Yoga & Pilates for Athletes
Adapted from a presentation I did for the American Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Southern District Conference in Lexington, Ky. titled, "Using Yoga and Pilates with Athletes for Balanced Fitness." At the time, I was teaching yoga and pilates to college students as a member of the Health and Human Performance faculty at Berea College and the Exercise Science faculty at Eastern Kentucky University.
This article is a LOT of words!, as it is from a lecture I was giving. For more pretty pictures, see the Yoga for Athletes Table.
This session will include a discussion of some of the specific physical,mental, and emotional challenges that athletes face, as well as a discussion of some basic yoga and Pilates practices and exercises that target flexibility challenges and muscular imbalances. These practices may prevent injury and/or rehabilitate existing or reoccurring injuries while working to improve overall performance, and both short and long term wellness.
In a formal study of the effects of Pilates training with college dancers, Elizabeth Ahrean of Goucher College found specific improvements: “Evidence suggests that Pilates increases the ability of dancers to move with proper use of their centers, increased awareness of personal imbalances and enhanced anatomical integrity. The neuromuscular patterning resulting from the precise movement patterns and coordinated practice of Pilates produces heightened balance and muscular control, increased awareness of the body’s capabilities and limitations, greater muscle efficiency, enhanced dynamic posture and alignment,...” I saw these same effects first hand with my own dance students, and I suspected that the other athletes (and all students) taking yoga and Pilates saw benefits from intentional observation of the effects of the practice on their athletic performance.
In the summer of 2013, I conducted informal flexibility testing with two classes of yoga students at Berea College. The students used three measures: The Reach Over, The Sit and Reach, and Trunk Rotation to assess flexibility in the shoulders, hamstrings, and spine, respectively. Working with a partner, students self-assessed at the beginning and the end of the one semester course. This class met for 50 minutes per day, 5 days per week for 8 weeks. The final reports showed overwhelming improvement in hamstring flexibility, high improvement in trunk rotation, and moderate improvement in shoulder flexibility.
Additionally, summer term students and students from regular term, 16 week courses in yoga and Pilates classes from 2010 through 2013 at both Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University were asked to keep and submit goal journals. I received goal journals from about 200 college students. During the first week of the course, students set 3-5 fitness goals and created measures by which they would assess their own progress toward these goals. Students were given freedom to create goals that pertained to their physical, emotional, academic, or spiritual well being. They were given a small group of 3-4 students that met once per week, for 10 minutes of check-in and accountability.
Mid-semester, students submitted a journal entry in which they assessed the relevance, reality, and importance of the original goals and made any needed adjustments or modifications. At the end of the course, they evaluated their own improvement and the extent to which they met or made progress toward the goals. Hamstring flexibility, upper body strength, core strength, and stress reduction are repeatedly the most common areas of improvement and among the highest number of goals met.
Among the athletics represented by students in these classes were football, baseball, softball, volleyball, diving, distance running, gymnastics, swimming, dance, rock- climbing, and, this being Kentucky, basketball. It was through these student journals that I first began to see the patterns among students who are involved with athletic programs. I saw that goals, objectives, progress, and outcomes were fairly consistent within activity groups.
I then compiled a short literature review highlighting commentary from experts in the fields of yoga and Pilates instruction, personal training, physical therapy, and injury rehabilitation and prevention. Using the report of these experts, the self-reporting of my students, and my own experience as a dancer and yoga and Pilates instructor, I will address the most commonly seen flexibility and rehabilitation issues among athletes along with specific yoga and Pilates practices and exercises that target flexibility challenges, prevent injury, and rehabilitate injuries and muscular imbalances in order to improve the performance of athletes, as well as their short and long term overall health and wellness.
