Many in the western world see the physical practice of body movement or asana as the whole of yoga. However, this is only a small component of what yoga practice entails but is what I will focus on in this post.
Asanas are body positions held for a period of time, usually a couple of breaths, while focusing on muscle action and specific joint alignment. The aim of asana practice is to reach a physical boundary in each pose, resulting in increased body awareness, muscle flexibility, strength and balance.
Asana practice when working within each individual’s limits, should not cause pain or injury. Anyone, from those with chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis to elite athletes would benefit from a regular yoga practice; it just has to be specific to their needs. The challenge for athletes being their competitive nature, the internal ‘if they can do it, so can I’ just doesn’t work. Yoga is individual, every body has different strength and flexibility limits, whether those limits are due to illness or high performance. The fit individual may feel unchallenged cardiovascularly (it’s not meant to be a hard workout though it certainly can be) and perhaps in a busy class environment they may not get enough individual instruction to truly feel stretched. Those involved in particular sports can have specific muscle related imbalances which in a general yoga class may not be targeted for the athlete to feel that their yoga practice has benefited their sporting performance. For example, runners can have tight quads and weak hamstrings; rugby players get very stiff around their hips and trunk; one-armed sports like tennis or golf can result in an imbalance in trunk rotation, shoulder strength and range of movement; swimmers can develop tight shoulders. A skilled yoga practitioner can build sequences to suit the individual athlete needs and their sport. It’s only engineering that with an increased lever length (joint range of movement) and better force generating capacity (strength), there is potential to improve speed and therefore performance.
In addition to potentially improve performance, regular asana practice can facilitate recovery and minimize injuries. Injuries are generally caused by weak or fatiguing muscles being asked to perform increasingly levels of work. Regular asana practice promotes biofeedback, listening to the body and how it feels, with this increased body awareness can aid early identification of those little niggles that can develop, balance synergistic muscle groups and build strength around joints.
Other components of yoga which can improve performance, I will go into at a later date include awareness of breath and mental clarity /focus.