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The Best Yoga for Athletes

With pro athletes such as basketball players Kevin Love and LeBron James, plus football stars Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, including yoga as part of their training regimen, you might wonder how you, as an athlete, can practice to get the most benefits.

Yoga is a definite asset to athletes. The International Journal of Yoga published a small study in 2015 showing that 10 weeks of yoga practice improved flexibility and balance in college athletes. Yoga offers additional benefits: It serves as cross training, improves core strength and balance, supports recovery and enhances mental focus.

Not all yoga is created equal, though. It ranges from sweaty and speedy Power classes to chill Yin practices. No one style is right for an athlete. Certainly, some styles of yoga are better than others for athletes — while avoiding some altogether might be wise. However, the type of yoga an athlete practices depends on what goal he's hoping to achieve.

A Bit About Yoga Styles

Dozens and dozens of yoga styles exist. You're smart to do some research on the types offered at the studio you plan to attend. Some of the most common varieties include:

Ashtanga: Ashtanga is a style popularized in India in the early 1900s. It flows relatively quickly and challenges you with challenging poses that require incredible strength, flexibility and focus. Ashtanga follows a set sequence and is usually predictable from class to class.

Power: An outgrowth of Ashtanga, Power yoga moves even more quickly than Ashtanga and promises to be an intense workout. Poses offered vary from teacher to teacher, but expect to do plenty of standing, balancing and arm- and core-strengthening poses.

Vinyasa: Also stemming from Ashtanga, vinyasa describes a practice that flows with the breath. It can range from a relatively quick-paced, challenging practice to one that is much more measured in its intensity.

Yin: Yin is a quieting practice that intends to open up connective tissue and quiet the mind by holding mostly seated and reclined poses for several minutes at a time.

Restorative: The main intention of Restorative yoga is to relax. You are often supported in gentle poses with props that include pillows and blankets.

Hatha: The word "Hatha" means the physical practice of yoga, but studios usually use it to describe a gentle class that includes both standing and seated postures. It's great for beginners or someone who wants a more mellow yogic experience.

Bikram: Bikram yoga is trademarked by Bikram Choudhury and practiced in a 105-degree room with at least 40 percent humidity. It follows a set sequence of 26 postures, help for up to 90 seconds at a time. Sometimes you'll see it on schedules as "Hot Yoga," when studios don't want to be subject to the strict guidelines and cost of a Bikram franchise.

Recovery vs. Strengthening

Realize that yoga isn't just a place to go "stretch out." It can be a real workout, so be clear with the goals you hope to achieve by attending.

Certain styles of yoga are more appropriate than others for an athlete. Bikram, for example, is quite intense and can lead to dehydration given the heat — something no athlete needs. It also comes with cues, such as "lock your knees," that just don't make sense when you're trying to enhance performance and maintain healthy joints.

Any of the powerful classes, specifically Ashtanga, Power or vinyasa, are valuable as cross training for an athlete who is subject to repetitive muscle patterns at most workouts. A runner, for example, might use a Power class on her easy days to add lateral movement and core strength work, which only enhances her performance on the trail or track.

If, however, you have a very demanding training schedule that includes a variety of movements — from sprinting and agility drills to heaving heavy weights — you might benefit most from a quiet Restorative practice that calms down your central nervous system. For example, a football player in training camp doesn't need to add another tough session to his day; a style of yoga that facilitates recovery, such as Yin, is more valuable.

When You Practice

An athlete must consider when to schedule yoga in his training schedule, both in the short term and long term. In an athlete's most competitive season, yoga might take a backseat and instead of going for a particular style, you might borrow a few poses to use as a warm-up or cooldown at practice or competition. A Restorative practice could also be just what you need to recover and reflect after a big game.

In the off-season, active yoga classes may be part of a comprehensive plan to correct muscle imbalances and improve mental clarity during competition. In Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, a study of short-track speed skaters published in 2015 found that yoga included as part of an eight-week high-volume, off-season training regimen correlated with fewer overuse injuries and better on-ice form. The style of yoga practiced was tailored to the athletes' postural needs.

About the Author

Andrea Cespedes has been in the fitness industry for more than 20 years. A personal trainer, run coach, group fitness instructor and master yoga teacher, she also holds certifications in holistic and fitness nutrition.

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