To begin: a short definition of what we will refer to as “yoga,” since there are many practices and disciplines that make up yoga and a differentiation between yoga and Pilates. Though they are similar in choreography and overlap in some philosophy, they have become synonymous in some circles, though they are distinct. Yoga is a 4,000+ year old practice with roots in several ancient texts including the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The philosophy and mythology of yoga come from a conglomeration of religious traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, and, though some practitioners do concentrate on the spiritual aspects of yoga, people from all faiths can practice yoga without interference to their own religion. For some it is a way of life with prescribed dietary, cleansing, and devotional aspects. But many contemporary Western yoga practices distill only the physical poses, called asana, the breathing technique, called pranayama, and some include to a greater or lessor extent a form of concentrated focus, called dharana, and/ or some form of meditation, called dhyana.
The Pilates Method, on the other hand, was originally referred to as Contrology by its creator, Joseph Pilates, and was based loosely on physical yoga along with other gymnastics and fitness routines. In the mid 1920‘s, Pilates started at two opposite ends of the wellness spectrum by instructing New York City Ballet dancers and other city dwellers who suffered from severe musculature imbalances, while his wife, Clara, a nurse, used Mr. Pilates’ system with her bed-bound tuberculosis patients who couldn’t leave the bed to perform aerobic activity, but needed to maintain strength, especially in the muscles of respiration. Patients too ill, weak, and contagious to gain physical strength by the normally prescribed rehabilitative modes, could instead perform the Pilates exercises from their beds, building core strength, joint mobility, and improved cardiovascular function without the exertion of vertical exercises. According to the Pilates Method Alliance (the accrediting body for Pilates instructors) “It is perhaps because of Clara that Pilates is clearly recognized as a positive form of movement-based exercise that truly can be tailored to any level of not just fitness, but also of health.” In fact, Mr. Pilates took apart the beds of these patients and recombined them in order to use the springs and pulleys to assist the patients in their workouts. These early contraptions eventually evolved into the standard piece of equipment in any Pilates studio: The Universal Reformer. The system quickly gained a reputation as an effective, completely modifiable, and very accessible way to develop better posture and functional fitness. As it grew in popularity, the exercises originally developed for the Reformer were modified for use on cheaper,
more portable, and more widely available plain flat mats. The Pilates system alternates between exercises that target the muscles closest to the skeleton with flexibility increasing stretches. Two cornerstones of the Pilates Method, evidence of the close relationship to yoga, are the inclusion of dictated breathing patterns, and the emphasis on a concentrated mind. Both of which are invaluable training tools for athletes.
We’ll look at some of the ways in which yoga, Pilates, and other body-mind practices can prevent injury in athletes by correcting muscular imbalances, increasing both physical and mental flexibility, and preparing the performer for the unexpected.
Athletes have a specific set of flexibility challenges. And the challenges vary greatly across activities, as well as positions or specific skill sets of individuals. Team sports afford opportunity for distinct social and psychological challenges, which can be uniquely addressed through body-mind practices like yoga and Pilates. While we will discuss distinct stretches and techniques according to activity later. For now, I’ll point out the Core Principles of Joseph Pilates: Concentration, Control, Centering, Flow, Precision, and Breathing. These principles apply across the board to all Pilates exercises whether on the Universal Reformer, the mat, or other small apparatus. The principles of Control, Precision, and Centering (meaning, every movement emanates from the core, or center, of the body) are especially useful with athletes because they can help the athlete get more out of every aspect of the workout. Yoga’s unique emphasis on the unity of the physical body, the thinking mind, and the energy-sustaining breath work in much the same way.
Ken Endelman, founder and CEO of Balanced Body, Inc., says, “Many injuries are caused by muscular imbalances within our bodies. And many things cause these imbalances - our posture, the way we walk, bend over, sit, lie down, or work out - basically, the way we move. Most of us move incorrectly in some way or another, which puts too much pressure on some muscles and weakens others, causing an imbalance.” he adds that Pilates, while rehabilitating injuries also teaches practitioners, “...how to correctly position their body for maximum results....” Mr. Pilates lived in an age when many people were leaving rural life where daily tasks were varied and required more of the body to work harmoniously to achieve the simple chores of the day and into industrial life, where a person might repeat the same motion for 10 hours each day, every day. He saw many physical problems, including degenerative illnesses and chronic, debilitating pain arise from what we today call Repetitive Motion Syndrome.
