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5 Yoga Poses That Every Athlete Should Be Doing

“If you are looking for something to support and enhance your athletic endeavors, then yoga might just be your ticket,” says Josh Kramer, Alo Moves instructor and international yoga teacher. Simply put, incorportaing yoga poses into your routine can make you a better athlete. When we talk about yoga poses for athletes, think of these moves as invaluable tools that work on strength, balance, flexibility, agility, injury prevention and more.

Reaching far beyond stretching, “the benefits of yoga for athletes are manifold,” says Kramer, and he’s narrowed the ancient practice down to three important tenants: Flexibility, strength, and breath—all of which help build a better athlete.

With great detail, Kramer covers several yoga poses for athletes and techniques that when practiced regularly, can boost athletic performance, aid in recovery, and, hopefully, allow you to become a better athlete.

Yoga instructor demonstrating his flexibility as an athlete

How These 5 Yoga Poses for Athletes Will Help Improve Flexibility

Numerous yoga poses are designed to stretch and lengthen various muscles in a variety of ways. “Longer passive stretches and short dynamic movements, as well as a range of complex positions, place the body in contorted positions while stretching.” Kramer points out this is more likely to prepare your body for the range of movements it will encounter in athletic sports as opposed to the type of “touch your toes” stretching you were taught in gym class.

How Yoga Builds Strength

Beyond stretching, Kramer illustrates many yoga poses for athletes and other movements require you to hold your bodyweight on one limb, while at the same time stretching other areas. On top of that, those postures are held for long periods and repeated many times in a session, resulting in getting stronger.

“Moves that look as simple as a downward-facing dog will have most athletes dripping in sweat by the end of class” and when held for longer periods, yoga postures train the muscles isometrically. “This is when a particular muscle or muscle group contracts under tension but does not change length and is a proven method to build muscle strength and stamina and is applicable across almost all facets of sports.”

How These Yoga Poses for Athletes Allow You to Gain Control Over Breath and Headspace

“If you play competitive sports, you will understand the importance of having control over your headspace and breath,” says Kramer, and explains the entire practice of yoga is concerned with stilling outward thoughts that distract the mind and consciousness. “It does so through controlling the breath using various techniques called “pranayama.” We all know how the body and mind affect your breathing. “Think of when you are anxious, your breath shortens; when you are relaxed, your breath naturally slows.” When it comes to yoga poses for athletes, learning how to control your breath allows you to gain control over your mind in intense situations, competitive sports, and athletic pursuits.

5 Yoga Moves That Build Athletic Performance

1. Sun Salutation

Yoga instructor performing a sun salutation yoga move

About it: A sun salutation is a series of yoga postures tied together in a sequence. Think of this as the “warmup” of yoga. It focuses your breath and gets your body primed for movement.

How to:

  1. Begin in the Mountain Pose (Tadasana). Bring your feet together, and your hands by your side. Keep your fingers together and your palms facing your thighs. Lift your chest while lengthening your spine.
  2. Inhale, reach your hands up and try to keep your palms together. Look up.
  3. Exhale, fold forward, coming into a forward fold position (Uttanasana). Try to keep your legs straight if your hamstrings allow it.
  4. Rest your hands on the ground (or on either your fingertips or yoga blocks if you have them).
  5. Inhale as you lift your head up. Look forward; try to make a flat back.
  6. Exhale step or jump back to the bottom of the pushup (Chaturanga Dandasana). Lower onto your knees if you need to.
  7. Inhale as you go into upward-facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana). Lift your chest, and pull your hips forward.
  8. Exhale, lift your hips up and back and come into a downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Take five slow breaths here.
  9. Look forward. Step or jump to the top of your mat. Inhale, lift your head up; flat back.
  10. Exhale forward fold, uttanasana again.
  11. Inhale, reach your hands up, and touch your palms together. Look up.
  12. Exhale, bring your hands by your side (Mountain Pose, Tadasana).NOTE: Sun salutations can be repeated for as many rounds as you like, but a typical number is between three to five rounds during a one-hour yoga session.

2. Handstand

Yoga instructor performing handstand

About it: In yoga, handstands are an advanced pose and have a host of benefits. Holding a perfectly straight handstand requires a high level of strength, flexibility, balance, mental focus, and total body control. Although this is an advanced posture that will take years to master, the process of learning it will greatly enhance your body control and that is a valuable asset to take into your athletic endeavors.

