Yin Yoga For Athletes: Recover Faster And More Effectively

Yin Yoga For Athletes

“Winning a world cup is actually quite simple. Out-race your competition, by out-training them. Out-train them, by out-resting them.”

Kate Courtney, MTB XC Red Bull Athlete

WHAT IS YIN YOGA?

The primary difference between yin and other styles of yoga is that we hold each pose for at least 60 seconds and up to 5-10 minutes. Yin is a passive practice in which we use props, including straps, blocks and bolsters, so that we can spend longer in the poses with relative comfort. The aim is to exert as little muscular effort as possible and work with gravity to release deeply-held tension. The two main goals of yin yoga for athletes are improving flexibility and accelerating recovery. 

YIN YOGA FOR ATHLETES

Although yin yoga has its roots in traditional yoga, it was popularised in the West in the 1970s, first by martial artist, Paulie Zink and subsequently by his student, Paul Grilley. The name comes from the Taoist concept of yin and yang, opposite but complementary forces found in nature—darkness and light, fire and water, stillness and movement. Yang describes phenomena that are dynamic, hot, changing and energetic, and yin refers to those that are passive, cool, static and therapeutic. 

The fundamental reason that this style of yoga is so effective for athletes is that it offers a counterbalance to the effort required and tension created by high-intensity training. Yin yoga gives us the opportunity to focus on recovery over strain and flexibility over strength. It is designed to alleviate stiffness and restore healthy range of motion so that we can maximise our training time and fulfil our athletic potential. 

THREE TYPES OF STRETCHES

There are a number of different ways that you can improve your flexibility by stretching and a combination of techniques will give you the best results. You can stretch muscles dynamically—in yoga, we do this when we flow from one pose to the next with the breath, as we do in Sun Salutations. An example of an active stretch is holding a pose like Warrior 2, for 3-5 breaths in which the quads of your front leg are contracting and the groin and calves of your back leg are lengthening. And then we have passive stretches that require minimal effort, like Reclining Spinal Twist and Happy Baby.

PASSIVE STRETCHES

One of the benefits of passive stretches is that you can hold them for longer, allowing you to release deeper layers of tension than is possible with active or dynamic stretching. They say in yin yoga, that time not intensity is the key variable. Another reason that passive stretches are so effective is that they bypass the stretch reflex, a mechanism designed to prevent us from over-stretching and injuring the muscle.

The stretch reflex is an automatic response, triggered when a muscle is stretched, that causes it to contract. In yin yoga, we are able to override this mechanism by easing into the stretch gradually and allowing muscle to lengthen over the course of several breaths. In this way, with consistent practice, the body learns to tolerate deeper ranges of motion. I find it more helpful in yin yoga to think of “releasing tension” in the muscle rather than of “stretching” it as this better encapsulates the passive nature of the practice.

WHY DO WE NEED TO STRETCH?

Unlike our dog and cat friends, we humans are far more partial to activities that cause our muscles to tighten up than to those that are balanced or genuinely restorative. Many of us sit in the same position for much of the day, which tightens up the hips and hamstrings, neck and shoulders, and as athletes we perform at our best by strengthening certain muscles at the expense of others. Surfing requires disproportionately strong shoulders, cycling demands powerful quads and tennis and golf develops strength more so on one side than the other.

Muscular imbalances and decreased range of motion, resulting from the “use it or lose it” principle, inevitably lead to stiffness and pain over time, which can derail our training efforts and stop us doing the things that we love most. Luckily, there is a simple solution. One that is inexpensive, time-efficient and can even be deeply pleasant!

HOW CAN STRETCHING HELP?

Here are four of the primary reasons that athletes need to stretch:

  • To relieve stiffness so that you feel better, have more energy and recover faster from training. 
  • To improve mobility so that you can get into the most powerful and aerodynamic positions for your sport. 
  • To prevent and alleviate pain caused by muscular imbalances and decreased range of motion. 
  • To keep your muscles strong and supple, which reduces your risk of injury.

BENEFITS OF YIN YOGA FOR ATHLETES

There are many profound benefits to establishing a regular yin practice but there are just a few.

  1. Yin is easy and can be deeply pleasant. During your session, you can listen to music, an audiobook or turn off all your devices and take the opportunity to unwind tension without distraction. Stretching little and often works best, so lowering the barrier to entry makes it more likely that you will stay consistent. This alone makes it more effective than other styles of stretching that you have to motivate yourself to do. 
  2. Yin yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system. In order for the body to let go of deeply-held tension and repair from the trauma of intense training, it must be in the parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode. The pace of yin yoga and the emphasis on deep, diaphragmatic breathing makes it easy to transition into this state. Without a practice like this, we may find that we are “stuck” in sympathetic “fight or flight” mode for more time than is healthy.
  3. Yin is unparalleled for improving flexibility. Two other disciplines that employ long-hold, passive stretches are gymnastics and ballet, both of which require extreme flexibility and strength at the end ranges of motion. Practitioners of these athletic disciplines recognise that a key part of their training will be long periods of time spent in deep stretches, such as the front and side splits, so that their bodies learn to tolerate these advanced positions with ease and reduced risk of injury.
  4. Yin is purely restorative. Rarely do we give ourselves the opportunity to fully relax and do nothing and certainly not in positions that are genuinely healthy for our bodies. And in yin yoga, that is the goal. We not only aim to release tension in tight muscles but also in our minds, so that we can better manage the stresses and strains of everyday life. With consistent practice, you should quickly see a positive impact in all areas of your life.

