With the continued growth of yoga in professional baseball, there’s little question that the practice offers many potential benefits to players. However, those benefits can only be realized when yoga is taught correctly within the context of an athlete’s sport, needs and schedule. Otherwise, at best, yoga is only marginally helpful, and, at worst, can actually be dangerous. Having been one of the first to bring yoga into professional sports over 13 years ago, I’ve seen–and, admittedly, made–many mistakes while learning the best means of applying yoga effectively and efficiently for sports performance. The following are the five most common errors I still see athletes and coaches making when adding yoga to their training programs:
- Thinking Yoga is Harmless “Stretching.” Arguably the most prevalent misconception about yoga is that it’s just harmless “stretching.” Applying yoga in sports solely for flexibility can be a recipe for injury. When yoga is used to “stretch out” athletes without addressing the underlying cause of tension, temporary relief is possible but you’re likely to do more damage than good by forcing flexibility within a dysfunctional pattern—creating instability. In fact, back injury is the number-one reason for yoga-related Emergency Room visits. Why? Because yoga is NOT one size fits all; not every yoga stretch touted as the panacea for back pain is appropriate for every person’s body.
The truth is that most tension, especially chronic tension, is caused by dysfunction or compensatory movement patterns. Identify and correct the pattern and you release the tension to create a stable, functional range of motion without unnecessary static stretching. A great example is the common complaint: “I need to stretch my hamstrings.” When hamstring tension is caused by an excessive anterior pelvic tilt that pulls the hamstrings into a lengthened-yet-inhibited position, attempting to stretch already lengthened hamstrings without correcting the pelvic tilt will only lead to greater instability and an increased risk of tearing. In this scenario, it would be more effective to use yoga-based movements that promote glute and deep-core muscle activation while inhibiting hip flexors and low-back extensors with the goal of restoring pelvic position and function to release the hamstrings–no hamstring stretching necessary.
That’s why I jokingly call “flexibility” an f-word. Too much focus on it, and you could be “f%$!ed.” Seriously though, it’s more than semantics; getting athletes to do yoga for “mobility” rather than “flexibility” reinforces a focus on creating a stable, functional range of motion as opposed to merely stretching out tight spots.
- Not Knowing the Differences (and Dangers) of Yoga Styles. With so many styles of yoga out there, saying “I do yoga” is like saying “I drive a car.” What kind? A Hyundai and a Ferrari are not the same. When it comes to yoga, the variety is never ending; Hatha vs. Ashtanga vs. Bikram vs. Yin vs. Power vs. Blah Blah (everyone’s making up their own—even I have a distinct style!). That’s why it’s wise for athletes and coaches to educate themselves on the various rationales and techniques of each style before jumping into a particular type of instruction.
Over two decades of taking and teaching myriad forms of yoga, I’ve come to the conclusion that the risk vs. reward for athletes should contraindicate some styles. Bikram hot yoga, where the heat is turned up to an obnoxious105 degrees, is often popular among players looking to push themselves (and prove it through sweat) in the off season. However, there are better, safer ways. They should push themselves into a healthy sweat at 75 or 80 degrees, or go to the sauna for a safe, detoxifying experience. But steer clear of a yoga style that discourages modifications and teaches its instructors to shout “lock your knees” while students slip and slide on sweaty mats over the course of 90 minutes. For those who still insist on practicing Bikram, of the standard 26 poses, I highly recommend avoiding Reclined Hero and Rabbit poses due to the excessive stress put on the knees and cervical spine.
Yin is another type of yoga often marketed to athletes that I believe offers more potential for injury than benefit, especially depending on the education of the instructor. This is because the long-held (3-5 minutes), deep, static stretches of Yin are purportedly designed to stretch out connective tissue–including ligaments. Personally, I don’t agree with encouraging athletes to stretch out areas that provide joint stability. And because most professional athletes have access to well-educated team bodyworkers on staff, like massage therapists, physical therapists and athletic trainers, who understand connective tissue function, they’re better served by those experts.
- Failing to Vet the Yoga Instructor. The yoga industry is almost entirely unregulated with tens of thousands of sources for gaining a yoga “certification.” Anyone can take a weekend or online course. Unlike certifications for the NSCA, FMS or TPI, with prerequisites and a comprehensive exam to prove competency, yoga doesn’t require any specific credentials. Although 200-hour “registration” with Yoga Alliance is considered the gold standard, the programming still comes up short; out of 200 hours, only 20 are designated for anatomy and physiology, which, at the discretion of the yoga school, could be entirely devoted to eastern “energy” anatomy (chakras, meridians, nadis, etc.) rather than muscle and joint function.
