The Power of Yoga
Learn about professional athletes’ secret to strength and stability
Allegra Burton, MPH, RD
Santa Monica, CA
- Yoga originated thousands of years ago in India.
- The word “yoga,” derived from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit, means “union.”
- According to a 2008 “Yoga in America” study, nearly 16 million Americans do yoga.
- Professional athletes including hoops stars Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James, Cleveland Browns running back Will Green, and Tennis pros Pete Sampras and Maria Sharapova make yoga a regular part of their fitness regimens.
- Shaq’s 7’1” 325-pound frame requires two yoga mats!
- Madonna, Meg Ryan and Jennifer Aniston all make time in their busy schedules for yoga and swear by it.
Yoga can do more for you than you may think. Yoga can help you gain strength, fitness and flexibility – all of which can help you prevent and recover from injuries. Yoga also improves breathing and concentration and is a terrific form of non-impact cross training. In addition to all of those physical benefits, maintaining a yoga practice can help you feel grounded and better able to deal with the stresses of daily life.
Cross Train with Yoga
While running, cycling, swimming, skiing, basketball, and other sports may increase your aerobic fitness, they generally do the opposite for your flexibility. That’s where yoga comes in. Practicing yoga can make you more limber and flexible and improve balance and concentration – all of which can help prevent injury. Many injuries result from muscle imbalances – and muscle imbalances can be a result of focusing exclusively on one sport or activity. The repetitive motion of an activity like running or cycling can shorten and tighten muscles and lead to chronic pain and injury. Any sport-specific fitness conditioning can lead to a structurally out of shape and excessively tight body. Practicing yoga offers you an opportunity to engage in opposing movements that increase your range of motion and elongate and loosen the muscles tightened by sports-specific activity.
Yoga can not only improve flexibility and range of motion but it also a great way to strengthen your core and improve balance. And yoga can help with focus, concentration and breathing – all vital to any sport. Yoga incorporates and exercises all body parts – right and left, head to toe and helps you develop proper alignment. Yoga also teaches you mindfulness because it requires focus and attention on body sensations, thoughts and emotional shifts. These mental benefits complement the physical improvements you will see by incorporating yoga into your active lifestyle.
Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga…Oh My!
New to yoga? Here’s a taste of some of the more popular styles and types of yoga available:
Hatha is a general term that encompasses a number of different styles of yoga. The classes teach yoga postures and breathing techniques. Teachers generally blend different styles and techniques within a single class.
Vinyasa is also a general term that encompasses a number of different styles. Vinyasa means breath-synchronized movement and the classes tend to be more vigorous as movement – or flow – is linked to breath. Vinyasa classes combine dynamic movement flowing through a number of different poses starting with Sun Salutations to warm the body and concluding with deep stretching exercises.
Ashtanga, which means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit, is a fast-paced, intense style of yoga. During an Ashtanga class you go through a set series of poses, always in the same order, one breath for each movement. Ashtanga is physically demanding because of the rapid movement from one pose to the next. Ashtanga helps to build strength, flexibility, and stamina.
Iyengar teaches classic yoga postures through a deep awareness of correct alignment and precise actions. Props such as straps and blocks are often used in these classes to help bring the body into proper alignment and poses are held for a longer period of time.
Bikram (Hot Yoga):
Started by Bikram Choudhury, Bikram is practiced in a 95 to 100 degree room to promote loosening of muscles and profuse sweating, thought to help cleanse and detoxify the body. These classes generally begin and end with breathing exercises and follow a set series of 26 postures. Be prepared to sweat and bring a towel!
Restorative yoga is a therapeutic, gentle form of yoga that uses props to support the body to deepen the benefits of the poses. Restorative yoga is soothing and nurturing and promotes the effects of conscious relaxation. Restorative yoga is often referred to as active relaxation.
Note: Yoga class levels generally range from 1 to 3 or 4, with level 1 classes geared towards beginners and level 2/3 and 3/4 classes geared towards more advanced, physically fit students.
What to Know Before You Go:
First and foremost, it is important to try a couple of different styles of yoga as well as a variety of teachers to really get a good feel for yoga. You will find that while there are some common threads among all classes, every teacher is different – for instance, some teachers play traditional Indian music, some play rock music, and some don’t play any music at all. Some teachers focus quite a bit on spiritual aspects of the practice and some focus more on the specifics of alignment, some classes move fairly quickly from pose to pose and some have you hold poses for longer periods of time.
If you’re brand new to yoga, consider trying a level 1/2 Hatha class to get some grounding in the basic poses. If you’re looking for an intense workout, try a level 2/3 or 3/4 Vinyasa flow, power yoga or Ashtanga class. Want to refine your poses and technique? Try an Iyengar class. Want to leave class dripping with sweat? Try Bikram. And if you’re looking for some relaxation and a place to get grounded, find yourself a nearby restorative yoga class.
How to Find a Class:
There are a number of great websites that can help you find a yoga class no matter where you are, from Santa Monica, CA to Milan, Italy to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and everywhere in between:
There are even iPhone and iPod touch apps that help you find yoga classes when you’re on the go:
So clear some time in your schedule, put on some lightweight, comfortable clothes and grab a yoga mat – your next yoga class awaits you. Your body will thank you.