The Benefits of Yoga for Athletes

The health benefits from regular yoga practice cover a broad spectrum, ranging from flexibility to strength.  For athletes, yoga can benefit them tremendously in terms recovery and from a restorative point of view.  There are many different types or styles of yoga practice. For those just starting out, it can be overwhelming trying to determine which will style is the best one to fit your need.  As a strength and conditioning coach, I have felt the same way. So in this post, I’ve tried to put together a list of the most common forms of yoga and their types of benefits for athletes.

Girl performing yoga pose

Low-Intensity Options

Hatha

For beginners just starting out, Hatha yoga is perfect.  It’s is very simple and basic, holding poses for a short length of time or for several breaths before moving to the next pose.  It gives athletes time to think about how they are moving and how they are breathing. Since many of the poses also focus on flexibility, the end result has a calming feeling and helps a great deal in terms of stress relief.

  • Benefits:  Flexibility, balance, stress relief, restoration, body awareness
  • Intensity:  Low
  • When to Use:  Off days, recovery days, post-workout, post-practice, waking up, before bedtime.
  • Recommendation for Athletes:  Yes, for beginners, for recovery and flexibility.

Yin

Yin yoga is another form of slow moving and calming yoga.  Poses are held for a longer time and often in a meditative state of mind.  Flexibility is also a major focus while holding the poses and the restorative effects from this type is very high.

  • Benefits:  Restoration, stress relief, flexibility, body awareness
  • Intensity:  Low
  • When to Use:  Off days, recovery days, in times of high anxiety or stress, before bedtime
  • Recommendation for Athletes:  Yes, for recovery

Restorative

The focus of restorative yoga is just that; restoration.  This yoga practice is performed at a very low level of intensity. Much of the session spent on the floor in a seated or lying position.  Time is spent on breathing and focusing on slowing down and feeling calm.

  • Benefits: Restoration, stress relief, body awareness
  • Intensity:  Very low
  • When to Use: Off days, recovery days in times of high anxiety or stress, before bedtime
  • Recommendation for Athletes: Yes, for recovery or stress relief.

How To Use Low-Intensity Yoga with Athletes

Those three types of yoga are what I find myself prescribing for my athletes most often.  We usually do yoga on our non-lifting days.  If we are following a 4-day per week lifting schedule, we will lift on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, with Wednesdays often times being a yoga day.  As a general rule, the higher the intensity of the lifting workouts for that week, the lower and more restorative form of yoga we will do.  For example, this fall our football team started doing yoga on Saturday mornings after Friday night games.  The response from our players was tremendous and all felt like they benefited from it.  On occasion, we will have teams do a short restorative yoga session after practice, especially in very busy weeks where we need to scale back the overall intensity a little bit from our normal training week.

High-Intensity Options

The following types of yoga are more intense and would be a stand-alone workout rather than a supplementary or complementary workout to other things that you are doing.

Vinyasa

This form of yoga is very common and includes more movement than the previous styles listed.  It’s more of a constant motion with breathing, rather than holding poses.  Poses are often put together in specific sequences, but each session is unique and will change from one class to the next. It can tend to be very quick moving and as a result, heart rates will be higher than those of a restorative yoga session.

  • Benefits: Body control, flexibility, balance, strength, cardiovascular improvements
  • Intensity: Medium to high
  • When to Use:  As a workout
  • Recommendation for Athletes:  Yes, to be used as a cardiovascular or HIIT type of workout by itself

Ashtanga

Similar to Vinyasa yoga, this form uses the same sequence of movement patterns though while still focusing on breathing patterns. For those who like consistency and repetition, this is a good option.

  • Benefits:  Body control, flexibility, balance, strength, cardiovascular improvements, easier to learn
  • Intensity:  Medium to high
  • When to use:  As a workout
  • Recommendation for athletes:  Yes, to be used as a cardiovascular or HIIT type of workout by itself

Bikram

Bikram yoga was derived from hatha, but is similar to Ashtanga yoga because it always uses the same 26 poses in the same sequence and is 90-minutes in length.  Every class or session is exactly the same every time.  It is also done in a room that is heated to 95-108°F.  

  • Benefits:  Body control, flexibility, balance, strength, cardiovascular improvements, easier to learn
  • Intensity:  High
  • When to Use:  As a workout
  • Recommendation for Athletes:  Yes to be used as a cardiovascular or HIIT type of workout by itself

Hot

Hot yoga is blend of Vinyasa yoga with more movement but is done is a hot room like Bikram yoga.

  • Benefits:  Body control, flexibility, balance, strength
  • Intensity:  Medium to high
  • When to Use:  As a workout
  • Recommendation for Athletes:  Yes, to be used as a workout by itself

Power

Power yoga takes Hatha yoga and makes it more intense by focusing on more difficult poses and holding them longer.  It also focuses more on upper body and core strength than other forms of yoga.

  • Benefits:  Body control, flexibility, balance, strength
  • Intensity:  Medium to high
  • When to Use:  As a workout
  • Recommendation for Athletes:  Yes, to be used as a workout by itself

How To Use High-Intensity Yoga With Your Athletes

These sessions tend to be more intense and cannot be combined with our regular weight training workouts as well.  As a result I use these type of yoga sessions less frequently with my athletes. We will use one of these yoga sessions to replace a weight room workout on occasion though. Typically it will replace a lighter lifting day so that they will still be getting some strength training benefits that day, but in a different way. Most of my athletes enjoy it because it’s different from our day-to-day training, but still challenging.

Overall, I highly recommend yoga for athletes, primarily for the restorative purposes. Body awareness, balance, and functional flexibility are all things that athletes from every sport need and are often areas of focus that get neglected in other workouts and forms of training.  Yoga is a great way to train these areas, and can be done in a short amount of time if necessary while also helping to lower stress level.  It all results in a happier, healthier, and more mobile athlete.