First described in Vedic texts around 2500 BC, yoga was developed by Eastern traditions to achieve the physical health and relaxation required for the rigors of spiritual work and introspection. In the late 1940s, yoga was established in the Western world by travelers who witnessed the physical and mental benefits of the practice. Common Western yoga practices (Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, and Vinyasa) all come from the Hatha yoga tradition, which focuses on pranayama (breath-control), asanas (postures), and chandi (meditation) and emphasizes physical fitness.
As yoga grew in popularity in the West, athletes began to recognize the practice for its emphasis on gentle strengthening, balance, flexibility, and relaxation. Today, it’s not uncommon to hear professional football, basketball, and baseball players talk about how yoga has changed their game. In Hawaii, professional watermen and women actively promote yoga for its impact on their athletic performance. Maui resident Roque Calderon, three-time Nicaraguan national champion, Nicaraguan big wave champion, and Peahi (Jaws) surfer feels yoga is essential to his success on the water. He practices yoga four times a week and has seen great gains in his mental and physical performance since beginning.
“Yoga is a part of my life,” says Calderon. “It gives me a positive vibe for the day. It helps me relax my body, which is very important as a surfer. My balance on my board is better, especially when I land or air. As an athlete it helps me push my limits in the water. Every athlete should do yoga. It improves performance and lifestyle.”
If you are an athlete you probably have friends who have told you to try yoga. But trying to balance a full-time job, family, and a training regimen that keeps you competitive is a lot to ask. Is there any validity to the claims that you should add yoga to your busy schedule? Here are four reasons supported by scientific research to consider making yoga a regular part of your life.
Improved Respiratory Capacity and Cardiopulmonary Efficiency:
Regular yoga practice has been shown to strengthen the muscles involved in respiration, to increase lung capacity, and to increase overall pulmonary function. The asanas practiced in Hatha yoga traditions help to increase flexibility in the shoulders, rib cage, and back, allowing greater expansion of the chest cavity. Additionally, during pranayama, yogis are taught to breathe from the abdomen rather than the chest, which allows a greater amount of air into the lungs. One study on healthy college-aged females showed gains in VO2 max after just eight weeks of yoga practice. Another showed that regular deep breathing during strenuous asanas teaches conscious breath control under physical stress.
The pranayama and chandi techniques learned during yoga practice also increase activity in the sympathetic nervous system. This lowers breathing rate, blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. Studies consistently show a decrease in resting heart rate with regular yoga practice. Regular yoga practitioners are also better able to voluntarily control their heart rate than those who do not practice yoga.
Improved Agility and Flexibility:
The asanas practiced in Hatha yoga were developed with the intention of lengthening muscles and tendons and increasing flexibility in the spine to prepare the body for long hours of stillness while seated in meditation. The postures increase range of motion and agility, and help relieve muscle tension and soreness. They are especially helpful in preventing injuries, particularly for explosive sports such as those involving sprinting or jumping. Yoga postures require concentration, and thus force athletes to learn how their bodies move, where they are flexible, and where they hold tension. This information is extremely valuable in recognizing minor symptoms before they turn into major challenges that inhibit performance. Gains in agility and flexibility also lead to faster reaction times. Athletes who practice yoga consistently exhibit faster reaction times than those who do not.
Balance requires coordination between the somatosensory system and vestibular system. Because many asanas in Hatha yoga are practiced with the eyes closed, the somatosensory and vestibular systems must work together to reconcile conflicting information. This conflict trains the brain and muscles to maintain upright balance in novel situations.
Motor control and stability of the core are also essential for balance and initiating functional limb movements. It is well known that a strong core improves athletic performance, increases reaction time, and prevents injury. Many studies of Hatha yoga practice have shown that core and postural control can be improved with regular practice. A recent study of collegiate male athletes showed significant increases in balance and core control after just three months of regular yoga practice.
Improved Focus and Mood:
The physiological benefits of meditation are now well known to Western scientific and medical research. Many people consider yoga a form of meditation. Hatha yoga practice ends with the corpse pose (shavasana), a ten-minute pose in which the yogi lies prone on the floor and is given instruction in mindful meditation. When yogis are attached to an EEG, researchers can measure increases in alpha, beta, and theta brain waves. These increases are associated with improvements in cognition, short and long-term memory, prevalence of good mood, and anxiety reduction. In one study, just five minutes of kapalabhati, a breathing technique that involves a forceful exhalation and high-frequency breathing, showed increases in alpha- and beta- brain waves. This increase was also associated with improved ability to sustain attention on a task and perform well when switching from task to task.
Hatha yoga has also been shown to increase the density of grey matter in the insular cortex, a region of the brain associated with perception of pain. Regular, long-term yoga practitioners showed higher heat tolerance and increased pain thresholds, which can be valuable for athletes struggling through a demanding workout. Blood cortisol levels, a hormone released during stress, is also significantly lower in yoga practitioners. Reduced cortisol is associated with clear, calm decision making and an overall feeling of well-being. This can help support athletes in staying calm through the pressures of competition.
Megan Edgar is an alpine skier, mountain biker, backpacker, and outrigger paddler. She maintains a regular yoga practice because it allows her to perform better in her favorite athletic endeavors. Megan lives on Maui where she teaches science, dances her butt off in group cycle classes, and spends her free time reading and gazing at the stars.