Want a taste of an ancient exercise that might help take your game to the next level? Try yoga, which has definite sport-specific benefits, including improved performance, increased endurance and enhanced recovery.
Unbeknownst to most athletes, the physical practice of yoga is just one aspect of the Eastern philosophical practice. In fact, the philosophy comprises eight segments, of which the yoga asanas (postures) are just one. They were actually created to help yogis stay limber enough for the “sport” of meditation. It wasn’t until hundreds—possibly even thousands—of years later that yoga postures/exercises evolved into a more defined practice for building overall health, wellness and performance.
You’re probably thinking: “Meditation as sport? Really?” In truth, it was a lot harder than it sounds. Meditative postures were generally extreme cross-legged positions held in complete stillness for up to 12 hours! They required a great deal of hip mobility, groin flexibility and core strength. Consequently, yogis began practicing specific exercises to address these areas, allowing them to meditate in comfort for hours on end...and enabling them to walk afterwards.
Now, many centuries later, the same areas of concern and desired results characterize most major sports. Athletes have to be mobile so they can perform their skills without their muscles holding them back; they must be able to perform for the entirety of their competition; and they must be able to recover and be ready for their next workout, practice or game.
Try these three yoga exercises for improved flexibility and strength in your hips, groins and core:
From an all-fours position, slide your right knee behind your right wrist. Staying in the pain-free range (you should never experience knee pain; if you do, try the Supine Pigeon/Figure Four modification instead), bring your right shin parallel with the top of your mat. Flex your right foot toward the shin and slide the left leg into extension behind you, pointing the left foot straight.
Shift your weight to align the left front hip toward the floor, but avoid putting all your weight into the right glutes. If necessary, prop a yoga block, pillow or blanket under the right glutes for support. Inhale deeply as you lengthen the spine, and exhale as you walk your hands out in front of you, lowering your upper body toward the floor. Rest your forehead on the floor, your stacked fists on a yoga block. Remain there for a minimum of five long, deep breaths (approximately 40-60 seconds). To come out, place your hands down, curl the back toes under and do a mini Push-Up, coming back to all fours. Repeat on the other side.
Modification — Supine Pigeon/Figure Four
Lie on your back. Cross your right leg over the left to form a figure four. Keeping your joints aligned vertically, bend your left knee to bring it toward your left shoulder. With both feet in dorsiflexion (flexing toward shin), reach both hands around the back of your left leg to help guide the knee. Keep your low back down; then, to whatever extent you can, relax your head, neck and shoulders down to the mat and hold the posture for a minimum of five long, deep breaths.
Fold sides of mat in toward the middle. From all fours, spread your knees apart so your knees and ankles rest on the folded parts of mat. You should feel a significant adductor/groin stretch. Try to rest your weight on the insides of your knees rather than the tops. You should not experience any knee pain; if you do, try the modification instead. Lower to your forearms with your shoulders aligned over your elbows. Soften your belly and relax your hips to deepen into the pose; do not push your upper body forward. Hold for five long, deep breaths.
Now engage your core to lengthen and neutralize your spine. Press down through your forearms and attempt to push your tailbone straight back; you’ll feel like you hit a brick wall. Hold there with steady pressure for another five long, deep breaths. Repeat both versions. To come out, rise up onto your palms and carefully bring one knee at a time into midline. From all fours, rock hips side to side for a soothing aftereffect.
Modification — All Fours Adductor Stretch
From all fours, reach right foot directly out to the right side, placing sole of foot on floor with toes pointing forward. Exhale deeply as you press your hips back toward your heels and lower your upper body and forehead toward the floor. Hold for a minimum of five long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side and perform a second set on each side.
From a seated position, bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the mat, hip distance apart. Bring your heels as close to your hips as possible. Hold your shins and inhale to engage your core and lengthen your spine. Do not round your back but keep your spine long.
Keeping your thighs as close as possible to your rib cage, lean back onto your sit bones and flex your feet toward your shins so your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Maintain alignment; do not let your ankles fall in toward each other or your knees bow out. Inhale and open your arms to the sides. Exhale and bring your arms together in front. Inhale them out; exhale them in. Repeat a minimum of three more times with long, deep breaths. Gradually increase to repetitions of 10 with perfect alignment.
Dana Santas, E-RYT, ACSM-cPT, is the founder and director of Radius Yoga Conditioning (RYC), an international yoga training and consulting business offering customized sport- and athlete-specific yoga programs. Specializing in serving pro athletes, Santas has worked with more than 16 teams across the NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS. RYC is accessible to athletes, coaches and teams through numerous formats, including Skype/Facetime sessions and customized team training. Her work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, on MLB.com, the NHL Network, Fox Sports, WebMD, CNNRadio and elsewhere. For more information, visit radiusyoga.com.