Written by: Liba Spyros, Founder Transform Power Yoga

Yoga and Athletics is a marriage made for health and success. These days, it is rare to find a professional athletic team that hasn’t incorporated yoga into their routine. The Seattle Seahawks are arguably the most well known team to have voiced their practice of yoga and meditation. In fact, the 2014 Super Bowl had everyone speaking about the team’s commitment to yoga. Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawk’s quarterback, credits yoga and meditation with helping him stay relaxed on the field. The list of professional athletes that practice yoga reads like a Who’s-Who of the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, not to mention tennis, swimming, golf, etc. Bryce Harper, a Washington Nationals baseball player, has given hot yoga credit for giving him a record-breaking season in 2015. If you get to Nationals Park early enough to watch the warm-ups, you will see Mr. Harper in crescent lunge, and various other twists and stretches.

How does yoga help athletes achieve greater levels of performance? According to Dr. Erol A. Yoladas of Broward Health (FL), a lot of athletes focus on strength and weight lifting, but rarely concentrate on the stabilizing muscles of the abdominals, pelvis, and glutes. Brendon Ayanbadejo, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, states that yoga increases flexibility, strengthens the entire body, stabilizes the core, and releases toxins. It is great for recovery from injury or a big game.

Yoga is also responsible for prolonging an athlete’s physical health after their career ends. Many athletes suffer from debilitating injuries that cause great pain in their retirement years. Keith Mitchell, a former all-pro linebacker with the NFL, suffered a career ending spinal contusion in a football play. He credits yoga and meditation with his rehabilitation. Once told he would never have complete mobility again, he now has complete functionality. He is now grateful for the injury because he can share his passion for yoga as a yoga instructor. To watch Ayanbadejo in a hot yoga class, please come to our website at TransforPYoga.com for a link to the YouTube video.

Yoga and meditation are a key performance-enhancing agent for the mind in addition to keeping an athlete’s body healthy. The breath work that is taught in a yoga class, is something that can teach an athlete to quiet the mind chatter of doubt, fear, or distraction. There are many elements that train the yogi to focus and be present: being led by an instructor, using breath to lead movement, heat (if it is a hot practice), and eye gaze to name a few. All of these ingredients are key to train the athlete’s concentration; however, breath most easily translates to all athletic activities. In a yoga practice, the practitioner learns to use breath to find ease in a pose. Ease does not mean easy; it just means you choose to drop stress. When a practitioner is in a challenging pose, the way to quiet thoughts of anxiousness is to focus on the inhale and then focus on the exhale. It sounds so simple, but it takes practice to control thoughts and to stay in the immediate moment.

Honestly, we can only ever be “here” in the present moment. However, we spend our time thinking of the past and worrying about the future. For an athlete, the present moment needs to be the focus. Finding “the zone” is the key to building the confidence necessary to let go of anxiety and stress. The mental state of an athlete determines performance. An athlete needs to be both physically and mentally healthy and trained. Strength of mind can be the difference between winning and losing.

High School and collegiate athletes are also turning to yoga to enhance their performance. Stanford University attributes the success of their 2015 football season to the addition of yoga to the team’s training regime. The Citadel has also added yoga to their football program. There are videos on Youtube about both these stories. The male La Crosse team at Georgetown University goes to a local D.C. hot yoga studio. It is very common now that Division 1 teams are practicing yoga.

Jake Payne, a graduate of Battlefield High School who now studies and plays football at Shenandoah University, was told by NFL scouts that he had to start practicing hot yoga. Jake takes a heated vinyasa class on days that he has a light training schedule, and a Yin class on days that he has a heavy training day. As Jake learned, since professional athletes and teams are practicing hot yoga for health and peak performance, so should the collegiate athletes and on down to high school athletes. It will toughen their mental game, aid in agility, mental focus and clarity, flexibility, strength, and stamina. To see Jake’s testimonial, please visit our website.

Becoming an elite athlete often means that you ask your body to proceed through injury. Physically, the body gets pushed beyond a safe boundary. Injuries aren’t always allowed time to heal properly. Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback Tony Romo broke his collar bone twice this season when he rushed back to the game before he was fully healed. If we repeatedly abuse our body, our injuries can become chronic.

Yoga teaches the athlete to listen to the physical cues our bodies give to us. We develop the skill of feeling and intuitively listening to the very real signs our bodies use to communicate to our minds. At first this communication is hard to tune into. With more experience, the physical signals become easier to understand. As yogis, we learn to drop our vision of how a pose should look aesthetically. Our ego is more gently ignored so we can learn to move with wisdom.

Many injuries are caused because we believe in the myth, “no pain no gain.” How else can a body communicate with the mind other than to send impulses that indicate pain? Where is the logic in pushing through pain? Sensation is natural and fine to push through, but sharp or shooting pain means stop or back off. Once again, the breath utilized in a yoga flow, is the vehicle for communication between the body and the mind.

Breath is also a vital component of stamina, and perseverance. The founder of Spartan races, Joe De Sena, believes wholeheartedly in hot yoga. Endurance athletes are encouraged to practice hot yoga to strengthen their mental focus and to help eliminate distractions. Spartan races are all about endurance and mind over matter. Of course, beyond the mental challenge of Spartan races is the pure physical barriers that are being overcome. The need for flexibility, strength, and integration of the stabilizing muscles, is paramount to completing a Spartan race. These races give the athletes a chance to test their physical and mental capacities. Training is as important for these athletes as it is for highly paid professional athletes (such as in football, basketball, hockey, baseball, and soccer) to preserve top physical condition and to prevent injury. Hot yoga gives every athlete, professional or amateur, the competitive edge.

So join athletes like LeBron James (a certified yoga instructor), Tom Brady, or get your team to gain the competitive edge like the NY Giants and the DC United Soccer team, and add yoga to your training routine. If you have young athletes in your family, who belong to a high school or collegiate team, introduce them to hot yoga and meditation to stay healthy and reach their peak performance level. With all of this mounting evidence, it is clear that yoga and athletics are a harmonious union. Stay healthy, strong, and focused. You and your family are worth the investment. Namaste!

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