When you hear the word “yoga,” your first thought may be of a roomful of blissed-out, chanting devotees. But as a growing number of serious athletes are discovering, this ancient practice can help strengthen muscles and build skills valuable for success in any sport. Whether you’re a climber, a cyclist, a runner or a skier, these tips will get you ready to grab your mat and discover yoga’s benefits for yourself.
Why try yoga?
Though yoga may initially appear gentle and slow-paced to those accustomed to high-impact exercise, it offers a challenging full-body workout. These are just a few of the ways yoga can help you step up your game:
♦ Build core strength. Strong back and abdominal muscles provide a powerful foundation for any sport—and strengthening these hard-to-work areas can also help prevent injury.
♦ Find a balance. Whether you’re cranking up a hill or speeding down a slope, maintaining balance while in motion is a critical skill. Yoga’s focus on alignment and body awareness translates to greater stability wherever you are.
♦ Get flexible. Many sports injuries are the result of tight tendons and inflexible joints. Regular yoga practice can transform even the stiffest body into a smoothly functioning, flexible machine.
♦ Go for the long haul. Yoga students of every age find that their practice gives them greater endurance and functional fitness. “I’ve found that my students feel that they’re getting younger and younger,” says Dana Baptiste, owner of Centered City Yoga in Salt Lake City. “For athletes, this means that they are able to maintain a high level of performance in their sport of choice for many more years. Yoga can mean the difference between a five-year career and a fifteen-year career as a serious athlete.”
These days, it seems as if yoga studios are popping up on every busy street corner. How can you tell if a given school or teacher is right for you?
♦ Look for certification. Since there’s no universal standard for yoga teacher training, you should be aware that your teacher could be “a personal trainer with a weekend certification,” says Jennifer Ellen Mueller, owner/director of Flow Yoga SLC in Salt Lake City. She recommends seeking out teachers certified by the Yoga Alliance: “It’s the gold standard.”
♦ Ask about background. Many yoga teachers are committed athletes as well. “Look for someone with similar athletic experience,” Baptiste suggests. “Instructors with a sports background tend to have a more mainstream, less spiritual approach, which many athletes feel more comfortable with.” Can’t find a teacher who shares your passion for sport? Look for one who is certified as a massage therapist. Massage training includes intensive study of human anatomy and biomechanics—great preparation for working with athletes who use and abuse their bodies intensively.
♦ Experiment with classes. Try a few different types of classes to find one that fits your needs. You may benefit from a challenging “power yoga” session designed to build strength and endurance, or you may find that a gentler “restorative” class helps you recover after a grueling ride or race.
♦ Plan a program. To see real results from your yoga practice, plan on committing to two or three one-hour sessions per week. “Once most athletes have incorporated yoga into their schedule, they feel so good that they generally find even more time for their practice,” Mueller says.
For many athletes, the greatest benefit of yoga is its focus on integration of body and mind. “I’ve worked with many climbers who have said that learning how to breathe has helped them get over their fear,” says Baptiste. “Yoga teaches us to overcome our mental boundaries in all areas of life.”
Mueller agrees. “Yoga’s benefits extend far beyond that extra second shaved from a time trial, a greater range of motion in a golf swing or a quicker recovery from an injury. It reaches deeply into our abilities to expand as humans.”
Poses to try
Boat pose (Navasana): Builds core strength
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your back straight. Lean back at an angle until you feel your abdominal muscles engage. Bend your knees slightly and lift your legs off the floor. Extend your arms so that your hands are aligned with your knees. Hold for several breaths; release and repeat. As you get stronger, try straightening your legs upward at a 45-degree angle.
Pigeon pose (Kapotasana): Stretches hip flexors and back muscles
Start on all fours. Slide your left foot back so that the top of your leg presses into the floor. Slide your right knee forward and out to align with your right wrist. Sit up straight, pressing your hands into the floor, and lean backward into a slight backbend. For a variation on this pose, lean forward over your bent leg and rest your forearms (and possibly your forehead) on the floor.
Tree pose (Vrksasana): Builds core strength; improves balance
Stand with your back straight; find a spot to focus your gaze. Shift your weight onto your left foot and raise the right foot to press against your left inner ankle, calf or inner thigh. (Don’t press your foot into your knee.) Bring your hands together at your heart, then slowly raise your arms like the branches of a tree. Balance for several breaths; release and repeat on the other side. For an extra challenge, try this pose with your eyes closed.
Salt Lake-Area Studios
Centered City Yoga
918 East 900 South, Salt Lake City AND
1550 East 3300 South, Salt Lake City
Get sport-specific training with Yoga for Climbers, Yoga for Cyclists or Yoga for Skiers, or put a smile on your face with the Happy Hour class.
Flow Yoga SLC
2065 East 2100 South, Salt Lake City
Check out the Ashtanga yoga classes (sweating guaranteed!) and courses in Kalari, an Indian yoga-based martial art.
1155 East 3300 South, Salt Lake City
For something completely different, slide into one of the gymnast-designed slings for an Anti-Gravity Yoga class, incorporating techniques from dance, Pilates and calisthenics.
Bikram’s Yoga College of India
1300 East 9343 South, Sandy
Try Bikram Yoga classes, which combine a heated room with specific postures and breathing exercises that help you stretch muscles to prevent injury and promote healing.
Must-Have Yoga Gear
Part of yoga’s appeal is its simplicity: You don’t need much more than a quiet spot and a mat to get started. These are some of our favorite yoga goodies designed to help you establish–and maintain–a healthy practice.
Original Yoga Stick-e Mat
Need a “cheat sheet” to help you perfect your poses? This reversible mat is printed with lines to help you maintain proper alignment. Its detachable shoulder strap can also be used to help with stretching. $48.95 yogastickysocks.com
Injinji Yoga Toe-Less Socks
Protect your feet from dirt and germs while still allowing your toes to flex and grip. Injinji’s Yoga Toe-Less socks are made from cooling, antibacterial NüBamboo, and their slip-resistant soles help you keep your balance during yoga or Pilates. $16 injinji.com
Prana Tanks, Pants and Shorts
Step onto the mat in style. Prana’s tanks and pants, made from recycled polyester, offer built-in support and a flattering fit. Check out the Lolita Pant and Vivi Top for a combination that’s comfortable in class and attractive enough to wear anytime. For men, try the new Flex Shorts, featuring a Coolmax cycling short liner. They’re perfect for yoga and other active sports like running. Prices vary. prana.com
Vibram Five Fingers Moc and Performa Shoes
This “foot glove” has a seven-part Vibram sole that creates an individual sole for the heel, midfoot and each toe for increased flexibility. The shoe itself is constructed of soft kangaroo leather that is said to be more breathable and sweat resistant than cowhide leather. These shoes are indoor-specific and great for yoga, martial arts, Pilates, weight-lifting and more. The Moc style is available for men and the Performa for women. $110 vibramfivefingers.com
You Can Do It Yoga with Osha Ray DVD
If your jam-packed schedule is keeping you out of the yoga studio, try a class you can do at home, in a hotel room or anywhere else. Osha Ray, a yoga instructor with more than 25 years of experience, guides you through this relaxing and energizing session. The DVD comes with an iPod/iPhone-compatible version of the workout too, making it a perfectly portable yoga solution. $14.98 yogawithosharay.com
Gaiam Cork Yoga Blocks
Find perfect alignment in any pose with these sturdy, eco-friendly blocks. Made from sustainably farmed cork, they provide lightweight, durable support to help you stretch and strengthen. Set of two $27.98