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Yoga Benefits for Athletes

The mental benefits that yoga offers—learning to stay present, managing stressful situations with the breath, not being tied to the outcome—are invaluable to professional players, since a win or a loss can be decided in a few highly charged seconds. Those same benefits help the rest of us, too, because it’s a lot more fun playing ball sports like volleyball, soccer, and softball when we’re fully focused on the game.

The repetition of certain key motions—winding up for a softball pitch, landing after a volleyball jump serve, and dribbling the soccer ball—can result in an imbalance of strength in the body, which can lead to aches and pains, less efficiency in your sport, and even injury. Yoga can help bring your body back into balance by making overused muscles suppler and underused muscles stronger.

Lunge Twist

The most important principle for twisting and moving the body efficiently when you play softball or baseball is to maintain your overall stability, especially in the lower body, while your upper body is in motion. Begin in a lunge with your right foot pointing forward and your knee over the heel. Keep the left leg straight, balancing on the ball of the left foot. Push the feet powerfully into the ground and steady the legs with strong muscular engagement. Moving with your breath, strongly extend both arms overhead and then down into prayer position in front of the heart. On an exhalation, twist toward the right knee and place your left elbow on the outside of it. Hold for 5 breaths and then release the pose on an inhalation. Repeat, twisting to the other side. Emphasize stability in the feet, legs, and hips as you move into and out of the twist.

Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), variation

This pose builds foot and lower leg strength, which is the foundation of a strong structure. Stand with the feet wide apart and pointing forward. Inhale deeply, then exhale and fold forward, placing both hands on the ground. Spread your toes and, without actually moving the feet, isometrically draw them toward the center. As you do this, press the outer edges of the feet down. Keeping your shins strong, place the right hand on your right hip and twist to the right, doing your best to keep the sacrum level. Hold for a few breaths, maintaining power in the feet and shins, and then twist a little deeper. Come to the center, placing the right hand back on the ground. Reestablish strength in the shins, and repeat on the other side.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), variation

Ideal for softball players, this pose also incorporates the strong, steady legs required to play soccer and the shoulder alignment important for playing volleyball. To begin, come onto your hands and knees. Then straighten your knees and lift your hips, coming into Downward-Facing Dog. Position your hands shoulder-distance apart, so that the creases of your wrists are straight across and your feet sitting-bone-distance apart (or slightly narrower than your outer hips).

Keep the legs strong, the top of the arm bones back, and the shoulder blades firmly pressed into the upper back. Moving with your breath and maintaining your alignment, on an exhalation reach your left hand back to the right outer shin and twist. (If you can’t reach your shin comfortably, try shortening your stance slightly.) Hold the pose, making sure that the left shoulder has not dropped and that both feet and shins are steady as you move deeper into the twist. Stay for 5 breaths. Come out of the twist on an inhale, replace the right hand in Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat, twisting to the other side.

Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)

Side Angle Pose promotes both strength and flexibility in the lower body and strengthens the ankle joints. Stand with your feet wide apart. Turn your right foot and knee out and turn your left foot in about 30 degrees. Cultivate a strong foundation by feeling your weight evenly distributed between the four corners of the feet—the base of the big toe and pinkie toe and the inner and outer heel.

Strongly engage your right leg until you feel your inner thigh muscles (adductors) tone. This will enable you to move your left thigh back and widen it away from the midline of the pose. From there, bend your right knee 90 degrees.

Place your right forearm on your right thigh, or place your fingertips on the ground outside the right foot. Keeping your left thighbone back, scoop your tailbone toward your pubic bone until your feel your abdominals tone and lift; your left thigh muscles will engage and root the right thighbone. Stretch fully from the pelvis down through the feet. Finally, extend the left arm over the right ear and stretch both arms fully. Hold for 5 breaths and repeat the pose on the other side.

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), variation

When stretching the hamstrings, the importance of keeping both legs and pelvis engaged is often overlooked. The secret to maintaining alignment in this pose is to focus on the bottom leg when stretching the top; to keep your hips even, focus on pressing the back of the bottom leg toward the ground as you stretch.

Lie on your back. Keeping the left leg flat on the ground (or lengthening toward the ground) with the muscles engaged, extend the right leg up. Interlace your fingers behind your right thigh. Keep the left thighbone rooted and keep the natural arch in your low back as you scoop the tailbone and extend through the raised leg. Focus on feeling strength and length in both legs. Hold for 5 breaths. As space becomes available, take hold of the big toe and draw the leg in. Release the right leg and repeat on the other side.

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