A common misconception is that you need to be flexible in order to practice yoga, and I think it's often this idea that prevents many athletes from starting a yoga practice. You certainly don't need to begin a yoga practice with a particular level of flexibility - it is developed and improved through consistent practice. And while it is true that yoga will help you to improve your flexibility and range of motion, there are many more benefits for athletes beyond these obvious perks.
Your yoga practice will help to solidify your mind-body connection, which improves responsiveness in sports and other dynamic fitness activities. Practicing various yoga postures in sequence helps to develop your ability to activate and inhibit different muscles, promoting greater body awareness and control, as well as improved stability and a decreased likelihood of injury.
Many people equate yoga with basic stretching and don't realize they can still get a great cardiovascular workout with yoga (depending on the style of class, of course). Power, Vinyasa, Yang, Flow and many other types of higher-energy yoga classes will effectively bring the heart rate up while both moving through and holding various postures with proper control. You'll notice your endurance will improve and you'll have a much easier time maintaining steady breath patterns through difficult workouts or tough games. Yoga places a significant focus on the breath, and through dedicated practice, you'll learn to both synchronize breath with movement, and maintain full, steady breath while holding difficult yoga poses for a longer duration.
Yoga can also help to improve your coordination. At first, you might find it difficult to absorb all of the instructor's cues, and you may feel like you lack the coordination to get into the poses properly. However, the more often you practice, the simpler things will become, and you will steadily improve your coordination with more complicated movements.
Athletes often complain of tight hamstrings, lower back muscles and shoulders. Yoga helps to address these common areas of tension by stretching the posterior chain in various postures. You will also learn how to more effectively relax specific parts of your body, further helping to ease tension and discomfort.
There are many yoga poses that focus on strengthening the smaller, supporting musculature of the skeletal system, as well as strengthening the fascial network of the body. Fascia is fibrous tissue that connects all of the cells in the body and directly affects our muscular and neurological function. Yoga works on slowly releasing tight ligaments and tendons, providing the time and space to bring more flexibility into the connective tissues of the body.
Beyond the physical benefits of a yoga practice, you'll also likely notice an improved state of mind and mental clarity. Your yoga practice will help you cultivate a more equanimous state of mind, keeping you more focused, calm, positive and productive. You will develop improved concentration, discipline, and connection to yourself through your yoga practice, and the benefits will certainly show both in your everyday life, and your sport or fitness regimen.
Starting this November 2016, I will be teaching a NEW 'Yoga for Athletes' class at Lethbridge Fitness! This will be a multi-level yoga class open to everyone (you don't have to consider yourself an "athlete" to attend!) and will run every Thursday evening from 7:00PM - 8:00PM. Come and check out a fun but challenging yoga practice that will help you to excel in your sport, or just in your everyday life! I hope to see you on the mat!