Thanks to growing educational resources like the Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) and Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS), we’re realizing the profound impact of breathing on strength and conditioning and, ultimately, sports performance. Consequently, it’s important that anyone teaching athletes breathing exercises has a full understanding of breathing as a fundamental movement pattern as well as an aspect of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Unfortunately, this is another area where yoga education fails to adequately equip instructors with enough science-based, practical information to be effective. Although there is a major focus on connecting breath and movement, and practicing conscious breathing, yoga breathing is largely taught in the context of visualization and simple cuing, like “breathe deeply.” Most yoga instructors lack a true understanding of diaphragm function, rib kinematics and muscular action during respiration.
What’s more, despite a lack of anatomy and biomechanics training, yoga teachers are encouraged to perform manual adjustments on their students. And, as you’d expect, when under-educated, ill-advised instructors adjust students in classes, injuries can happen. I know a MLB player who suffered a cervical spine injury when an instructor in a gym placed a strap around his neck and did what she called, “traction” to help him “rest comfortably,” during the final relaxation phase of the class.
- Trying to Become the Wrong Kind of Yogi. When a baseball player devotes time in the off season to practicing a traditional style of yoga, as cross training, it’s akin to him learning to play another sport. Sure, an argument can be made for making him into a more well-rounded athlete; however, is it the best use of his time? And what’s the risk versus reward? Isn’t it better for athletes to learn yoga specifically to become better at their sport rather than just becoming better at yoga?
Consider this: a MLB player came to me as a new client after practicing traditional yoga the two previous off-seasons. He could do Warrior postures like he was ready for the cover of Yoga Journal magazine. But, after assessing him, I found, despite his apparent yoga mastery, he was using compensation patterns to mask his inability to properly separate his upper and lower body as well as shift his center of mass into his left hip. He was a left-handed DH, not a yogi, so I worked with him on yoga-based movements that helped him establish the ability to properly transfer weight from hip to hip and tap into deep, core strength and t-spine rotation for the powerful, fluid rotation necessary for his swing. That’s the kind of athlete-specific yoga he needed!
Another consideration regarding athletes not striving to become yogis has to do with the desire to learn advanced inversions and arm balances. Undeniably, standing on your head looks cool, but, it can easily cause disc herniation when done incorrectly. And arm balances are awe-inspiring, but—especially for throwing athletes—the risks outweigh the rewards for athletes. I understand the appeal but, baseball players practicing yoga need to ask themselves which yogi they’d rather be more like: a yogi master or Yogi Berra.
- Wasting Too Much Time in Yoga Classes. Most standard yoga classes are 60- to 90 minutes. With 162 regular-season games plus spring training and, hopefully, post season, baseball players have one of the most grueling schedules in professional sports. Because of their limited time to get the best possible training and have any semblance of a family life outside of their sport, every second counts. That’s why, I don’t think spending an hour or more in a generic yoga class is time well spent.
When yoga is approached in a sport- and athlete-specific manner, it can be applied in a variety of effective yet efficient ways. A yoga-based breathing and mobility warm-up, for example, can be done before a workout or game, restorative yoga and/or deeper stretches can be done after games and/or on off days, and yoga movements used as corrective exercise or functional training can be integrated directly into workouts between sets of complementary moves. My clients’ in-season programs rarely include sequences of more than 20 minutes and are more typically designed as individual components integrated directly within strength and conditioning programs.
Ultimately, all of the above-listed mistakes and potential dangers can be avoided by practicing due diligence. When athletes are smart about why and how they add yoga to their training, they can use it tap into another level of function, awareness and control that will help them breathe, move and feel better in ways that directly translate to enhanced sports performance and decreased injury.
Dana Santas, CSCS, E-RYT, holds certifications in FMS and TPI, and has extensive coursework in PRI. She’s the exclusive yoga/fitness expert for CNN Health, and the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga-based mobility and sports-training style designed to help athletes breathe, move and feel better in ways that enhance performance and decrease injury. Nicknamed the “Mobility Maker,” she’s the team yoga coach for the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, and Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as private mind-body coach to dozens of individual athletes in MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL, PGA, LPGA and WTA. www.MobilityMaker.com.