Yoga For Sports

BKS Iyengar, born a sickly child in a poor household, overcame obstacles of poverty, and ill health to master his chosen subject, and took it to the pinnacles of glory across the world. Not only did he practiced it until he passed away at the age of 96. And he taught and helped countless people derive the benefit of this subject.
If you are a sportsperson, what other motivation do you need to start practicing yoga? Can there be a better role model for winning against odds, for persistence, for excellence?

Yoga is becoming increasingly popular as part of professional sport training, and some of the most successful sportspeople in individual as well as team sports have openly acknowledged the contribution of their yoga practice in competing at the highest level, and in recovery from injuries:
– Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James ( Basketball)
– Andy Murray and Novack Djokovich (Tennis)
– Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid (Cricket)
– Team sports like Soccer and NZ All Blacks Rugby, and English FA, Manchester United, Manchester City, Southampton FC etc.

Every sports academy now includes yoga in its training curriculum.

Every human aims to lead a ‘Healthy’ life. For a lay person, ‘Health’ usually means freedom from illness and disease, aches and pains, and a sense of mental well-being. However, ‘Health’ for a professional sportsperson is measured by a very different yardstick. Professional sports demands the highest level of mental and physical strength and control, at all times. Even little slip-up can be the crucial difference between a win and a loss.

It is not just one attribute that needs to be trained, different sports require varying interpretations of some of the following parameters:
(Muscular) Strength – this basic parameter contributes to endurance, power and agility. Different sports require strength in different muscle groups. But it is not enough to develop strength in the sport-specific muscle group. Strengthening one muscle group without strengthening the opposing group, leads to imbalances that increase the chances of injury.

Flexibility – Flexibility is the ability of a joint or series of joints (along with the intervening muscle groups) to move through an unrestricted, pain free range of motion. The range of motion will be influenced by the mobility of the soft tissues that surround the joint: ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, and skin. And also muscles that insert or originate at the joints.
Joints require movement through a full range of motion to maintain the health of the joint. A healthy joint has good blood supply and nutrients, with increased quantity of synovial joint fluid (oil in the crank case). Joints that are not regularly exposed to the full range of movements will eventually lose their range, and become prone to injury.
Muscles that are inflexible tire more quickly. Muscle fatigue can lead to muscular injuries and the inability of the muscles to protect joints from more severe injuries. For example, the hamstring muscles play a role in stabilizing the knee and preventing ACL tears.

Speed – Different sports call for Speed in localised parts of the body, or of the whole body in space.

Power – Strength and speed combine to produce ‘power’. Power is the ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible, as in accelerating, jumping and throwing implements. While strength is the maximal force you can apply against a load, Power is proportional to the speed at which you can apply this maximal force.

Coordination – The ability to use the senses and body parts to perform tasks smoothly, efficiently, and accurately is Coordination. All sports require the coordination of eyes, hands and/or feet and maybe an implement and a ball. Racket sports (e.g. tennis and squash) require the coordination of hand, eyes and racket to connect the racket with the incoming ball, and to position the body in an appropriate position to return the ball efficiently and effectively. This requires not just muscular coordination, but also Hand-eye coordination for skills such as catching a ball. Precision describes the accuracy of movement.

Balance: balance is the ability to stay upright or stay in control of body movement. Balance is an important component of ‘coordination’. There are two types of balance: static and dynamic. Static balance is maintaining equilibrium when stationary, while dynamic balance is maintaining equilibrium when moving. We use our eyes, inner ears and ‘body sense’ to help retain our balance.

Reaction time – Reaction time describes the time interval between an external signal and your reaction to it. The most simple example of this is hearing a starting pistol and accelerating towards the finish line. Of course, similar situations can be found in all court-based sports where you have to quickly adjust to changing situations.
Unlike reflexes, where the information goes straight to a muscle from the spinal cord and doesn’t involve the brain, reactions need to be processed first. Thus, your brain decides whether the stimulus is important enough to respond to – and how to do it most efficiently.

Agility – Agility relates to the ability to rapidly change the position of the entire body in space with speed and accuracy. Agility requires strength, flexibility, reaction time, speed of movement and coordination.

Mental Attributes – From the high pressure/ high stakes sports arena, to the adjustments of the post-retirement period, the mental faculties are as important physical ones. Mental resilience, courage and calmness,

“Our approach is to be involved in the athletes’ sport performance, monitor and do the necessary tweaks to the practice of yoga.”

How does Yoga help in improving Sports performance? What are the benefits of yoga for athletes?

It is one thing to practice yoga for general well-being, to increase flexibility, or to bring some calmness to the mind, it is quite another to do a practice that is tailored to the particular needs of the sport, and of the sportsperson. The training here has to:
• improve the sportsperson’s performance at their sport,
• counter-balance any imbalances created by their sporting activity (most sports promotes a ‘dominant’ leg or arm)
• prevent/ heal injuries,
• help the sportspersons stay calm, focussed and alert before and during a game, and
• help them relax afterwards.

How does yoga prevent injuries for the Sportsperson?

Treatment of sports injuries in western science and sports medicines has made many strides in the past decades. However, the Asana approach, especially as formulated by Shri BKS Iyengar, is unique:
– Built on a bedrock of ‘alignment’ – not just of the muscles and skeleton, but of joints, internal organs, and senses. Being trained in the Iyengar system gives an understanding of correct positioning of the body, and ability to understand the relationships between various body parts. The body intuitively learns to move and position itself to minimise chances of injuries

– Builds flexibility, balance and agility. These skill act as safeguards against injury even during fast movements and awkward positions.

– While yoga is often associated only with flexibility, its potential to build strength, stamina and correct any imbalances that often creep in because of the peculiarities of the sporting activity, cannot be overlooked.

