With the London Olympics currently in full swing, it seems a good time to discuss the many benefits of yoga available for athletes.
The Olympics stage such a wonderful array of sports and it was fantastic to see so many different athletes all celebrating together at the Opening Ceremony: from boxers to badminton players, footballers to fencers, and sprinters to swimmers.
Each of these sports requires a unique training programme and a very specific skill set. However, to be the best at any of them, the athletes also require a number of core qualities: dedication, focus, physical fitness and mind-body connection to name just a few. Many of these can be found in yoga too.
The relationship between yoga and sports performance is often overlooked. Yoga is an ancient Eastern science, designed to bring mental and physical health, vitality and balance. While yoga should not be competitive, it can certainly give you an edge in sporting events. Sadly, the majority of people opt for either sport or yoga. Worse still, many first turn to yoga due to injury, when competitive sport is no longer viable. I am an advocate for people enjoying the benefits of both.
I mainly practice Ashtanga, one of the more physically demanding and dynamic forms of yoga. It comprises of a set sequence of postures, linked together with flowing movements called vinyasas, which create heat, or agni, in the body. These specific postures have been expertly derived over many hundreds of years and are intended to target each and every area of the body.
Combined with the deep, rhythmic ujjiyi breathing, this sequence brings extra oxygen to every cell, helping to detoxify and restore the whole body, and thereby leading to improved overall health. The constant focus on, and control of, the breath also helps to increase lung capacity and VO2 max (or maximal oxygen uptake).
The postures, or asanas, help to strengthen the body and, unlike some other forms of exercise, they work the entire body. Mindfully holding the postures for a set number of breaths helps to restore balance and correct misalignment, often caused by sports, but also by the way we walk, sit and even sleep.
The asanas increase flexibility and range of motion, which can give you the all-important edge in a competitive sport. Even more importantly, coupled with yogic mind-body awareness, flexibility can also help to protect the muscles and joints from injury, thereby allowing you to enjoy your favourite sport(s) for many years to come.
A final aspect of yoga, which often occurs as a by-product of the more physical benefits, is the enhanced focus and concentration. The aim of yoga is to balance and unite the mind and body. As the sequence of Ashtanga (or any yoga sequence) becomes more familiar, the breath becomes calmer and the mental chatter of the mind begins to slow down and clear. This calmness and clarity can be summoned both on and off the mat, and would give an essential edge when the pressure is mounting at the start of an Olympic event, and equally so at the start of any competition.
So, to budding athletes everywhere, whatever your age, gender, ability or discipline, why not try incorporating yoga into your training schedule to see what benefits are waiting to be discovered on your mat?