“What advice/suggestions do you have for athletes looking to gain strength and fitness, as well as flexibility and suppleness?”
The reasons people come to yoga are as varied as the people practicing. One beautiful thing about yoga is that the benefits of the practice are available to all, no matter what brought them to the mat.
Flexibility is the ability of a joint to move through its range of motion freely. Whereas strength is the ability of a muscle to carry out a movement with resistance. These two qualities, flexibility and strength, are opposite functions in the body. When we improve one we need to build the other. A balance of the two is crucial.
In a study published in the International Journal of Yoga, 26 college athletes were put into two groups, one added yoga twice per week to their fitness regimen and the other did not. Athletes were evaluated on several flexibility and fitness criteria both at the beginning and end of the study. “Significant gains were observed in the YG [yoga group] for flexibility and balance. No significant differences were observed in the NYG [non-yoga group] for flexibility and balance.” [Int. J. Yoga, 2016 Jan-Jun]
Most yoga asana practices work toward improved flexibility. Some styles of yoga focus on strength, while others prioritize breath work, movement of energy, or relaxation.
One particular style of yoga that focuses on strength, fitness, and flexibility is the Ashtanga Series. Ashtanga is set sequence of postures that is practiced in the same order each time. Primary Series is the first set focusing on opening through the backside of the body (hamstrings, psoas, etc.). With several sun salutes to warm up the body, arm balances, and Chaturangas throughout, this series is outstanding for building upper body strength. This practice incorporates breathing and builds heat in the body.
Another great practice for athletes is Yin yoga. This style of yoga is characterized by long holds and using several “props” or tools to support the body in each pose. Yin is an excellent complement to any cardiovascular or high intensity exercise as it brings the body into stillness while improving joint mobility and overall flexibility.
Whatever style of yoga you choose, consistency is key. Regular practice is the best way to see steady results or improvements. Make time on your mat a priority and your body will thank you.