Why yoga and mindfulness are crucial for sporty lifestyles

Feb 12, 2023 — Joni Bianca
Why yoga and mindfulness are crucial for sporty lifestyles

With origins dating back centuries, yoga and meditation remain popular as approaches that connect the body and the mind through a combination of physical posture, controlled breathing, and relaxation response. Based on a report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these mindfulness practices are viewed as alternative medicine, too. Their physical and mental health benefits are well-documented and include the reduction of risk factors for chronic diseases and the management of symptoms of mental health conditions.

However, the beneficial components of yoga and meditation also make sense for professional athletes and individuals with sporty lifestyles. Across a variety of sports, the mind-body connection in mindfulness facilitates both physical fitness and mental resilience during training/conditioning and the athletic activity itself.

Eases muscle tension

The movements in yoga can be integrated into sport-specific athletic training not only to maintain flexibility but to also teach correct stretching and cooling down techniques In swimming, for example, different strokes that use the same muscle groups can cause muscles to become fatigued, tightened, and limited in their range of motion over time. But swimmers can incorporate yoga into their routine to ease the tension often built up in their shoulders, hamstrings, and hip flexors. Certain poses, like the downward-facing dog and the humble warrior, stretch these muscles while also engaging the core for improved balance. Overall, the combination of static and dynamic stretches involves lengthening the muscle tissue and increasing the range of motion of exhausted muscles and joints.

Promotes proper breathing

When you play sports for an extended period of time, your body needs to take in more oxygen to convert into energy. Yoga has several benefits for sprinters in particular, as running is one of the sports where individuals must maximize their oxygen intake until the finish line. Through breathing exercises like the Pranayama, runners learn to breathe in an optimal way and even increase their oxygen intake by up to five times. The three phases of slow inhale, hold, and slow exhale are suitable for conditioning the lung function and overall respiratory system for running in the long term. Lastly, proper breathing techniques can improve blood flow and body posture, thus allowing sprinters to keep both their breathing and movement steady throughout the activity.

Strengthens movement patterns

Whether you practice slow or fast-paced yoga flows, fluidly working through the poses can help strengthen your movement patterns. There are poses that mirror the type of movements that you’ll be doing in a particular sport, such as the tree pose for gymnasts balancing on the beam and the horse stance for hockey players guarding the goal. More than practicing yoga to twist your body into difficult poses, you’re meant to become more mindful and aware of how each part of your body moves and aligns, and how your muscle fibers are recruited for higher endurance and thresholds. Making more conscious decisions on every body position and angle improves the kinetic chain of movement and even prevents you from sustaining injuries caused by improper techniques.

Combats stress

Sports is more than just a physical activity; performance can be negatively affected by psychological factors such as lack of concentration and poor mental health. There are also times when the weight of expectations regarding progress and achievements in one’s chosen sport ultimately takes its toll on one's overall well-being. In this light, mindfulness practices equip athletes with coping strategies that can reduce stress and competitive anxiety, and in the process, improve their confidence and self-efficacy. By slowing down racing thoughts and grounding the self in the present, mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises can activate the calming response of the body facilitated by the parasympathetic nervous system.

Cultivates a growth mindset

Aside from combatting stress and anxiety, adopting a growth mindset can also greatly improve athletic performance. In her seminal book Mindset, American psychologist Carol Dweck describes the growth mindset as a belief and way of thinking in which talents and abilities are not just natural and innate, but can otherwise be developed through hard work, effort, and dedication. This raises the question: how do yoga and meditation play a role in promoting a growth mindset? Yoga classes primarily offer a safe space for athletes to acknowledge their frustrations and take control of the narrative. Rather than being stuck in the cycle of saying ‘I can’t do it’, daily affirmations remind athletes of the value of process and transformation through the more adaptive and positive ‘I can’t do it yet’. The yoga routine itself can also physically represent this growth, as they go through the motions and flow from one pose to the next.

Aids in pain reduction and recovery

One of the risks that come with playing sports is getting hurt or injured. As previously mentioned, the fluidity and flexibility provided by yoga aid tremendously in injury prevention. Even when the injury does occur, however, mindfulness serves as a natural method for coping with and recovering from pain. Rather than resisting pain and thus letting it linger, meditating helps acknowledge the presence of the pain, let it go, and eventually reduce its impact and severity. Yoga and mindfulness make it possible for any athlete or individual participating in sports to listen to their bodies and realign the way they physically and psychologically relate to pain.

Builds stronger cohesion and team dynamics

While yoga and meditation are often framed as solitary activities, they also have the potential to be done as a team and thus improve cohesion and dynamics. Although teammates have less opportunity to talk and interact compared to other team-building activities, the mere fact that they are in each other's presence doing breathing exercises and yoga poses together can ignite unity. However, there are also partner poses that team members can execute to establish trust and communication between themselves. In fact, sports teams from school to professional level are increasingly tapping into the power of mindfulness to enhance their collective performance before a competition and debrief as a team after a particularly stressful match.

To start or develop your mindfulness practice, download Medito, the 100% free meditation app.