Saturday, February 17, 2007

Professional athletes turn to yoga for conditioning

(Published Jan/Feb 2007 Impact Magazine)

It’s been around for centuries, but all of a sudden, we’re hearing more about yoga. The new perception is no longer about it being just for women and house-moms taking a break out of their day. More elite athletes are integrating yoga into their training regimes.

Yoga is about experiencing the synergy of recruiting, stabilizing with the core, and going through a movement pattern, while combining breathing.

In contradiction, sport is very up and down. Your expectations are very high. It’s like you’ve lived a whole lifetime in one weekend.

So what is it about yoga that has attracted so much attention?

Calgary Flames Strength and Conditioning Coach Rick Hesketh says it’s more than the physical aspect to the training. “The range of motion, the core strength, the balance you get with doing yoga is outstanding.”

Yoga helps athletes learn how to use their breath to their advantage. “You can actually recover more efficiently,” adds Hesketh. “I know a lot of guys, who have practiced yoga on a regular basis and use the same breathing patterns when they’ve come off the ice and are sitting on the bench, recovering between shifts.”

For some of the Calgary Flames players, yoga was a chance to also try something different.

Star right winger Jarome Iginla tried yoga once a week during the summer. “More of the focus was on flexibility, but we also worked with the breathing. That was very helpful, just recognizing breathing, stuff that you’re not always thinking about for recovery, flexibility, and to relax. As athletes, we’re always trying to beat our bodies up and demand more and get stronger and faster.”

While his first experience with yoga didn’t leave much of an impression, Flames defenseman Roman Hamrlik is planning on returning to it after this season. “I talked to a few people back in Czech Republic and they say you should try yoga. But you have all kind of different yoga, so I took two lessons, and I was so stiff. I think most guys who are more flexible than me, they enjoy it more. They were really laughing at me – the whole gym.”

When a sport isolates and develops certain muscle groups, it’s essential to have some form of releasing them for overall physical health. Extra flexibility and core strength balance help recoup muscles properly.

Yoga instructor Christine Brown, owner of the studio om-sweet-om, once played basketball with the University of Toronto. “I used to be able to squat 225 pounds, but my inner thigh muscles were extremely weak. I had developed certain muscles and the other ones didn’t develop at all. It led to a lot of injuries, like ACL. In yoga, you develop muscles more evenly, which counters the selective development of muscles for a particular sport.”

Yoga postures can emulate the playing field movement. For example, in baseball, the lunge position is similar to the physical windup for throwing or pitching a ball. The exercise helps open the stance to create more power and torque.

Yoga can benefit every athlete. Those who practice it regularly seem to have fewer injuries. Being able to go through a range of motion, hold the position, be strong in those positions, and get out of them effectively is a real benefit to conditioning. You know you’ve worked hard to hold those positions and have balance at the same time.

Like Hamrlik mentioned above, there are many forms of yoga. To name a few, Hacha yoga blends aspects of the mind, body, physical, and spiritual, while primarily focusing on the physical exercises. Within that, there are different streams, like bikram. Astanga yoga is often called power yoga – a series of a flow of poses that is done very quickly, more like an aerobic exercise. Iyengar focuses on technique and alignment.

If you’ve never done yoga before, it might be wise to start with a gentler form, especially if there are past injuries involved.

You have to be careful and the practitioner teaching it needs to understand what your limitations are.

“Really, if you have an injury, it’s a pretty small part of your body that doesn’t work,” says Hesketh. “You need to find ways to work around it.”

An instructor has to be able to modify the poses for everybody, taking injuries into consideration. You want to be able to do the poses without hurting yourself.

So why is yoga so popular now?

Hesketh admits it may be that people in the fitness industry have concluded that perhaps something has been lacking. “We’ve done the gamut with aerobics classes, step classes, and every other class. As the general public ages, everyone’s looking for a more gentle way of training. That’s what brought it mainstream.” He sees that even ex-athletes taking it up for the first time.

Brown agrees that people haven’t been satisfied with their previous activities. “When I left basketball, I always thought I would maintain that level. When you get out of that, you really don’t have the drive and that goal.”

She tried all the classes but the novelty wore off. “They didn’t seem very fulfilling. I had a five-year attention span. I’ve been doing yoga for 10 years now and have no interest in stopping it. In fact, I’ve only become more into it. You can really have the opportunity to go deeper. I don’t see ever getting bored.”

One of the real benefits to yoga is the mental quietness and the relaxation you get. You quiet your breath. You’re able to quiet your mind, to focus and concentrate. According to Brown, “Somehow, it seems to eliminate the negative chatter that a lot of people have, including athletes.”

Yoga is a practice and a mindset. The more you practice, the better you get at it. It’s not a quick fix. It’s something you have to progress.

You can do it regardless of your fitness level, regardless of your weight, regardless of your injury, as long as you get the right instructor and the right class.

You can be an athlete for longer.

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