Benefits of Yoga For Gymnasts

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History of Yoga

Photo: imholistichealth.org

Yuj, a Sanskrit root word, means  “to yoke,” “to unite,” “to add” or “to join”.  Yuj is the origin of the word Yoga.

Yoga is a spiritual, physical, and mental practice that is believed to have been started by an Indian sage named Patanjali over 2,000 years ago.  It is believed that he wrote the Yoga Sutra, which is a collection of 195 philosophical statements that act as a guidebook for the yoga that is currently practiced.

There are 8 branches of Yoga:

  • yamas (restraints)
  • niyamas (obsevances)
  • asana (postures)
  • pranayama (breathing)
  • pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
  • dharana (concentration)
  • dhyani (meditation)
  • samadhi (absorption)

“Today most people practicing yoga are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation.” states yogajournal.com.

Stretching vs. Yoga

Stretching is the process of taking a body part and placing it into a position so that the muscles and soft tissue lengthens or elongates.

With yoga, you are not only placing your body into a particular position to stretch, you are also connecting the movement of your body with the ebb and flow our your mind to the rhythm of your breathing.  Essentially making your mind more aware of all the small nuances of your body.

Benefits

1.  Flexibility

The International Journal of Yoga did a study (Impact of 10-Weeks of Yoga Practice on Flexibility and Balance of College Athletes) and found, “Results suggest that a regular yoga practice may increase the flexibility and balance as well as whole body measures of male college athletes and therefore, may enhance athletic performances that require these characteristics.”

Yoga improves joint and muscular flexibility allowing for a greater range of motion.  The more an athlete works their flexibility, the less likely they are to incur an overuse injury, according to Sharma.

2. Focus

According to muscleandfitness.com, “One of the biggest benefits of yoga is its emphasis on the connection between body and mind.  Whether through meditation, or through the holding a headstand for an extended period of time, your mental toughness and focus are likely to improve.”

Intently following the verbal cues of the yoga instructor assists in the development of the neurological pathways between the brain and muscles.  Building these connections develops body awareness that can assist with proper technique and injury prevention.

3. Injury Prevention

In a research study titled “Benefits of Yoga in Sports –A Study” for the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health, Luxmi Sharma writes,

If you are a competitive athlete, it is best to tailor your yoga practice to your training schedule because a particular sport can develop certain muscle groups while ignoring others.  Over time, this process causes imbalances in the muscles and joints, leading to overuse injuries.  Yoga helps the muscles, tendons, and ligaments move through a full range of motion, thus cultivating balance and core strength which is a huge benefit to athletes in their chosen sports.

In Sharma’s study, it was found that yoga worked muscles under-utilized in a particular sport.  Through yoga, these under-utilized muscles were strengthened thus developing core body stability resulting in less over use injuries.

Adria Tomlinson, Head Compulsory Coach & Asst. Optional Coach at Vegas Valley Gymnastics, states that she has found that through yoga her athletes have fewer hip flexor and back issues and that athletes now ask for specific yoga poses to help with sore muscles.

Terri Bender Morrison, yoga instructor and owner of Mindful Motion Yoga, agrees; “Yoga reduces injury by balancing the body.  Over training one area of the body creates imbalances that can be identified through yoga.  Once identified, they can be addressed preventing injury.”

4. Balance

Through the practice of yoga, an individual can improve balance and coordination.  This improvement can further develop muscle awareness helping to improve an athlete’s technique and form.

Many yoga positions require wide stances, single leg balances, arm stands, and other poses that require centering one’s self and maintaining control over their bodies while holding these positions for any length of time.  This directly benefits many gymnastics skills especially those performed on balance beam.

“Every day, we use at least a few hip openers and balancing postures throughout warm up.  For beam, particularly we use some balancing and breathing techniques.” states Tomlinson.

5. Breathing

Learning to properly breath through yoga , better air intake and complete exhalation, can bring much needed oxygen to muscles which allows them to better stretch and repair after heavy workouts.

Sharma goes on to state:

Another essential element in yoga is breath work (pranayama).  The attention to breath during yoga can be considered one of the most important benefits to athletes.  Learning to stay focused and [centered] through uncomfortable poses by concentrating on even inhalations and exhalations sets up the athlete to stay focused during a race or challenging workout.  The mind-body connection in yoga is essential to helping athletes develop mental acuity and concentration. In addition, yoga helps you to relax not just tight muscles, but also anxious and overstressed minds.

6. Mindfulness

During workouts and/or competitions, yoga can help to calm and focus an over active mind and emotions.

In an article by Fallon R. Goodman, Todd B. Kashdan, Travis T. Mallard, and Mary Schumann called “A Brief Mindfulness and Yoga Intervention With an Entire NCAA Division I Athletic Team: An Initial Investigation”  they write that there have been several studies that show the physical and psychological benefits of yoga.

This includes decreased stress and fatigue, more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, increased satisfaction with life,  reductions in levels of depression and anxiety, effective at increasing mindfulness and well being, and reducing perceived stress and anxiety.

“A mindful yoga practice trains the mind to be aware of the body, many competitive sports train the mind to ignore the signals from the body until the body fails.  Through awareness,  appropriate, conscious actions can be made.” states Morrison.

Tomlinson agrees, “We feel passionately that the mind body connection yoga provides improves safety for our gymnasts overall.”

7. Meditation

Sharma lists 6 benefits of meditation through yoga;

  1. Reduce anxiety and stress
  2. Reduce cortical levels and increase calming hormones
  3. Improve cognitive function
  4. Reduce blood pressure and heart rate
  5. Increase immune function
  6. These benefits combine to allow for better rest, sleep and
    recovery, as well as provide the ability to think more
    clearly under pressure.

Through meditation, an athlete can become more aware of what the body is “saying” and can also react in an appropriate manor when something does not goes as planned in a situation or when performing a skill.

Morrison explains that as a result of meditation, when something goes wrong when executing a skill, the mind can remain stable and calm allowing the “self” to adjust the outcome of the situation to the best benefit of the athlete.  She goes on to say, “Decisions/actions made in the moment of panic are rarely optimal.  Mindful Yoga teaches the skills to create a tiny gap for proper action.”

Statistics

In a 2016 survey conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance they found that:

  • Over three quarters of practitioners [of yoga] also engage in exercise including running, group sports, weight lifting and cycling.
  • 80% of practitioners [of yoga] self-report they have good balance compared to 64% of non-practitioners.
  • 75% of practitioners [of yoga] self-report being physically strong compared to 57% of non-practitioners.
  • 86% of practitioners [of yoga] report having a strong sense of mental clarity compared to 77% of non-practitioners.

NOTE: This article is only meant to give reader a basic foundation regarding the benefits of Yoga and it should be used for informational purposes only.  By no means is this to dictate your athlete’s training plan, injury rehabilitation, or injury prevention plan. For more detailed information or assistance with your athlete’s training plan, injury rehabilitation, or injury prevention plan, contact your athlete’s coach and/or pediatrician/physician.

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Source: kheljournal.com, apa.org, yogaalliance.org, yogapedia.com, stretchcoach.com, yogajournal.com, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, muscleandfitness.com, Terri Bender Morrison, Adria Tomlinson

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