Over the past few decades, yoga has become an increasingly popular form of exercise.
Now, with a plethora of yoga instructors on demand thanks to the Internet, it is evident that the discipline is more than a passing craze.
In 2015, there were 36.7 million people practising yoga within the US alone. This is compared to 20.4 million participants in 2012. That figure is predicted to accelerate again to 55 million people by 2020, according to online statistics service Statista.
Meanwhile, figures from the site claim that the industry’s revenue is expected to jump from about $7 billion in 2012, to approximately $11.5 billion in 2020. This revenue is largely driven by yoga classes.
Since the ancient form of exercise has found popularity in the west, a number of athletes have adopted yoga into their training regimes. Serbian Grand Slam-winning tennis star Novak Djokovic and the NBA’s LeBron James are among athletes that have taken to social media to show off their yoga capabilities.
When it comes to running, regularly practicing yoga can help to make the athlete’s breathing more effective by supplying the muscles with fresh oxygen, says UK-based certified yoga teacher Dézi Ollé.
“Yoga reinforces correct breathing and helps to use the full capacity of our lungs,” she says. “A regular yoga practice will also help someone’s body awareness and proprioception.”
According to Ollé, yoga postures, also known “asanas”, help the practitioner to understand how the muscles support movement and structure, so that he or she can use the right actions and muscle activations to achieve their best performance.
“Yoga strengthens just as much as it stretches,” she says. “The balancing poses will help to find centre and focus.”
Ollé, who says she fell into yoga by accident over ten years ago after attending a free class, believes that a little practice every day can go a long way, rather than just one practice once a week.
She says that if a person can set aside ten to 15 minutes every day for yoga, then it is more likely that the practitioner will feel and see the benefits quicker.
According to UK-based qualified yoga teacher Anthea Sweet*, it is important to differentiate yoga routines to fit around a running schedule.
“Yoga can be practiced before a run (as a warm-up), after a run (as a cool-down) or on days off from training,” she explains. “The key thing is that for each of those, it is advisable to practice a different routine. For example, for a warm-up you wouldn’t want to overstretch as it de-actives muscle firing.”
“Yoga can cover mobility and flexibility, strength, postural development, body awareness, fine motor control, training recovery and breathing capacity.”
Sweet, who is qualified with the Institute of Yoga Sport Science as an advanced Yoga Sport Coach, is now training the next generation of coaches to work with athletes in sport.
“Yoga can cover mobility and flexibility, strength, postural development, body awareness, fine motor control, training recovery and breathing capacity,” she explains. “Breathing is a key differentiator as no other strength and conditioning regime has the depth of practice which yoga offers in this area.”
South Africa-based Jim Harrington, founder of ReUnion Yoga & Meditation Studio and YogaForSports, ran his first ultramarathon in 2017. He agrees that yoga can be used to help develop breathing skills, especially for long distance runners.
“In long distance, it is critical to maintain a good body posture, because that effects breathing,” says Harrington.
He says that once the shoulders start to hunch over a long-distance run, it can induce pain and prevent the lungs from working at their optimum.
Harrington advises working with an alignment-focused teacher that can help a runner recognise and maintain a sense of staying “long and tall” through the spine while holding the shoulders in a strong position. “The breathing can be full only while the thoracic spine stays upright and long,” he explains.
A mindset point of view
While yoga can help to improve breathing, it should be remembered that it doesn’t just have physical benefits. When it comes to a “mindset point of view”, yoga can help train the mind to stay focused and clear, Ollé says.
“It helps the runner to be able to train his or her attention, so their concentration doesn’t break. It helps to ease the tension in the muscles.”
Traditionally, yoga was practiced by men in the east. However, since it found a place in the west, yoga has been dominated by women. However, over time, more men are showing an interest.
According to Ollé, when she first started teaching yoga, 80% of her clients and students were female. That changed about five years ago and now classes are about 50-50 she says. In fact, Ollé has more men than women in her one-to-one sessions.
“I am very pleased with that, because once men have tried yoga, they realise how much it can help them, not just in sports, but in everyday life as well,” she says.
“In a world where we sit a lot (in meetings, in cars, on trains, at the desk in front of the PC), moving the body is so important!”
“Core strength is a key for almost all sports and yoga can be done in a way that enhances core strength.”
For people feeling as though they aren’t moving as much as they aspire to, yoga can act as a gateway for further physical activity.
“Core strength is a key for almost all sports and yoga can be done in a way that enhances core strength,” explains Harrington.
“Things like balancing on one leg is automatic core work, but needs to be done well to be effective. There are so many ways to work the core and these days the lines between other stability, movement and strength training modalities is quite blurry. I think this is a good thing and if it’s handled intelligently, we can make the classical yoga postures and movements ten times more efficient and effective if we understand exactly what we are working and why.”
Be kind to yourself
When approaching yoga for the first time, Ollé recommends having an open mind and to consider all options when finding the right teacher and class.
“It always starts with the first step,” she says. “Be patient and be kind to yourself.”
Harrington warns that doing too many long hamstring stretches, or over stretching the Achilles may not help a runner’s performance.
“But how much is too much is an open question and one that each runner should try to figure out,” he advises. “It will depend on their training and their body.”
Harrington recommends seeking out an instructor that understands the human body and how it can be used in different sports.
“And if the teacher is too forceful and aggressive in trying to get everyone into crazy pretzel shapes, then obviously there is potential for injury there,” he concludes.
“Yoga is not a competitive sport, so leave that stuff at the door with your shoes!”
*Anthea Sweet, Advanced Yoga Sports Coach & Director of Academic Faculty, The Institute of Yoga Sports Science
Sports & Remedial Massage Therapist, BTEC Level 5, NLSSM