Today’s athletes are vulnerable to this same kind of stress when their workouts include hours of the same, asymmetrical activities. Tennis players, golfers, baseball and softball players, football players, and dancers all suffer from severe musculature imbalances which can have drastic affects on range of motion and posture, which in turn affect respiration and digestion. In body-mind practices, we place strong emphasis on using the two sides of the body, and the front and back of the body, evenly and equally. If an athlete currently includes any yoga or Pilates exercises in her or his workout, it is probably for stretching at the beginning of end of a workout. Stretching obviously works to prevent injury by increasing flexibility, pliability, and suppleness in the areas of the body most apt to be tight, stiff, bound, or frequently overused. Which areas of the body are in need depends greatly on which sport and position the athlete plays along with past injuries, personal tension patterns, and good ole genetics.
So, yoga and Pilates training help to prevent injury by reducing muscular imbalances and by increasing flexibility where it is needed most. Expecting the unexpected is yet another tactic in injury prevention. Most athletes spend most of the their time trying to remain vertical (divers and dancers are the exceptions). So, when the football or soccer player is tackled and tumbles, when the volleyball or basketball player dives, when the cyclist crashes or the baseball player slides, the performer’s quickly rearranged relationship with gravity and the body’s own instinct toward fear of the unexpected hold great potential for injury. Ms. Ahrean asserts that in Pilates we are “...using all the planes of movement exclusively and concurrently in flexion, extension, rotation, adduction, and abduction, bringing the [performer’s] body to a physical state of balance and, therefore, eliminating the tendencies which lead to inefficient and harmful movement allowing the [performer] to safely move more effectively.”
This is also true of yoga, especially of inversions. We move the body so that every relationship to gravity is established, which, aside from having enormous physiological benefits for the lymphatic system, can help our athletes in these unexpected moments. Aside from creating the supple body that withstands and minimizes injury, readiness and a heightened body awareness that come from precise and controlled training, may help prevent collision or injury all together. In other words, a body free from tension is a body that can take a hit or a fall, land a jump or make a dive with reduced opportunity for injury.
So far we’ve looked at the ways in which body-mind practices work on the body to prevent injury. Now let’s turn briefly to the other part of that body-mind union. How can yoga and Pilates work on the mind for injury prevention? I submit two distinct possibilities: Preparedness and Mental Flexibility.
As Elizabeth Ahrean states in her abstract of “The Benefits of Pilates for Ballet Dancers and Its Application in Higher Education, “Dancers frequently come to class without preparing the body or the mind.” This is often true of all student athletes: they come to class, rehearsal, and practice with the intention that the work begins here. It does not. And the time it takes to prepare the body and, especially, the mind to engage in the rigorous tasks of practice is a highly important and, possibly, seldom emphasized, aspect of training. Mind Body systems, like yoga and Pilates, whether practiced alone or in the course of athletic training sessions, guide the athlete to become more adept at tuning in, more proficient and realistic at self-examination, and more aware of weakness, fatigue, and overuse before these minor problems become major injuries.
Judith Lasater, a well known yoga instructor, author of many texts on yoga instruction, and co-founder of Yoga Journal, reflects in her book, Yoga Body, “Blessed are the Flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape.” This attitude is a contributing factor in the mental strength of the body-mind practitioner. Athletes are accustomed to the toughness that comes with overt effort - weight and reps added to a workout, extra innings that require further endurance, or the big push that comes with qualifiers and tournaments at the end of the season. These struggles are expected. But the subtle practice of holding a balancing Tree pose or a Pilates Teaser, these nurture a new kind of strength. Can we handle changes in the line up at the last minute, adopt new game plans and plays quickly and easily? The reduction of mental stress, or, more accurately, the intentional improvement of the mind’s ability to process and regulate stress and anxiety causing situations, helps athletes to be mentally flexible, which in turn leaves less room for error and injury.
