Over the years, as the yoga practice grew more popular in the West, it transformed itself through many different styles to adapt to the needs of many different people: Bhakti Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Yoga for Athletes, Ashtanga Yoga, Pre-Natal/Post-Natal Yoga, Restorative Yoga...the list goes on and on.
When you look at the practice of yoga today, honestly, anything goes. If you're looking to become a circus performer, there are teachers to guide you. If chanting and kirtan speak to you, there's a whole community of yogis to harmonize with. There's truly something for everyone and as a teacher, figuring out your unique style is therefore even more significant.
I teach athletes. There, I said it. I've labeled myself as a yoga teacher and have pigeonholed myself into a small subsection of the yoga community...oops. The word athlete brings up images of ultramarathoners and professional baseball players whose lives revolve around activities other than yoga. Yes, there are those athletes, but when I pause and think of the word athlete, I adopt Merriam-Webster's much more general definition: “a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength." If you think about the word athlete in this context, you include a lot more people...phew.
Being an athlete myself, and of course, a yoga teacher, it made sense to bring yoga to the world I already knew and was a part of. I know what I, as an athlete, look for in a yoga class and in a yoga teacher, so every class I teach is a class I'd want to take.
There really isn't a science to teaching athletes. It’s not like I can tell you to teach yoga with a specific style or in a certain way and the athletes will just come. However, there are a few things I've learned along the way that have helped me refine my teaching and speak to athletes directly to keep them coming back.
Here are eight general observations about teaching athletes yoga. (Please note, not every athlete will fit within these eight generalizations...but this list is a good place to start).
1. Skip the Sanskrit.
Keep it simple. Most athletes walking into a yoga class have very little experience with the practice, so speak in English. It will make things easier for you and less frustrating for them.
2. Yoga is an athlete’s side dish.
Their individual chosen sport is their main course. It's what makes them feel alive and happy. It's key to relinquish the expectation that yoga will become their first priority and instead help them to cultivate a regular practice even if it is only once or twice a week.
3. A little Cirque du Soleil goes a long way.
Athletes love physical accomplishments. Give them what they want! Teach them crow or handstand to challenge them on a physical level. Shy away from teaching them to throw their leg around their head or lotus, it's only going to be frustrating and athletes tend to be less flexible than the average person.
4. Bootcamp or bust.
Give them a hard workout but be smart about it (1,000 crunches might not be the most efficient use of your time). It's true that yoga practice is much more than the physical postures but for athletes, it truly is a physical practice...so give it to them.
5. Philosophy...what are you talking about?
As teachers we use the term Dharma to describe how we impart our knowledge of the yoga sutras and the yoga practice to our students for them to chew on. Yet presentation and context is everything for athletes. Use real life anecdotes about something they know (like runner’s high or mental focus) to reach them and make the connection, or you will risk losing them.
6. OM...to chant or not to chant?
It is best to keep it simple, with one in the beginning and one at the end. Athletes new to the yoga practice will have no idea what is going on so go light on the sound of the universe in class.
7. Do squats, squats and more squats.
Incorporate postures or sequences that mirror what they do in their sport. For example, Crossfit loves the squat. There is are like 10 different types of squats in Crossfit so incorporating that form into your sequence through poses like malasana or skandasana or sequencing a class around hip mobility will encourage the athlete to come back for more because you are displaying your understanding of their sport and are helping them improve their performance.
8. Takes one to know one...an athlete, that is.
If teaching athletes is your passion, then get your butt out of the yoga studio and onto the trail or into the CrossFit gym to truly experience the life of an athlete. Feel what they feel so that you know what it’s like. Run a half marathon and realize that yoga feels different after 10, 20, or 30 miles. This will help you to fully be able to resonate with your athletes.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com
Yoga may be the ultimate cross-training for your athletic endeavors. Professional athletes in virtually every sport have taken up a regular yoga practice to increase endurance, energy economization, and overall enjoyment in their training. If you’re ready for a cutting edge in your training and on race day, read below for 8 ways cross-training with a regular yoga practice will improve your athletic performance:
1. Strengthens underused muscles: Athletes engage the exact same muscles in the exact same way pretty much each time they work out. Imbalances in the body through repetitive overuse will cause the body to compensate and tug uncomfortably on ligaments, joints, and the entire skeletal system. Before a regular yoga practice, running long distances would cause trigger a dull ache in my hip. Through yoga, I was able to overcome the brick wall I had encountered in my mileage. Yoga poses challenge muscles by demanding total engagement and deep stabilization, often in muscles we rarely consciously engage in our favorite workout. Balanced muscle strength promotes injury-prevention and will improve your athletic performance.
