Yoga For Athletes: Take Your Mind & Body To The Next Level
by Nick Palladino
At 31-years old, I am in better shape today than I have been in my entire life. I am physically stronger, more flexible, better balanced and can recover faster from almost any type of workout than most people. How is this possible you ask? One word; yoga. Practicing yoga has taken my mind and body from tight, under-developed and imbalanced to what it is today- supple, strong and adaptable. At 6’7’’, if my body can respond how it has to the practice of yoga, then honestly, anyone’s can too.
Shortly after my college basketball career came to an end, a teammate took me to yoga and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I was barely able to reach past my knees in a forward fold, I was unable to focus for more than a breath and everything hurt. I cannot even begin to express how inflexible and stiff my entire body was after a life-time of athletics and impact sports. I had borderline debilitating back pain from a car accident, bad knees from playing basketball and almost no shoulder range of motion from pitching. Eight years later, I’m now known as “The Big Yogi” due to my height and yogic ability. As a life-long athlete, I was sure I was in “good shape.” Yoga quickly made me realize that this was anything but the truth. The key to a strong, athletic and injury free body comes to down to a few key components: strength, flexibility/range of motion, balance and mental focus- all of which yoga provides, both physically and mentally.
Working from the outer body in, yoga first develops strong muscles. Think about this; when you practice yoga, you are literally holding your entire body weight up for an hour. Compare this to a traditional workout at the gym, in which you lift only a percentage of your total-body weight for a minute then rest, and you can see how much more yoga works the body. Yoga (especially Vinyasa and Power styles) challenges you from start to finish and engages muscles you’ve never even felt before. Most yoga students experience an exponential increase in full body strength within just months of practicing yoga. Many athletes also find the power they develop from practicing yoga directly affects how much they can lift in the gym, how long and well they can run and, most noticeably, how yoga minimizes muscle soreness from other forms of exercise.
As one continues to practice yoga a second benefit starts to creep-in: flexibility (and I purposely say “creep-in”, as increasing flexibility can be an arduous process, especially for athletes who’ve developed decades of muscle and joint stiffness). Flexible muscles, tendons and joints optimize performance and range of motion. If an athlete can’t touch their toes, they are not performing at their full potential. In my case, barely being able to touch my knees meant I was nowhere near my full potential of strength, speed, agility or recovery. Increased flexibility also leads to a lower risk of injury, as the body develops a greater range of motion. As range of motion is increased the chance of injury decreases, simply because the body can move further and freer, making fuller movement easier to achieve. Ever notice how often American Football players tear their ACLs? This is predominantly because they are so tight from their massive muscles that the smallest movement can take them out of their safe zone, causing serious injury and joint damage. My favorite benefit from increased flexibility is reduced recovery time. When the body is flexible, it takes less energy and effort to function. As a result of increased flexibility, the body expends less energy during exercise than it would have previously and is able to recover quicker. Elite athletes are both muscular and flexible, it’s a powerful combination.
The third and fourth athletic benefits of yoga take a little longer to develop than the first two, but are worth the time and effort required to achieve. Yoga develops a body awareness like no other, which creates superb balance and mental focus. Physical balance is key for being at the top of your game. It creates elite agility, hand-eye coordination and further prevents injuries. Superior mental alertness is the end product of a strong, balanced and flexible yoga practice, which allows you to focus clearer and better. At the end of the day, the stronger an athlete is mentally the better they are able perform on the field or on the road.
The biggest challenge for athletes in developing a yoga practice is getting through the first few awkward months and being ok with not being “good” at yoga. It will be challenging and it will hurt, but it’s no more uncomfortable than the last few miles of a marathon or the end of a long game. Many athletes are surprised by how quickly they begin to feel the mental and physical benefits of yoga and how the benefits far outweigh any initial discomfort they experience in class. Adding yoga to your training routine, whether that be once a week or daily, will have profound effects on your athletic performance; it will make you stronger, more flexible and improve your recovery time. From one athlete to another, do your body and performance a favor and test what I am saying here. My only regret about my sports career is that I didn’t know about yoga during my playing days. If I had, I truly believe I would have been twice the player I ever was.
Yoga for athletes: Takes your mind and body to the next level!
Nick Palladino, “The Big Yogi”, is a San Francisco based yoga teacher, personal trainer and wellness coach. His passion is facilitating change and growth through health and wellness and does so by combining techniques from yoga, strength training, sports and meditation. Visit Nick at his website www.thebigyogi.com to learn more about his teachings and his blog.