Just a few years ago, fitness enthusiasts had few options if they wanted to try out a yoga class. Today, yoga is a mainstay on the program schedules of most health clubs, personal training studios, YMCAs and corporate fitness centers. Unlike many other forms of training, the practice of yoga unfolds over time to reveal many layers of physical benefits and personal revelations. Now, more and more people are discovering the myriad ways that yoga can be used to improve athletic performance--from increasing mental concentration and improving flexibility and balance to preventing common injuries and honing skills in a particular sport. Whether by creating an entire training program for elite athletes or by simply integrating a few yoga poses into an existing group fitness class, fitness professionals at all levels can use yoga as an effective cross-training tool for their own athlete clients.
The practice of yoga was first developed in India and has evolved over thousands of years. Yoga disciples use poses, or asanas, to prepare their bodies for meditation practice--much as an athlete would prepare for a sports competition. The poses also serve as a means to alter one's consciousness and mental focus in the spiritual quest for "enlightenment." This spiritually transformative process is, in fact, the overriding purpose of the practice of hatha yoga. In essence, yoga is designed to bring body, mind and spirit into balance.
Through the practice of yoga, elite athletes and weekend warriors alike can benefit from this type of balance. This is especially true when athletes have pushed their bodies to the max, resulting in weakness or injury. Yoga can restore a weakened body and build it back up. Yoga postures, breath work and inner focus can help rebalance, strengthen and restore overtaxed muscles, joints and ligaments. Through this restoration process, athletes can increase their career longevity and develop an inner balance that will last a lifetime. Balancing the mind, body and spirit is a primary philosophical principle of yoga. It is considered the true way to honor the body.
Athletes in all sports are finding that yogic conditioning not only elongates tight, shortened, fatigued muscles but also brings calmness and clarity to the mind. Some athletes begin the practice to rehabilitate an injury and to gain more flexibility, stability and strength. Others take it up to increase their powers of concentration and quiet the mind. And some do it because they don't want to miss out on what everybody else is raving about! The reasons are many, but the results are consistent.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Yoga is composed of many layers, all of which can enhance athletic performance. These layers are referred to as the eight-fold disciplines, or the eight "limbs" of yoga. These eight limbs form the main principles of yoga, as follows:
Yama refers to universal ethics.
Niyama refers to personal ethics.
Asana refers to posture.
Pranayama refers to breath.
Pratyahara refers to withdrawal or quieting of the senses.
Dharana refers to inner focus or...