No matter how balanced, flexible, and prepared an athlete is, injuries do still occur. While regular yoga and Pilates practice can greatly reduce the impact of injuries on long term performance, they can also be aids in recovering quickly and fully and in guiding athletes to better movement techniques so that the same injuries are not repeated. They may also prevent de-conditioning of the entire body while the injury is rested and healed. Rehabilitation should always be carried out under the guidance and care of a qualified physical therapist or trainer. We’ll look more closely later at specific exercises that work to rebuild damaged structures slowly so that the injury heals completely and the athlete heals with confidence. Common problems, like torn rotator cuffs and hamstrings, occur across many, if not all, athletics, but may occur to varying degrees. All of the following yoga and Pilates exercises have modifications, variations, props, and increased levels of intensity to allow for progression whether in the healing process or in the building of strength or flexibility. A certified instructor should be consulted for the most appropriate modification for the person and injury.
We speak often in yoga about being present in the moment; “Let go of everything that is not on your mat, bring your attention here, now.” How easily could this translate to the court or the field? The last minutes of an overtime game or the last few miles of a race are often the deciding factors. Having practiced remaining focused on the mat, this athlete has a greater understanding of what is takes to finish strong. She or he also has a greater ability to put an injury or accident in the past and move forward, confident and ready to face the next challenge.
Before we look at the specific practices that are commonly useful for athletes, we’ll discuss one more area where yoga and Pilates training can be extremely beneficial and that is during the actual performance of the activity. Whether it is a game, a race, a competition, or a show, there are many great pressures which yoga and Pilates can directly impact. Breath and Muscular Endurance, Performance Anxiety, and Focus are three such fields.
“Yoga can help improve your endurance because it can increase stamina on several different levels—physical, physiological, and mental—depending on your specific needs. For example, one of the keys to endurance is to better utilize your oxygen intake. The body relies on oxygen for producing energy while exercising, and so a person with good endurance has a greater capacity to deliver oxygen to the working muscles that make use of this oxygen during exercise. This is one of the main reasons why an unfit person fatigues much sooner than someone in better shape, and it is also why an athlete can sometimes surpass competition of equal talent,” according to Nancy Coulter-Parker, regular contributor to Yoga Journal. Pranayama is the name we give to Yogic breathing exercises, of which there are many whose purposes are varied. Pilates utilizes specifically intercostal and posterior-lateral breathing, which are unfamiliar to many athletes but which can greatly increase the potential intake of oxygen and improve endurance. Stretching and toning the muscles of respiration can also improve endurance. Yoga and Pilates exercises, such as Supported Fish Pose and Extended Side Angle Pose, also stretch and tone the small intercostal muscles between ribs and the muscles closest to the spine; areas on which normal weight training and athletic conditioning rarely focus.
While the Pilates Method does place emphasis on Concentration as one of the Core Principles, the real gem of increasing focus is undoubtedly adopting a regular meditation practice. The benefits of meditation on the mind and body, the endocrine system, the body’s response to stress, all bodily functions, emotional states, memory, and on and on are being widely reported and studied. One such study was initiated by Stephen Cope, director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, and Sat Bir S. Khalsa, MD, and a top yoga researcher affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. “Over the past two decades, Western psychologists have become particularly interested in states of concentration and absorption... Today, they are sometimes called flow states, and though we tend to hear about them in reference to athletic skills, they're not the exclusive property of elite performers. They can arise in any endeavor that requires a refinement of attention and a development of subtle physical and mental skillfulness...While involved in these tasks, we're present, undivided, undistracted, and wholly absorbed.”
Meditation also teaches us the path of nonattachment, meaning performing in the moment, without thought or expectation to the outcome of your performance. This seems contraindicated for an athlete. However, Baron Baptiste, yoga instructor and personal trainer known for his work with the Philadelphia Eagles, asserts, “By throwing your goals off the fairway and practicing being present in the process, you can free yourself of stress, and ironically, play a better...game.... By connecting to the subtleties of breath, you clear the conscious mind. Light shines on your path, and you're able to see and act with clarity. Without any expectation of outcome, all natural resources can flow forth from the storage house of the subconscious and play through the body like wind through a flute.”