2. Greater lung capacity: Your muscles and brain need oxygen to perform. Yoga asks that you take bigger, deeper breaths and often includes pranayama or breathing exercises to further increase lung strength and capacity. A strong diaphragm and sturdy lung walls let you pump the air through your body more efficiently and thoroughly. Also, deep yoga stretches, backbends, and twists open your chest muscles and thus improve capacity to take in even more air to be used by our muscles. Using smooth, conscious, slow breaths to get more oxygen steadily into your body during an athletic endeavor stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and will give you a competitive edge against those who struggle with deep breathing over long periods of time.
3. Improves core strength: Tai Chi principles teach us that the core is the center axis of the body and the appendages simply rotate around it. The core is the steel that carries us forward. Physiologically, the more strength you have through the entire core (including deep abdominals, lower back and obliques), you benefit by better protection for your lower back, more lift and push in your legs, and more stability, power and balance throughout the entire trunk. In addition, equally strengthening the front and back core improves posture and balance, allowing for greater breath capacity and energy economization.
4. Longer, more efficient muscles: Yoga decreases muscle tightness and builds longer muscles. Longer, leaner muscles mean more endurance – they simply do not fatigue as quickly. Long muscle fibers do take longer to build, but they are the long-lasting energy source for athletes. Besides fueling, muscles shorten to perform work, so a longer muscle has more area to contract, allowing for more work to be done before being completely used up. Additionally, longer muscles give more shock absorption and therefore better protect the joints, which can be important if your sport of choice is high-impact. Compete with more endurance now and continue strong athletic performance well in your old age.
5. Better energy economization: Being efficient in athletic activity means putting 100% of your valuable energy towards your performance. Athletes can fall into a subconscious habit of wasting energy, often stemming from tight muscles and joints. A regular yoga practice will loosen muscles and open hips, helping to save energy. Danny Dryer of ChiRunning writes, “Because you’re feeling tired doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at your physical limit. You could be doing something that is causing you to work harder than you need to.” On the bike, for instance, cyclists find less side-to-side hip rocking in the saddle when they have open hips, so each pedal stroke moves them forward efficiently and smoothly instead of correcting or stabilizing a cross-movement. Next time you’re on the bike or on a long run, try to take some cues from your yoga teacher: soften shoulders down away from ears, keep facial muscles soft, engage your core gently, unclench your hands, and keep your breath full, steady and smooth.
6. Increased body awareness: On the yoga mat you learn how to really feel your body move. You feel muscle hug bone, feel the way the feet anchor and the body balances, feel the breath guide where and how the body should move. Ultimately we become aware of how right it feels to be in natural body alignment. Yoga teaches us to be aware of every sensation in the body, to become our own body’s expert. Baron Baptiste teaches how a well-developed body intuition and awareness can prevent athletic injuries: “As you develop a greater understanding of the body and how it works, you become able to listen and respond to messages the body sends you. This is especially important in running [or other endurance sports], where the body produces a lot of endorphins. These ‘feel good’ chemicals also double as nature’s painkillers, which can mask pain and the onset of injury or illness. Without developed body intuition, it’s easier to ignore the body’s signals.” With good body awareness, aided and developed through a regular yoga practice, you can easily tell when something is not quite right in a workout and modify to keep your body high-performing and safe.
7. Greater mental endurance: Calming the mind and body to be in the present moment – no matter how challenging the activity – is a huge lesson that yoga teaches athletes. Relax your shoulders, slow your breath, sense your body, and know your inner resolve and strength. Remembering these things will pedal you up the next hill or help you endure that extra mile. Neuroscientist Alex Korb explains, “Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit. Over time you will start to retrain your automatic stress reaction, and replace it with one more conducive to happiness and overall well-being.” When our mind and bodies aren’t freaking out in a workout or difficult endurance feat, we have a chance to feel the pleasure of the moment.
8. Quicker recovery: Post-workout, athletes often have sore, energy-depleted muscles. A few yoga poses after a workout can make the difference between rearing to go again the next day versus a three-day bout of muscle stiffness. Try Downward-Facing Dog pose, Half Pigeon, Frog, Big Toe pose, and some Spinal Twists on the floor. When you feel like cinder blocks have replaced your feet, try Legs-Up-the-Wall pose for 2-3 minutes, which drains blood from the legs so that when you stand up the legs are flooded with freshly oxygenated blood and improved circulation. With regular stretching after a workout, you can speed up your recovery time and prevent buildup of scar tissue. Allowing your body to fully recover between intense workouts is smart training, and by making that recovery time quicker, you can be a healthier, higher-performing athlete.