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE TEACHING YIN YOGA TO ATHLETES

I first taught yin yoga at a surf camp in Bali five years ago. Every morning, the guests paddled out into world class waves for 2-4 hours, then came back to camp to relax and practice yoga. They were destroyed! Happy but exhausted from the sun, surf and late nights at Single Fin (the local club). 

When I was designing their classes, it was quickly apparent that they didn’t have the energy for a flow or power class and what they needed was a fast-acting, restorative practice that reduced muscle soreness and gave them the best opportunity to get out every day to surf on their 1-2 week holiday. Yin yoga turned out to be the perfect style for a couple of reasons. Yin is easy (these guys had little or no yoga experience), it’s straightforward (and doesn’t entail knowledge of chakras or energy centres). And finally, it’s pure rest and relaxation, which is all that they had energy for. 

The reason that I am still excited about yin yoga is that it fits well into my philosophy as a yoga teacher. My goal is to make videos that are accessible even to people who find yoga a little strange. I know that there are so many benefits in the practice and I’m happy to meet everyone where they’re at. I am thrilled when students enjoy all the styles of yoga that are available but I want to help every athlete feel better in their bodies and perform at the highest level for as long as humanly possible. And I’m on a mission to find all the ways that I can do that. 

YIN YOGA MASTERY

1. KNOWING HOW DEEP TO GO

Everything we do in yin yoga is slow, steady and mindful. You can just as easily injure yourself over-stretching as you can in other ways, so the key is to take your time and listen to your body. It is possible to tear a muscle if you stretch it too quickly but also if you stretch slowly but with too much force. One of my favourite quotes from movement expert Moshé Feldenkrais to keep in mind is: “Force is a substitute for intelligence, always.” 

When you settle into the pose, bring yourself to the point of sensation but not pain. As you hold the pose still, you will find that you can go incrementally deeper, so don’t go too deep too quickly. After 4 or 5 breaths, see if you can open up a little more. And remember to move in and out of the poses slowly and carefully.

2. BREATHING

In yoga, we aim to breathe diaphragmatically, in and out through the nose. Sometimes, this isn’t possible and we have to take short, shallow breaths through the mouth but the pace of yin makes it easier to maintain optimal breathing patterns. Diaphragmatic nasal breaths trigger the parasympathetic nervous system allowing for a greater release of tension in the muscles and faster and more profound recovery.

The speed of your breaths will be personal to you but generally you want them to be slow but still comfortable so that you are not running out of breath. I will often cue for you to extend your exhalations. This is because the release of tension happens on the exhalation. On every inhalation, which is connected to the sympathetic nervous system, your muscles contract a little and on the exhalation, your muscles relax. This is why a breathing technique with longer inhalations than exhalations, like Wim Hof or tummo breathing, is up-regulating whereas extending your exhalations gives you that sense of deep calm and relaxation.

3. WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU ARE IN THE POSE?

Firstly, stay as still as you can. This means trying not to fidget. You can, as I mentioned earlier, drop a little deeper into the pose after your first few breaths and continue to do so throughout the hold.

Secondly, find something to focus on so that your mind doesn’t wander off into thoughts. What you focus on is up to you and you have a few options. The foundational technique in yin yoga is to keep your attention on your breath and specifically, the sensations of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. This might be the passing of cool and warmer air through your nostrils but it is more likely to be the gentle expansion and contraction of your belly and your chest. I will also cue for you to focus on the sensation of the stretch where you feel it most noticeably and breathe into that spot.

If you are holding poses for several minutes, you may like to tune into the sounds in your environment, near and far, the feeling of air on your skin and even smells. My preference is to focus on the breath and other physical sensations initially and then to start to experiment when you feel that you have achieved stability in your attention. 

This is meditation. Sensing instead of thinking. Aiming to keep your attention on your embodied experience and not let your mind wander off. However, unless you have monkish powers, this will be practically impossible for your entire session, so each time you notice that you are lost in thought, just gently bring your attention back. 

4. TIMING AND FREQUENCY

As an athlete, improving your flexibility is best achieved by stretching your muscles little and often. So 15 minutes every day is going to be more effective than 90 minutes once a week and in my experience, longer sessions are not actually necessary for our goals of achieving functional flexibility and the fastest possible recovery. 

There have been numerous studies showing that holding long stretches before exercise can reduce performance and even increase your likelihood of injury so the best times to practice yin yoga for athletes are after your workout and in the evening to wind down before bed. After a little experimentation, I find that timing and frequency become intuitive so my advice is to be consistent and listen to your body. You can always titrate your practice up or down to achieve your optimal performance and wellness goals.  

YOGA 15 YIN YOGA FOR ATHLETES

More and more evidence is coming out every day that being a world class performer requires committing both to intense training and to effective recovery. Too much of one and not enough of the other will lead either to falling short or burning out. So if you are keen to up your recovery game, check out the brand new Yin Yoga For Athletes videos on the site. I am excited to hear how you find them!

Yin Yoga For Athletes

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