Finally, performance anxiety can be an issue for many athletes. Whether the mental stress causes physical tension, or physical tension and insecurity breed mental discomfort, one thing is certain: stress is not conducive to a successful performance. In a two part study of musicians at Tanglewood, Boston Orchestra’s summer home, Cope and Khalsa found that the inclusion of yoga in the musicians’ intensive summer training translated into “significantly less performance anxiety....This relaxation of effort, so central to yoga training, is called aparigraha, or nongrasping. The yogic view is that grasping (or clinging to projections of exalted outcome) interferes with attention. Studies show that, indeed, this kind of grasping is one of the roots of performance anxiety. Heightened self-consciousness (an obsessive concern with "How am I doing?") interferes with both the cognitive and the physical aspects of performance.” I submit that the anxiety musician’s face is the same for all performers - an intrusive attachment to outcomes and a distraction from the issue at hand.
As teachers, instructors, coaches, trainers, professors, and mentors, we are charged with the education of the whole person. We encourage our athletes to be physically fit and well, but we also model effective communication, cooperation, and collaboration strategies; we require their academic progress; and we hold influence over their emotional well-being, their self-confidence, and their skill in honest and accurate self- assessment. Athletics is an excellent opportunity to for us to engage with students in an experiential and real-world way; in a venue where they are already highly invested and curious; about topics that will guide them not just in winning games, but it preparing for a future as contributing members of their communities. We should also be keeping the whole person safe and engaged in a positive experience that will carry over to have a positive impact in the lives of our athletes in a broad and long lasting sense. We should be giving them strategies for achieving and maintaining top fitness now, while they compete, that will also set them on the path of a lifetime of fitness and wellness. How many people who ran track in high school need knee surgery in their mid-40ʼs? How many causes of chronic pain and discomfort are attributed to “old sports injuries?” We have a responsibility to use every method available to keep these athletes from suffering later for the activities they love now. And our goal should not be just to prevent suffering, but to set them up for a lifetime of tennis tournaments, golf rounds, and pick up games. Cope says, “musicians, athletes, and performers...are discovering the power of yoga to create a subtle skillfulness in their disciplines.” I propose that those who are training the performers are responsible for nurturing that subtle skillfulness.
I have chosen several of the typical weakness and imbalances of athletes based on the unique physical demands of the activities common in most public school and college programs. I’ve charted these with the stretches and exercises that I find most helpful. Verbal directions and visual guides accompany most of the practices, however, this is not nearly an exhaustive list of therapeutic practices, nor is it intended for rehabilitative purposes. This guide is intended to demonstrate the uniqueness of body-mind work and to demonstrate how effective it many be to add yoga and Pilates practices to regular athletic training routines. A certified yoga or Pilates instructor should be consulted. For rehabilitation of injuries, a physical therapist of trainer should be involved.
Sources: 1) “The Benefits of Pilates for Ballet Dancers and Its Application in Higher Education,” by Elizabeth Ahrean, Goucher University 2) Pilates, J (1945). Pilatesʼ Return to Life through Contrology. USA: Joseph H. Pilates and William John Miller. 3) Pilates Method Alliance http://www.pilatesmethodalliance.org/mc/page.do? sitePageId=112949&orgId=pima 4) Stephen Cope. “Play at your peak.” www.yogajournal.com/2657 5) Dimity McDowell. “Play ball.” www.yogajournal.com/2896 6) Baron Baptiste and Kathleen Finn Mendola. “Yoga for Swimmer.” www.yogajournal.com/203 7) Baron Baptiste and Kathleen Finn Mendola. “Yoga for Golfers.” www.yogajournals.com/194 8) Nancy Coulter-Parker. “Going the Distance.” www.yogajournal.com/878 9) Tiffany Cruikshank. “Play it forward.” www.yogajournal.com/3122 10) Julie Gudmestad. “Arm yourself against injury.” www.yogajournal.com 11) Ken Endelman. “Pilates: Effective for injury rehabilitation.” 12) Sarah Downs. “Joseph Pilates and his method.” unpublished