two women doing yoga | yoga for athletes

How Yoga Helps Athletes, Plus 7 of the Best Poses to Try

By Page Grossman

Yoga has a variety of benefits for anyone who steps onto their mat. Whether you're a runner, cyclist, or lifter, yoga for athletes can help improve recovery, flexibility, focus, and concentration.

One 2016 study of college athletes found that 10 weeks of yoga significantly boosted flexibility and balance compared with those who didn't do yoga. Research from 2020 pointed to the potential benefits of using yoga as part of a soccer program to help lower certain risks for injury.

From gentle, spiritual practices to more physical ones, there are over a dozen different types of yoga that can all be adapted to fit your needs. This is why yoga for athletes has gone mainstream. All those benefits help on the field or on the bike and can also help build resilient, injury-proof bodies.

“If we train the body for the unexpected, we're better able to manage the uncontrolled accident, the unexpected rock when we're running for home base," says Laurice D. Nemetz, E-RYT 500 and an adjunct associate professor in the College of Health Professions at Pace University Pleasantville in New York City.

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7 of The Best Yoga Poses For Athletes

Want to put together your own yoga routine? Start with these poses.

1. Downward-facing dog

downward dog pose demonstration | yoga for athletes
  • Start on all fours, with your knees directly below your hips, and wrists a few inches forward of your shoulders. Point your fingertips forward and spread your fingers wide.
  • On an exhale, tuck your toes, press into your hands, straighten your arms and legs, and lift your hips up toward the ceiling. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart and feet hips-width apart.
  • Rotate your shoulders outward to avoid scrunching them. Keep your arms straight, and engage your biceps to keep your elbows from locking out. Look back at your toes and keep your ears in line with your arms.
  • Hold the pose for one minute.

2. Lizard

lizard pose demonstration | yoga for athletes
  • From downward facing dog, inhale your right leg high. Exhale to step your right foot between your hands for a low lunge.
  • Shift your right hand on the inside of your right foot. Toe-heel your right foot to the edge of your yoga mat. Keep your right knee aligned over your ankle. Plant your right foot into your mat.
  • Keep your shoulders stacked over your wrists or drop down to your elbows (make the number 11 with your forearms) for a deeper stretch.
  • Lengthen your back leg long and straight. Squeeze your glutes to keep your hips squared. Push the backside of your knee toward the ceiling to engage your leg muscles. Drop down to your back knee for a passive stretch.
  • Gaze down toward your mat.
  • Hold for a few breaths. Move through downward facing dog and repeat on the other side.

3. Low lunge

low lunge pose demonstration | yoga for athletes
  • Begin in downward facing dog with your hands shoulder-width apart and your feet a few inches apart.
  • Lift your right foot off the floor, bend your knee and drive it toward your chest, then step it between your hands.
  • Lower your left knee on to the mat, and untuck your toes so the top of your back foot is on the floor.
  • Keeping your front leg bent, lift your chest up and raise your arms to the ceiling.
  • Press your hips forward, and keep your front knee pointing straight forward and in line above your ankle. Square your hips so both hip bones are pointing forward. Engage your core.
  • Reach your arms high, and face your palms towards one another. Keep your shoulders pressed down.
  • Stay here for one minute, then switch sides.

4. Cobra

cobra pose demonstration | yoga for athletes
  • Start in a high plank position: arms straight, shoulders stacked over your wrists, body straight from head to heels.
  • Keeping your core tight, bend your arms to slowly lower down to the floor, keeping your elbows close to your body. (Drop to your knees if needed.) When you reach the floor, untuck your toes so the tops of your feet are on the mat.
  • With your hands on the mat under your shoulders, press into your palms and lift your chest off the floor using your arms and back muscles. Keep your elbows close to your sides, with a slight bend. Keep your legs straight, and press the tops of your feet into the mat.
  • Open your chest and press your shoulder blades down your back away from your ears. Don't crunch your lower back (it should feel lengthened). Engage your legs by keeping them straight and pressed into the floor.
  • Hold for at least 5 breaths.

5. Cat and cow

cat cow pose demonstration | yoga for athletes

Inhale: Cow pose

  • Start on all fours, with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Keep your back flat, your gaze toward the floor, and your neck long.
  • As you inhale, lift your tailbone and chest toward the ceiling while dropping your belly toward the mat.
  • Keep your shoulders away from your ears, shoulder blades broad across your back, and your head in line with your torso.
  • Exhale into cat pose.

Exhale: Cat pose

  • Start in cow pose.
  • As you exhale, round your back, tuck your tailbone, and curl your chin toward your chest.
  • Keep your shoulders and knees in place.
  • Inhale into cow pose.
  • Repeat this flow for up to 10 breaths, or longer if desired.

6. Happy baby

happy baby pose demonstration | yoga for athletes
  • Start by lying down on your back on your mat. Bend your legs to place your feet flat on the mat.
  • Hug your knees to your chest, reach for the backs of your thighs, and slowly move your knees apart, as you lift the soles of your feet toward the ceiling.
  • Reach your arms between your legs, and grab the pinky-toe edges of your feet. Press into your feet as if you were standing on the ceiling.
  • Pull your knees toward you as you lower your head, shoulders, and the backs of your arms toward the mat.
  • Stay for up to one minute, then slowly bring your knees back together, and lower your feet back to the mat.

7. Pigeon

pigeon pose demonstration | yoga for athletes
  • Start on all fours, with your hands shoulder-width and knees hip-width apart.
  • Bring your right knee forward, placing it on the floor behind your right wrist.
  • Slide your right ankle toward your left wrist, so your right shin crosses your mat at a comfortable angle.
  • Extend your left leg straight back and slowly lower your hips to the floor. Keep the top of your left foot flat on the floor.
  • Keep your hips level, with your weight evenly distributed between them (avoid sinking into your right hip).
  • From here, you can either remain upright — keeping your hands on the floor in front of you, your chest up, and your core engaged — or you can fold forward, slowly walking your hands out in front of you and lowering your chest to the floor.
  • Hold the pose for 5 to 10 breaths, then switch sides and repeat.
  • To come out of the pose, tuck your left toes under, press into your hands, and slowly bring your right foot back to the starting position.

Yoga Programs for Athletes

One of the easiest ways to work yoga for athletes into your training program is with Yoga52 from Openfit. Led by five world-class instructors with easy-to-follow cues for the at-home yogi (and the athlete who's new to yoga), these streaming classes range from beginner to expert level, with descriptive instruction so precise you never have to look up from the mat.

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