Learn how yoga can improve athletic performance with simple stretches!
A few years ago, while training for a tennis tournament in the Caribbean, I asked some of my male friends to hit with me before my match. Prior to getting on the tennis court, I did some side stretching and yoga poses that I knew worked best for my body. As I often say in my yoga classes: I am the President of the Tight Hamstring Club. Those suckers are always screaming at me! I have learned after all these years as an athlete and yoga teacher that stretching is essential.
In the meantime, my tennis buddies were assessing their racquets, strings, and grips. They then proceeded to take out a plethora of ace bandages, kineseo tape, and soft elbow supports. As I continued into a low lunge stretch I couldn’t help but smile as I watched them spend the next 15 minutes taping and supporting their muscles from old injuries and anticipating new ones. Curious at this point, I couldn’t help but ask, “Are you guys going to stretch before getting on the court?” “Oh no,” they replied succinctly. “We don’t have time to stretch.” As I pranced my injury-free body to my side of the court, I watched my fellow tennis mates limp and hobble over to their positions. Now, these guys were all in the early 40s but it was like watching Night of the Living Dead.
So how can you help your body escape the multitude of ace bandages, kineseo tape, and soft braces? Yoga and stretches. Now you don’t have to be able to put your feet behind your head or do a handstand with a one-arm balance to have a significant effect on loosening those muscles. Not everyone can do a full yoga class or yoga sequence before going on to their activity of choice, but even just 5-10 minutes of stretching with some yoga poses can be of great help.
Yoga can enhance your core strength, improve balance and coordination, ward off injuries from overuse or repetitive motion, increase flexibility, improve focus and agility, and help recovery time.
I believe we have made yoga a bit too showy in the Western world. I like the simple and highly effective deeper-hold-type stretches. Here are a few of my favorites:
Standing poses build strength in ankles and increases flexibility in hips and hamstrings.
Forward bends help stretch hamstrings, increase body awareness, calm the nervous system and improve stabilization.
Backbends help create expansion in the lungs for better respiration, digestion, and elimination
Twists improve the health of the spine, shoulder openings, and mobility and digestion.
Low Lunge is wonderful for opening up the hip flexors and accesses many of the large muscle groups, Be sure to have your heel aligned with the knee to avoid any extra strain on the knee. You can place your hands over your head if you would like or support your hands on either side of the ground with some blocks for extra support.
The Reclined Easy Twist is great for easing back and neck tension before and after a work out. It is one of my favs for tennis. To get a deeper stretch it is always best to do this on the exhale. Don’t force your body into the twist let the breath work the movement naturally. This is wonderful for those pesky IT Bands to which are often times hard to stretch. Perfect for runners and cyclist.
As President of the Tight Hamstring club the Hamstring Stretch is one of my all time favorites. Now not everyone can reach their toes so I recommend using a strap to place around the ball mound of the foot to make it easier. The key is to let the shoulders stay on the ground and isolate the stretch for the hamstrings. Everything else should just be chilling and supporting.
This Side Angle Stretch relieves stiffness in the back and shoulders. It opens the rib cage to allow for more oxygen and better breathing and stretches the groins, knees and ankles and tones the abdominal muscles. This stretch is great for kayakers! If you cannot place your hand on the ground just use a yoga block or place hand on knee. Listen to your body, don’t push yourself. This is not a competition.
Remember to keep it simple, make it fun, and don’t be too hard on yourself. If you are very stiff, just embrace that and move slowly. Enjoy how your body feels when you open, move and awaken those muscles. This is time for you, time to breathe, and time to become aware of your physical form and mental awareness.