Yoga for Athletes

Flexibility and So Much More

The idea of yoga to most athletes likely conjures images of cross-legged yogi’s chanting “om” and the body contorted in inconceivable shapes. But what many active lifestyle-enthusiasts may not realize is that incorporating yoga into your training routine can actually elevate your performance. 


“While there are benefits to strengthening specific muscle groups, our bodies were designed to move in a multitude of ways – many sports limit these movements,” says Elizabeth Doyle Harmer, co-founder of The Beach’s Afterglow Studio with Julie Watson. Yoga prevents the physical imbalances that lead to injury by working the muscles you may be under-utilizing while also strengthening the core, ensuring all movements originate from a strong foundation. Vigorous classes, such as Afterglow’s Yoga HIIT, use one’s own body weight for resistance – offering a workout that is easy on the joints, while classes such as Yoga Stretch help counter the muscle-shortening effects of sports that involve repetitive movements, such as cycling, with poses such as locust which “counteracts rounded shoulders by opening the front of the body,” suggests Harmer. 


Beyond strengthening and lengthening, yoga arms athletes with the powerful tool of body awareness. “It’s taught me where I naturally fall out of alignment,” says avid-runner Harmer. “Through yoga I work on creating balance between left and right side, and I take that better alignment with me on the running trails.” This deepened body awareness also enables us to activate the muscles we need while relaxing the ones we don’t – resulting in greater energy efficiency when training. 


The benefits extend beyond the physical – “Yoga’s emphasis on mindfulness and connection with breath improves our focus and ability to deal with stress,” says Harmer. Classes that incorporate a Yin practice involving longer holds teach us how to breathe deeply through uncomfortable sensations, which can give endurance athletes the edge they’re looking for. As Harmer says, “I plan to run well into my eighties, so I need something that can help me go the distance.” 


While recovery is an essential component of improving performance, it can be difficult for the muscles to fully rest when the mind is still racing. Classes such as Afterglow’s Cool Flow + Restore offer restorative poses that calm the nervous system – both the sympathetic (our “fight-or-flight” response) and parasympathetic (our “rest-and-digest” functions), relieving the mental stress that often manifests as physical tension. By calming the mind and entering a deeper state of relaxation, the muscles can fully decompress and recover more quickly. 


While many athletes may be overlooking the key ingredient to improving their performance, a few Toronto studios, such as Afterglow Studio, are beginning to catch on: diversifying their class offerings to ensure those leading an active lifestyle can reap all the benefits yoga offers. “We’ve seen first-hand the benefits of yoga for those who do sports –  from a national level cyclist to cross-fit trainers,” says Harmer. Want to take your training to the next level? Yoga might just complete the perfect recipe for success. 

Anna Haines is a Toronto-based lifestyle journalist and photographer who has been practicing yoga for over a decade. IG: @annarosalie

Categories: Yoga For Your Health