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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Thoughts on Yoga

In our modern era in which training “advances” fizzle out within a few years, yoga has demonstrated outstanding longevity.  Yoga offers many benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike when practiced appropriately.  With an increasing number of physical maladies resulting directly from stress, yoga is a valuable tool for relaxation.  Likewise, dysfunctional breathing is increasingly common in the modern athlete.  Yoga instructors are often capable teachers of proper breathing mechanics.  Yoga has also given the world many valuable poses to improve quality movement outside formal yoga practice.   

….Then What Could Possibly be Wrong?

Yoga practice by the modern athlete is likely far different from its original forms.  It is premature to critique anything without first asking the questions “what is this tool being used for” and “how is it being used”.  The most severe deficiency in modern yoga has nothing to do with yoga itself, but instead its delivery.  The overall delivery of yoga in the United States can be horrific, to put it mildly.  Yoga classes in commercial gyms can be a bastardization of quality yoga practice.  There is virtually zero individual assessment for the students in this environment.  Likewise, although wildly popular in the marketplace, DVD’s offer little more than a demonstration of poses and with zero regard for whether that particular routine and those particular poses are appropriate for the individual doing them.

One size fits none

Even yoga instruction in a serious studio can lead an athlete astray if the focus is entirely on learning yoga poses without consideration of the athlete’s overall needs.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a yoga instructor only coaching yoga, just as there is nothing wrong a football coach only coaching football.  However, each individual must decide where yoga practice fits into their overall training regime or find someone knowledgeable to make that decision for them.  There’s no right or wrong answer, but how one prioritizes their goals will determine the appropriateness of the training. 

For example, extreme mobility may be tolerable if yoga is the priority.  Nevertheless, if the athlete has goals outside yoga, parts of yoga practice may be incompatible with the sport’s demands.  In that respect, yoga is no different than any supplementary training.  Just because yoga is seen as more therapeutic than lifting heavy weights doesn’t mean it is free of peril.  Ultimately, we come back to the need for individualized assessment and program design.  Even if 99% of one’s yoga practice is appropriate, the 1% that is inappropriate can create 100% of the problems, whether those relate to health or poor performance. 

The modern yoga practitioner also lives a far different lifestyle than the early practitioners.  We have good evidence that the early yogis had stability in locomotion to match their extreme mobility by the mere fact they were alive!  Foraging for nourishment, avoiding physical threats, and navigating rugged terrain demanded a level of stability that can’t be assumed in the lifestyle of the modern human who relies on automobiles, shoes, and other corrective tools.  If you have lots of mobility you must earn the right to use it by developing a level of stability to match.

Summary

Always remember that for athletes, yoga is nothing more than a tool just like weightlifting, manual therapy, or even surgery.  Brain surgery is a great thing to solve many problems, but it probably isn’t appropriate for a regular headache.  Before cutting someone’s head open, the surgeon has a system to determine whether the procedure is appropriate.  Likewise, coaches and athletes must develop their own systems to determine how to utilize yoga most effectively context of their goals.  Simply going to yoga class and hoping that quality movement will thereby emerge leaves too much to chance. 

As an example of how yoga can fit within a broader system of training, Dr. Jeff Cubos organized yoga poses according to their corrective value for Functional Movement Screen deficiencies in a blog post entitled FMS Yoga Solutions.  What matters is not whether one uses the FMS, but instead whether yoga poses are assigned according to individual movement needs.  Choosing a pose merely because it stretches that which feels tight is not a sufficient justification in itself.   

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