Is It Sports Versus Yoga?

Zainab Zakari
Is It Sports Versus Yoga?

If you’ve only got a limited amount of free time to work out, you might find that you’re choosing between yoga class and a run outside. How to fit more than one wellness activity in your daily schedule can be a tricky issue for busy people on the go. Thankfully this is not a totalitarian society where you have to choose only one athletic endeavor and stick to one alone. So before you stuff your yoga mat into your winter closet, never to be seen again until the temperatures drop, consider this an opportunity for some cross training instead.

Yoga As A Sport?

This isn’t a column about competitive yoga in the Olympics (a fun topic for another day), but rather yoga’s unique role in sports today. One of my girlfriends used to be an elite rower and when she looked back at her experience, she said, “I really wish I knew more about yoga while I was training.” At the time she didn’t think she’d had time to fit it in her schedule. Yet, when she took her first yoga class a month after she withdrew from rowing competition because of a back injury, she believes yoga could have helped her more than she gave it credit for. “It would have helped balance my muscles, which were uneven from the repetitive rowing motion. It might have even helped my injury heal,” she later told me.

Being an athlete and a yogi need not be mutually exclusive roles. An athlete who is used to sprinting for a backhand winner, defending a goal on a soccer field or racing on a mountain bike may see yoga’s more measured movements and noncompetitive attitude as a lesser alternative. Yet, on a physical level, yoga can actually balance the effects of overusing a specific muscle group, which often happens in elite training. An article on yoga for athletes in Yoga Journal expands on the physical benefits of yoga on an athlete’s performance and talks about how pairing training with a yoga practice can improve body conditioning and endurance, decrease the risk for injury and even help athletes develop mental strength and concentration (editor's note: Also check out the yoga for athletes guide on DoYouYoga). Sports teams, from the pros & collegiate level to high school teams, are figuring this out more and more as they include yoga as part of the training regimen.

Yoga RE-Defined: All Is One, One Is All

I came to yoga after years of playing competitive tennis, and after time on my mat, I was much calmer on the court. But my tennis game wasn’t the only thing that improved in this scenario; my training as an athlete also helped my yoga. Years of technique drills on the court made it possible for me to learn the poses fairly quickly and our circuit training gave me a basic awareness of anatomy that made alignment easier to comprehend. But the discipline I developed in my training also encouraged me to stick to my yoga practice even when I didn’t “get” everything right away. I kept coming back to my mat because I knew the benefits of the practice would only come if I sustained the practice.

Ultimately, one practice, whether sports or yoga, can inform and enrich the other. This may not be surprising since the more experiences we have the wiser we can often become. But as the list of yoga-loving athletes grows, from the likes of Lebron James and Serena Williams to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’m tempted to broaden the definition of yoga. For me, yoga isn’t exclusive to meditating and moving on a mat. Actually, yoga could include any activity that cultivates more attention, self-exploration and invites increasing inner peace and understanding around us. You can practice yoga when you’re on the tennis court, out on a trail, in a pool, a basketball court, or sitting on your couch breathing with awareness. Any moment could be a moment to practice yoga.

So don’t stress if you only have a half hour for fitness and instead you choose to go for a run. As long as you’re breathing and finding a measure of peace, you’re practicing yoga. And perhaps the next day you’ll roll out your mat for some time in Downward Facing Dog.