yoga for men

Men Turn to Hatha Yoga to Improve Athletic Performance in Team Sport

The days when yoga was regarded as “a practice for women, wimps or spiritual escapists” may be ending.

Thomas Claire, who referred to this old view of yoga in Yoga for Men (Franklin Lakes NJ: The Career Press 2004), is one of a number of writers who consider that yoga can offer many benefits to athletes engaged in other sports.

While acknowledging the modern role of women in some traditionally “macho” pursuits, sports such as American football and rugby have been dominated by men and by particular strength and skill-oriented training regimes, not including “bodywork” practices such as Pilates and yoga.

This is despite the fact that throughout much of yoga history (according to Claire), “many of its practices, particularly the physical postures of hatha yoga, were reserved exclusively for male practitioners”. (Hatha yoga emphasizes physical postures, breath control and meditation).

So why are sportsmen coming back to yoga? Here are some of the possible benefits.

1. Rehabilitation. Most commonly, football players will come to yoga after having suffered an injury. Frequently injuries occur because as muscles become more rigid, other muscles compensate and can be overused. Less seriously, teams may engage in a yoga session on a Monday after a hard game on the weekend. Some “Super 14” professional rugby teams in New Zealand have adopted this practice.

2. Flexibility, strength, alignment and balance. In the Martial Artist’s Book of Yoga, Lily Chou (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2005) observes that the range of motion of spine and hips are key to fluidity, speed and power. (Fluidity and “snappiness” are also important in boxing).

The type of strength developed in yoga teaches muscles to work equally and efficiently. The practitioner learns how to relax muscles that are not required. Alignment practice improves response times and awareness of centre of gravity. Particularly for the martial arts, balance postures support such moves as one-legged spin kicks.

3. Body and Spatial Awareness. Yoga allows the sportsperson to understand his body’s strengths and weaknesses, so that the weaknesses can be “worked on” over time. The postures also develop a sense, common in dancers and gymnasts, of where the body is in space, important knowledge on the playing field when throwing or attempting to receive a pass.

4. Mental Focus. Sportspeople, especially professionals, often play in less than optimal conditions. “Away games” can mean enduring a lot of abuse from fans of the home team. Weather conditions may not be optimal. Yoga breathing techniques, even if more formal meditation is not included, provide valuable practice in eliminating distractions and focusing on the task at hand. With focus, game-breaking decisions can be made quickly when they need to be.

The practice of yoga has the potential to offer real improvements to athletic performance. There is, however, a caution. In yoga, perhaps more than other pursuits, finding a good teacher is important, whether to provide one-on-one sessions or to teach a class. It is easy to simply go through the motions in yoga, or alternatively to over-extend or misalign the body. The breathing and focusing of the mind is also something that requires proper instruction and practice.

With a well trained teacher to provide support and inspiration, and regular practice, adding yoga to a training regime may just provide the edge that makes the difference.

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