yoga practice. He was purportedly suffering from back spasms that he became able to manage and alleviate through yoga.
Injury is a common issue faced by athletes: practicing a sport requires making the same movements over and over again, leading the involved muscles to become strong in comparison to lesser used muscles. When such a strength imbalance occurs between the muscles controlling a given joint—such as the ankle, knee, or hip—that joint’s movement becomes limited. Continuing to stress the joint through intense physical activity while its range of motion is reduced can lead to injury.
The physical practice of yoga can mitigate the risk of injury by lengthening tight muscles and by strengthening muscles not frequently used through regular athletic training. Given the large range of muscles used during a well-rounded yoga practice, it’s not surprising to hear many argue that yoga can benefit athletes of any sport. Overall improvements to strength, flexibility, balance, and agility are examples of potential benefits.
Yoga and the Mind
Returning once more to our blog poster child for inspiration, Lebron has been quoted as saying: “Yoga isn’t just about the body, it’s also about the mind and it’s a technique that has really helped me.”
Indeed, visualization techniques have been used by elite athletes for decades as a way to enhance performance. These mental techniques can be completed as part of training, without even needing to move the body. Basketball players might visualize themselves holding the right body position, releasing the ball correctly, and making the perfect shot. Distance runners might visualize themselves making it across the finish line. With modern science, sports psychologists have been able to evaluate the effects of these techniques on athletic performance. More broadly speaking, the practice of focused concentration—or Dharana—has long been recognized as foundational to yoga; it is one of the 8 limbs of yoga described in Patanjali’s Sutras, which date back to around the year 400.
Yoga for Stress Management
A growing area of research is on the effects of yoga on the nervous system, which includes application to stress management. This is relevant to high performance athletes who need to balance the demands of intensive training schedules against competing priorities like school and relationships. Athletes may also struggle with performance anxiety when required to perform in front of an audience or television camera. Even at an amateur level, I can relate as I recall those “pre-race jitters” I felt lining up at the start of a road race.
At a basic level, different yoga forms and breathing techniques can affect the nervous system in different ways. One part of the nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system: it is responsible for controlling bodily functions that are not consciously directed, such as your breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes. Through yogic techniques, people can consciously change their breathing or affect bodily functions by holding different physical positions. In so doing, different modes of the autonomic nervous system can be activated.
For example, by folding forward so that your head hangs physically lower than your heart, you may activate the parasympathetic nervous system functions which generally help us to “rest and digest” during relaxation. These are in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system functions which control the “fight, flight, or freeze” response to stress. With practice, coming into a forward fold (or other inversion) could be a tactic for helping to create and experience a sense of relaxation. Certain breathing techniques, such as left-nostril breathing, may have the same effect. For athletes, these techniques may be used to stay calm even during the intense stresses of training and competitions.
Yoga Teacher training for All
As for me, after being convinced I would be able to lie down, stretch out, sit against a wall, or do whatever was needed to get me through a month-long intensive yoga teacher training program, I decided to go for it. I’m so grateful I did, as the Vancouver Yoga Teacher training program at Karma Teachers opened up a whole new world of yoga for me, far beyond the limitations of my current physical conditions. I’ve come to see that labelling myself as an athlete, a runner, or even as a yogi doesn’t really matter, as long as I’m moving in alignment with my truest self. And while I’ve learned that extraordinary physical abilities aren’t requirements for yoga, I do now believe that flexibility of the mind and openness of the heart are key.