Focus, commitment, determination—three qualities that could equally be used to describe professional athletes, or indeed, dedicated yoga students. But while yogis have long understood that the benefits of yoga extend well beyond time on the mat, it’s a realisation many sportspeople have only come to more recently.

The fit between yoga and sports has certainly been welcome news for the NSW cricket team, the SpeedBlitz Blues. Many of the team members now take twice-weekly yoga classes with Melissa Knapp, owner of Sydney yoga studio Yoganic.

“I go to the Sydney Cricket Ground and teach them,” says Knapp. “It started when former captain Simon Katich started coming to classes at my studio. The breathing taught him to calm his nerves and be more relaxed. He was performing really well, and he put it down to yoga.”

When teaching a sports team, Knapp always starts with body awareness. “Athletes tend to be overachievers, so they are often trying to achieve something through yoga. Instead, you teach them it’s about listening to their body and being with their breath,” she says.

One thing that can be achieved—aside from a sense of calm—is recovery. It’s part of the reason why athletes across the globe are now turning to yoga as part of their regular training regimen.

Yoga teacher and author of The Athletes Guide to Yoga, Sage Rountree has dedicated her career to helping sportspeople access yoga. A marathon runner herself, Rountree says the practice helps athletes with strength, balance, flexibility and focus.

However, while athletes are becoming more open to trying yoga, some challenges lie in wait for those who do. “They can be pretty frustrated when they find there are things they want to do with their body and they can’t. Yoga can be hard, and really surprise them with its physicality,” she says.

The key for a teacher is to use the time to teach the value of not being competitive. “Athletes are competitive people. You need to create an environment that is less competitive and more inclusive,” says Rountree. Teachers also need to realise that, just like all students, each sportsperson has different needs. It’s something Knapp has learned even when teaching athletes in the same sport. “The fast bowlers often have really tight shoulders, and that repetitive action puts sa lot of pressure on their lower back,” she says.

But while the poses might vary for different athletes, the principal remains the same: “[Because sportspeople] come from a background of having to be the very best they can be, the message to relax can [appear to] be a conflict. You can see in their faces they’re straining and pushing. They eventually get it, but it takes constant reminders,” says Knapp.

Yoga and sport

Pros:

Yoga aids recovery, a key part of any athlete’s regimen.

Breath awareness helps athletes stay calm under pressure.

Challenges:

The non-competitive nature of yoga can be a big mental adjustment for many athletes.

Adapt to training regimens: before a big competition, keep the practice restorative and focus more on breathwork.

SUE WHITE

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