How to:

  1. Set your mat up against a solid wall (preferably with nothing breakable nearby).
  2. Place your hands on the mat about one to two feet away from the wall.
  3. Spread your fingers, with have your index fingers facing forward.
  4. Push through your shoulders and straighten your elbows.
  5. Look roughly between your hands. (With this solid base, it is time to practice kicking up).
  6. Step one foot forward slightly (like a shallow lunge). This is the “launching” leg that does all the heavy work. It is like a loaded spring.
  7. Lift the other leg off the ground and point your toes – keep the leg straight and locked out all the time.
  8. Bend into your “spring” leg and launch the back leg toward the wall. (Instead of visualizing your back leg moving upward, try to imagine sending your hips toward the wall).
  9. Keep practicing this kicking technique until you feel confident kicking up to the wall.
  10. Once you feel confident kicking up lightly to the wall, you may then begin practicing holding a handstand against the wall for longer periods.

3. Backbends (Wheel Pose)

yoga instructor performing a backbend wheel pose on the beach

About it: Most of our daily movement patterns involve forward bending (not backward bending), where the spine moves into flexion. Backbends train your spine to move into higher degrees of extension.

How to:

  1. Start by laying on your back.
  2. Bend your knees and plant your feet on the mat.
  3. Keep your feet roughly hips distance apart. Your feet should be parallel, but it is completely fine if they turn out naturally.
  4. Bring your feet toward your hips. If you reach your hands toward your heels, you should just be able to reach them (the closer your heels are to your hips, the more intense the backbend will be).
  5. Bring your hands behind your shoulders.
  6. Press your palms onto the mat and face your fingers toward your shoulders. If you are new to backbends or struggle with spinal extension, then it is normal for your wrists to feel uncomfortable as they will require a higher degree of extension.
  7. If you feel confident, press strongly into your hands and push yourself into wheel pose. Try to straighten your arms fully if you can. Push into your feet as if you want to straighten your legs. Push into your shoulders. Look toward your hands.
  8. Hold this for three to five breaths, and then gently lower down. You may repeat anywhere from three to ten rounds.

4. Headstand

Yoga instructor performing a headstand on the cliff of a mountain outlook
Oleg Breslavtsev

About This Move: According to Kramer, the headstand is known as the “king of yoga postures.” It is an advanced pose that is held anywhere from one minute up to 20 minutes at a time.

Safety First: If you have never done a headstand before, Kramer advises you not to try it by yourself and seek guidance from an experienced teacher. Perform this move by a solid wall and moving any props or water bottles out of the way to avoid falling on them.

How to:

  1. Interlace your fingers, rest them on your mat, and have your elbows about shoulder-width distance apart.
  2. Come to a kneeling position and place the crown of your head on the mat with your cupped palms resting against the back of your head.
  3. Tuck your toes and lift your hips into a “downward facing dog” shape.
  4. Walk your feet closer and closer to your face and send your hips forward.
  5. Eventually, when your hips are stacked over your shoulders, you will feel a sense of lightness. ( Initially, you can use momentum but work toward tucking both feet up into a “tuck” headstand.
  6. If you feel stable, you may straighten your legs and reach your feet toward the ceiling.
  7. Try to keep a straight line. ( If you are new to headstand, you may keep as much weight on the forearms to keep pressure off of your head. For advanced practitioners, you may work up to almost all of the weight being on the head itself. If your alignment is good, then it will not feel uncomfortable).
  8. Initially just hold it for a short period and come out with control. Once you build confidence, you may work up to holding it for one to three minutes.
  9. Always rest in child’s pose after completing the headstand.

5. Nadi Sodhana Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing)

Yogi performing the yoga breathing exercise Nadi Sodhana Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing)

About it: Nadi Sodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, is a yogic breathwork technique designed to calm and focus your mind and nervous system.

How to:

  1. To begin a cycle of Nadi Sodhana, find a comfortable seat with cross legs or kneeling.
  2. Use the thumb and ring finger of your right hand to gently rest on each nostril ready to block them when needed. Inhale through both nostrils, then block the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right. (This is where the cycle of Nadi Sodhana begins)
  3. Inhale through your right nostril for around a count of five and pause at the top.
  4. Release the left nostril and block the right, then exhale through the left nostril and pause at the bottom.
  5. Inhale through the left nostril and pause at the top.
  6. Release the right nostril and block the left, then exhale through the right nostril.
  7. This completes one cycle.
  8. Repeat for five rounds.

In Closing: These postures and techniques shared by Kramer are just a glimpse into the world of yoga. “Some of them are easy to implement and others take years of practice to master,” he explains. “However, the great thing about yoga is that it adapts to your needs regardless of your level or ability.”

As you may know, yoga classes vary from one to another and there are many different styles, methods, and teachers. Kramer’s advice is to try a range of yoga classes until you find something that resonates with you individually.

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