It’s great for increasing flexibility, relieving tightness and deeply relaxing both body and mind. It’s not comfortable, and it requires a good amount of time, but the benefits are absolutely worth the effort.
HOW I STUMBLED ONTO YIN YOGA FOR ATHLETES
Yin yoga was the perfect style of practice for these guys as it involves deep stretching, you don’t have to support your bodyweight in the poses, it’s incredibly relaxing and it’s great for beginners. Yin yoga is probably not a practice that anyone should do exclusively, but it is the perfect complement to a rigorous athletic training program.
YIN AND YANG
“Yin and yang” is an ancient Taoist concept that describes the interdependency of oppositional forces. Night relies on day for its existence, similarly, hot on cold, heaven on hell, and gravity on levity. Neither aspect is good or bad, but are more usefully understood as two sides of the same coin.
When applied to sports, yang activities are typically hot, fast, dynamic, stimulating, energetic and cardiovascular in nature. Whereas, yin activities are passive, cooling, relaxing and therapeutic. The evidence is clear that you don’t get to be a world class performer without committing to both intense training and smart recovery. Too much of one and not enough of the other will lead either to falling short or burning out.
WHAT IS YIN YOGA?
In yin yoga—unlike a yang style like vinyāsa flow or Ashtanga—you hold each pose for between 3-15 minutes. It shouldn’t be painful but it is uncomfortable for most people, and not just because of the intensity of the poses. It can be boring, unless you choose to embrace the rare opportunity to rest fully—without reaching for your phone and scrolling through Pink Bike.
The purist approach to yin is to focus on your breath and the sensations in your body—ie. to meditate—but I’m not averse to you listening to a guided meditation, binaural beats, an audiobook, or thinking through a creative problem. The non-negotiables are that you are motionless, relaxed and unstimulated.
THE BENEFITS OF YIN YOGA FOR ATHLETES
- Increases flexibility.
- Improves range of motion.
- Eases aches and pains.
- Improves posture.
- Speeds up recovery.
- Reduces injuries.
- Increases breath efficiency.
- Improves focus and concentration.
- Reduces anxiety.
- Builds discipline.
- Relieves stress.
- Calms the mind.
- Promotes relaxation and restorative sleep.
- Boosts creativity.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF YIN YOGA
- You’ll need a timer, and some blocks, straps and cushions.
- Prop yourself up with as much support as you need to completely let go of tension in your muscles, letting gravity do the work.
- Incrementally increase the hold times if your aim is to increase flexibility.
- Breathe in and out through your nose—slow and deep into your abdomen.
- Be consistent. Commit to at least one hour a week.
- If you fall asleep, that’s fine—you clearly needed the rest.
- Back off from sensations of pain. Discomfort is part of the process.
- Practice yin at the end of the day before bed, and never before exercise as it activates the parasympathetic “rest or digest” mode and relaxes the muscles.
YOUR 10 YIN YOGA FOR ATHLETES POSES
Hold them for 3-15 minutes on each side. Enjoy!
1. CHILD’S POSE
- Child’s pose stretches the upper back and shoulders, and calms the mind.
- Bring your arms outside your knees and let go of all the tension from your body.
- If you can’t sit back comfortably on your heels, put a cushion or two between your butt and your heels.
- Breathe deeply into the front, back and sides of your ribcage.
2. PUPPY WITH HANDS IN REVERSE PRAYER
- Puppy pose decompresses the spine, and stretches the lats, shoulders, and triceps.
- Bring your knees hip-width apart and point your toes straight back. Check that your hips are directly underneath your knees.
- Pull your hips away from your elbows to feel the stretch in your triceps, shoulders and lats.
3. TWISTED SCORPION
- Twisted Scorpion stretches the chest and shoulders, and increases spinal mobility.
- Lie on your stomach with your hands underneath your shoulders. Bring your right arm straight out to the side, palm facing down. Bend your left leg.
- Press into your left hand and twist your body open, bringing your left foot flat to the mat behind you.
- Support your head on a cushion if you feel any discomfort in your neck. Adjust the position of your straight arm, depending on where you need the stretch.
- Breathe deep into your abdomen.
- This pose should not be painful, so adjust yourself as you need to.
4. RECLINING HAND-TO-TOE
- Reclining Hand-To-Toe stretches the calves and hamstrings, without putting pressure on your lower back.
- Increase the stretch by pushing through your heel.
- If you find one hip hikes up, you can bend your bottom leg and bring the sole of your foot flat to the mat.
- Use the weight of your arms to increase the intensity of the stretch.
5. SUPPORTED BRIDGE
- Supported Bridge relieves tension at the lower back, releases the hip flexors and stretches the abs, chest, shoulders and the back of the neck.
- Make sure that your feet and knees are hip-width apart and that your toes point straight ahead.
- Yoga blocks have 3 different heights, so only go as high as you’re ready for.
- Breathe deep into your belly to release your psoas.
- Supported Bridge is one of the most effective poses for relieving lower back pain, especially if you also suffer from tight hips.
6. DEAD PIGEON
- Dead Pigeon releases the lower back, and stretches the outer hips, glutes, groin, hamstrings, knees and ankles.
- You can take hold of the back of your thigh or reach through and interlace your fingers around your shin to increase the intensity of the pose.
- Try to maintain a neutral spine.
7. HAPPY BABY
- Happy Baby stretches the glutes, groin and hamstrings.
- If you can’t reach your feet, you take hold of your ankles or shins.
- Rock gently from side to side.
8. RECLINING BUTTERFLY
- Reclining Butterfly opens up the hips, releases tension in the mid-back and gently stretches the chest and shoulders.
- You can support your knees on cushions to completely let go of tension in your hips.
9. RECLINING SPINAL TWIST
- Reclining Spinal Twist releases tension at the lower back and stretches the glutes, outer hips, lower back, abs, obliques, chest, and neck. It also increases spinal mobility.
- Try to let go of tension in your neck and shoulders.
- If your knee doesn’t come all the way down to the mat, you can support it on a cushion or two.
- This is another great pose to alleviate lower back pain.
10. SLEEPING PIGEON
- Sleeping Pigeon is a deep hip opener that stretches the glutes and hip rotators on your bent leg and the hip flexors on your straight leg.
- You can’t see it in this image, but the bottom part of your front leg should be positioned diagonally.
- If your hips are not level, you can put a cushion or two under the hip of your bent leg.
- Try to let go of any tension, thoughts or distractions.
FINAL RESTING POSE
- Release your arms and legs and lie back in Final Resting Pose.
- Notice how your body feels and allow the stretches to sink in for a 10-15 minutes before moving back into your evening. Try to follow the movement of breath in your body, as your belly and chest rise and fall.
I’d love to crowdsource your favourite yin poses and to hear about your experiences with yin yoga for athletic recovery. It’s not going to be for everyone, but for the most hard-charging of you, it can be super powerful stuff.
Photo credit: Paul Baker