Yoga might be an athlete's best friend. The practice can help you improve your mobility, recover from intense training sessions faster, and even improve your proprioception, i.e., your awareness of how your body moves in space. But some people feel apprehensive about yoga, thanks to some popular myths and misconceptions. Like: I'm not flexible enough to handle yoga. And: What's with the chanting? And : Must I wear stretch pants?
To set the record straight, STACK reached out to some top yoga instructors to address those and other questions.
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1. MYTH: Yoga is for girls
While the popular caricature of a yoga practitioner is a lithe woman in stretch pants, in reality yoga is for people of all shapes and sizes.
"Many people think of yoga as people in stretchy pants doing a bunch of stretching," says Shaun Sterling, yoga instructor and co-owner of Bodywize Athletic Development in Warrensville Heights, Ohio. "But yoga is for everyone, not just athletes, but anyone who wants to live optimally and maintain a high level of health."
Today's yoga practitioners range from the skinniest ultrarunner to the bulkiest football player. Pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page—whom no one would call "lithe"—runs his own yoga studio. And the entire Super Bowl XLVIII-winning Seattle Seahawks team does yoga as part of its training routine.
2. MYTH: I'm not flexible enough for yoga
If you think you're stiff, you're not alone. But working on your flexibility when you're rigid is like working on your strength when you're weak—it's tough, but if you work at it, you'll be better for it.
"Athletes can be shy about coming to the studio because they feel too tight," says Sage Rountree, author of The Athlete's Guide to Yoga and Racing Wisely. "In my classes, the poses are designed to meet athletes where they are and enhance their performance in their chosen sport, instead of making yoga another workout."
Improving your flexibility can help prevent injury by preparing your body to move in unpredictable ways, like it will on the field. Your joints will move more completely through their full range of motion, which both improves exercise form and boosts your strength in your sports skills.
3. MYTH: I'm plenty flexible, so I don't need yoga
The benefits of yoga aren't just physical. The practice also develops a greater mind-body connection and improves the ability to focus, which can come in handy in many ways—including in those clutch situations when a game is on the line.
"Yoga helps you come back to your center, no matter what is occurring around you," explains Kiersten Mooney, a Baptise Yoga instructor and owner of Bala Vinyasa Yoga in Naples, Fla. "Whether you are on a basketball court or on your yoga mat, you need to focus on the work to be done and deliver to the best of your ability."
Yoga also teaches you to breathe better. "These exercises improve lung capacity and efficiency," Sterling says. "Breathing patterns help things like aerobic capacity, muscle fatigue, lactic acid threshold, focus, tension release, recovery, and injury prevention, just to name a few."
4. MYTH: I shouldn't try yoga again because I had a lousy experience in a class
Swearing off yoga because of one bad experience is like ditching upper-body strength training because you don't like the Bench Press. Just as there are countless other exercises you can use to strengthen your chest, there are many different styles (or branches) of yoga. Each has its own distinct approach, from physically demanding practices like Bikram or Ashtanga to more restorative methods like Kundalini. Approaches can differ from studio to studio, so test out different places, classes and instructors. If one doesn't work for you, there are others you can try.
"Yoga does not need to fit into any conventional or traditional model," Mooney says. "It is accessible to everyone, everywhere from all different backgrounds, fitness levels and ages."
5. MYTH: Those moves are way too hard for me
Yes, some of the postures experienced yogis perform can seem complicated or downright intimidating, but every move can be modified, simplified or otherwise adjusted to suit your needs.
"A major misconception is that yoga for athletes should be fast and intense, just like strength training or conditioning," explains Natalie Sabin, a certified yoga instructor and co-founder of SoulStretch Mobile Yoga in Cleveland, Ohio. "But really, yoga should address an individual person's needs. Sometimes, they're better off moving slowly through easier modifications. Taking time in each pose and holding for several breaths can be far more beneficial for the muscles, bones and ligaments."
6. MYTH: There's no studio near me, so I'm out of luck
You don't need a studio, or even a mat, to practice yoga. In fact, you might be more comfortable trying yoga in your bedroom before heading out to a studio. "My recommendation is to practice at home or in privacy so you can deal with your mind," Sterling says.
If you want to test out yoga in your home, many classes are available online—including routines designed specifically for athletes. Rountree offers a series of athlete-specific sequences on the website YogaVibes, which is a great place to start.
7. MYTH: Yoga is a religion, which I'm not interested in
While yoga shares some roots with Hinduism, modern practice as it's taught in most locations today is not a belief system and definitely not a religion. Yoga as it's taught in most places in the U.S. focuses on the asana, or physical side of the practice, not delving into the spiritual. David Gordon White, an expert on South Asian religions, says, "the yoga that is taught and practiced today has very little in common with the yoga of the YS (Yoga Sūtras) and other ancient yoga treatises."
The practice varies by studio and teacher, and plenty of yoga instructors don't discuss spirituality at all. "No athlete signs up for the philosophical side of yoga. It's just not what they are looking for," says Donnalynn Civello, executive director of Ethereal Wellness Counseling.
Kimberly Fowler, founder of YAS Fitness Centers and creator of a "Yoga for Athletes" DVD, says, "My tagline is 'no chanting, no granola, no sanskrit," referring to the ancient philosophical language. "My goal is to get people to try yoga, not to go and sit on a mountain and chant."
8. MYTH: Yeah, about that chanting thing. Do I have to do it? Because that freaks me out.
Not necessarily. The reason some yoga instructors incorporate chanting into their classes is to help students clear their heads and focus. Many forgo it entirely.
"Things like chanting are not necessary for practicing yoga; however it can be helpful to those who have trouble silencing the mind," says Sterling. He adds that this level of focus can lead to great benefits that extend beyond a yoga class. "If you want to excel in life and master yourself on all levels, including in your sport, then learn to deal with your mind and quiet it."
But you don't necessarily need to chant to achieve that. If you find your mind is all over the place, Sabin recommends closing your eyes and focusing on your breath. "Take the opportunity to relax for a few moments before moving on with your day," she says.
9. MYTH: I don't have time for yoga
You don't have to commit to an hour-long class. In fact, a few minutes of yoga a day can be beneficial. You can do an abbreviated session by going through your favorite moves, or incorporate elements of yoga into your workout. Tony Gentilcore, co-owner of Cressey Performance, uses a Yoga Push-Up Series in his dynamic warm-up. Find what feels best for your body in your busy schedule, and go with it. Practice makes perfect.
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