Yoga For Athletes: Top 5 Poses For Optimizing Your Performance

Author: Lauren Jacobs, yogi extraordinaire and power yoga for sports specialist.

All sports take an incredible amount of mind control.  Countless champion athletes have stated their mental training was critical to their athletic success.  Retired marathon runner Joan Benoit Samuelson famously said, “running is 80% mental.”  Samuelson took home the gold medal in the women’s Olympic marathon race in 1984, the year the women’s marathon was introduced.  Kerri Strug–known for performing a vault, despite her injured ankle, to help the U.S. women’s gymnastics team take home the team gold in the 1996 Olympics– once said, “it is important to push yourself further than you think you can go each and every day…as that is what separates the good from the great.”  

Whether you have your sights on making the 2020 U.S. Women’s gymnastics team or simply aim to complete your first 5k, committing to a mental training program will help you reach peak performance.  Practicing this sequence regularly may help you to effectively train mentally and also increase your physical aptitude for your sport.

5 Great Yoga Postures for Any Athlete

Throughout the following sequence, breathe deeply and evenly (unless otherwise noted) in and out through your nose.  In each posture and the transition between postures, continue to focus on your breath, observe how your body feels, and notice how you react if your body feels tense or tight.  Build mental endurance by continuing to tell yourself to relax your muscles.  Make sure to move through each posture mindfully.  If you simply feel a little tight or uncomfortable, breathe through the posture and remind yourself to relax.  If moving into a posture makes you feel like you may cause injury to yourself, simply skip the posture, modify it in a way that feels good to you, and/or opt to spend more time in another posture.

 

1. Seated Meditation

·      Transition:  Come to a comfortable cross-legged seated position.  If you are feeling particularly tight in your hips, you can roll up a blanket or towel and place it underneath you for support.  Place your hands gently on your knees.  Sit up tall through your spine and soften your shoulder blades down your back.

·      Breath:  Slow, even inhales and exhales for 3-5 minutes

·      Benefits: A number of studies, including ones conducted by Harvard University researchers [http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/11/meditations-positive-residual-effects/], show that meditation, even for only a few minutes a day, reduces stress and helps you to focus.  For an athlete, every second counts.  The ability to hone in on your blind spots or identify your weaknesses and push through them is invaluable.

2. Seated Forward Bend

·      Transition: Extend your legs straight out in front of you.  Inhale your arms up over head and exhale to fold forward.

·      Posture: If you have a towel, strap, or an old tie or something, you can place it around your feet and grab onto it with both hands, giving yourself some extra length.  If not, grab onto your legs wherever you can.  For this version of the posture, try to keep both legs straight.  Every time you inhale lengthen your spine by reaching your chest a little bit closer to your toes.  Every time you exhale, soften from your hip crease and allow your chest to melt a little bit closer to your legs.  

·      Breath:  15-20 slow, deep inhales and exhales through the nose.  

·      Benefits:  Increases flexibility in your hamstrings.  Increase range of motion.  Reduce strain on lower back.

 

3. Boat Pose

·      Transition: Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Press your hands on the floor a little behind your hips, fingers pointing toward the feet, and strengthen the arms. Lift through the top of the sternum and lean back slightly. Make sure your back doesn’t round; sit on the “tripod” of your two sitting bones and tailbone.  

·      Posture: Inhale,  your feet off the floor, so that the thighs are angled about 45-50 degrees relative to the floor. Exhale here.  If possible, slowly straighten your knees, raising the tips of your toes slightly above the level of your eyes. If this isn’t possible remain with your knees bent, perhaps lifting the shins parallel to the floor.  Continue to lift your heart and sternum up as you lean back slightly.

·      Breath:  Even inhales and exhales through the nose for about 10 seconds.  Eventually work your way up to one minute here.

·      Benefits: Strengthen your core.  Builds mental endurance.

 

4. Hero’s Pose (toes tucked and untucked) with Cow-Faced Arms

·      Transition: Take about three rocks; on the third rock, cross at your ankles and plant your hands in front of you.  Come to a table top position.  Tuck your toes under (manually use your hands to tuck ALL of the toes) and gently bring your hips toward your heels, stacking your shoulders directly on top of your hips. When your body needs relief, either untuck your toes and/or lift your hips up; get right back into the starting posture, however, ASAP.

.       Posture: Tuck your toes under (manually use your hands to tuck ALL of the toes) and gently bring your hips toward your heels, stacking your shoulders directly on top of your hips. When your body needs relief, either untuck your toes and/or lift your hips up; get right back into the starting posture, however, ASAP.

.       Cow-faced arms:  Inhale, stretch your right arm straight out to the right, parallel to the floor. Rotate arm inwardly; the thumb will turn first toward the floor, then point toward the wall behind you, with the palm facing the ceiling; roll your right shoulder slightly up and forward, round your upper back. Exhale, sweep arm behind your torso and tuck the forearm in the hollow of your lower back, parallel to your waist, with the right elbow against the right side of your torso. Roll the shoulder back and down, then work the forearm up your back until it is parallel to your spine. The back of your hand will be between your shoulder blades. See that your right elbow doesn’t slip away from the right side of your torso.

Now inhale, stretch the left arm straight up toward the ceiling, palm turned back. Lift actively through left arm; exhale, bend the elbow, reach down for the right hand. If possible, hook the right and left fingers.  Option to place a strap or towel in left hand and dangle it down to the right hand.

Press the back of your head into your top arm; knit front ribs together, so you keep a neutral spine.  Soften your palette (unlock jaw + lower tongue) Repeat on other side.

·      Breath:  Breathe here for approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute each side (5-10 slow, deep breaths) 

.      Benefits:  Increases flexibility in quads.  Stretches out bottoms of feet.  Increases range of motion.  Open shoulders; improves posture.  Builds mental toughness.

 

5. Corpse Pose

·      Transition: Hug both knees into your chest.  Then extend your legs along the floor board.  Flop your feet open.  Lengthen your arms along the side of your body.  Turn the palms of your hands up.  Look straight up at the ceiling or sky and then close your eyes.

·      Posture: Do nothing.  Let all of your muscular energy go.

·      Breath:  Stop controlling your breath.  Just be for about 5 minutes.

·      Benefits:  Reduces stress and anxiety.  Relaxes the body.

Lauren Jacobs is an experienced yoga teacher and personal trainer, specializing in power yoga for sports.  To learn more about Lauren, from her Sarasota, Florida and online classes and workshops to her favorite healthy gluten-free recipes on her website, www.mbodhi.com, or Instagram, @laurenupsidedownorsideways.

Lauren B. Jacobs
E-RYT® 200, RYT® 500, YACEP® , CPT
Instagram: @laurenupsidedownorsideways
Lauren Jacobs