– A balanced Asana practice including inversions (upside-down positions), back arches and Pranayama slows down the ageing process (most often manifested in increasing stiffness leading to increased injuries, delayed healing of injuries, reduced strength and stamina), and increases the sporting life of a sportsperson

– These physical benefits of a yoga practice are matched by improvement in the mental faculties – courage and calmness at the level of the mind, and ability to tap into the enormous resources of the breath to improve endurance and overall coordination between the body, mind and the breath. All these factors come together to minimise chances of injury, and to reduce the severity even in case of an injury.

What are the Types of Yoga Therapy for injured Sportspersons?

As far as specific injuries are concerned, sports injuries can be of varied types – lacerations and abrasions, muscle injuries, skeletal and joint injuries, internal injuries. The most common injuries are sprains and strain, where the ligaments and the tendons/ muscles respectively, are injured. After the initial period of resting during the acute phase of the injury, we start by ensuring that movement is brought back in the effected areas, before long-term stiffness sets in.
– Further healing is promoted by correct ‘placement’ of the effected part following the principle of alignment. Supports are used to ensure that the injured part is held in this correct placement.
– Very often, a physical injury can have a negative effect on the mind as well. Positions are introduced not just to heal the injured area, but also improve the breath, and to bring quietness to the mind
– Slowly, strengthening actions are introduced. It is here that the infinite adaptability of Iyengar Yoga can be tested. Asanas can be broken down into simpler steps that are of more practical use in recovery, many kinds of supports can be used to greater or lesser extent in order to slowly build up the strength in the injured area
– Many times, while the injury manifests in one area, its severity is linked to imbalance or weakness in a different area. Iyengar Yoga provides the framework to investigate the body in its totality, so that these imbalances can be identified, and corrected. A very common example is knee injuries, that are often the result of imbalances in the hips and upper legs.
– In addition to strengthening, any gaps in flexibility are also addressed. A certain amount of flexibility ensures good body posture even during fast moments, and reduces the chances of injury in case of any awkward moves.
– More importantly the practice of yoga has an impact on mental health and brings a positive attitude ideally suited for recovery and regaining confidence

Other Sources:
10 pro athletes and teams that practice yoga

What they say:

Fitness for Sportsmen is a 6.5 min video about the pro football team in Australia that practice Iyengar Yoga

Made by YOG



A compilation of excerpts from the back of the book ‘Yoga for Sports: A journey towards Health and Healing’

“Why didn’t we do this when we were competing!?” In truth, I wish I had discovered yoga during my prime swimming years back in the 1980’s. Because there is no doubt in my mind that it would have made me a much better athlete, not to mention human being.

Thankfully, I discovered it many years later. And it has improved my life in amazing and unpredictable ways – not just with respect to my career as a middle-aged ultra-distance triathlete, but in countless areas of my life.”
Mark Henderson, a former world record holder and Olympic Gold Medalist in the 4×100 Medley Relay at the Atlanta games

Having played and coached international Rugby for over four decades, I’ve found Iyengar Yoga to be very beneficial on a number of levels.  From an injury prevention perspective, there is no doubt that the more flexible the player, the less soft tissue injuries occur.  Iyengar yoga not only improves flexibility of rugby players, but it helps manage the enourmous stress levels associated with playing in Rugby World Cups before billions of television viewers.  In many ways, as the world of professional rugby seems to be getting faster, Iyengar Yoga is a wonderful tool for maintaining health, balance and stability.”
Brian Smith, Rugby World Cup Player and Coach, Australia



“Hatha Yoga, largely based on Iyengar’s axiomatic approach to fine muscular control, is a perfect complement to your running practice.  It promotes refined attention to balance, posture, and alignment, thereby improving your form and performance, and preventing injury.  Yoga may be summarised as a process of self discovery.  I initiated a yoga practice whole training for a marathon.  I soon discovered I had held all my weight on my eight leg for the first 25 years of my life.  As a result, my hips were not aligned, and that the nagging knee pain I was getting in longer training runs was caused by the misalignment.  It was yoga that cultivated my awareness, allowing me to diagnose the problem.  It was yoga that helped treat it and prevented further damage.”

David Ansel.


Sachin Tendulkar on BKS Iyengar

My first detailed interaction with Guruji was way back in 1999, when Kiran More introduced me to him for a backache which was giving me much trouble.  ..I will always be thankful for the wonderful asanas he taught me.  Practising those asanas helped me a lot throughout my career.

Over a decade later, I was faced with a peculiar problem in my foot causing immense pain and discomfort. I was advised surgery for the same which I was not too sure of. At that time, Zak (Zaheer Khan) suggested that I seek Guruji’s advice. His positive spirit and guidance helped me to recover to an extent that the surgery was not needed,”

Sachin Tendulkar, DNA, 2014



The secret weapon to Australia’s cricketing success in India has been revealed.
For the first time, a yoga teacher has joined the logistics team supporting the Australians, giving them the chance to explore the Indian secret to mental and physical discipline.
Opening batsman Justin Langer was quick to sign up. A long-time martial arts fighter, he had been meaning to get around to yoga for years.
Four weeks into the tour, he has been a stalwart of the sessions that run for 1¼ hours after play. He says they have balanced the “flogging” he gives his body in training sessions.
They have also aided the recovery essential to enduring five-day tests and which has become harder now he is 33 years old.
“I have never felt fitter and stronger, I just feel really good, I feel really in tune with my body,” he said. During a break in the Indian series Langer decided to immerse himself further.
He joined the team’s yoga instructor, Kate Turner, and fitness trainer, Jock Campbell, on a road trip from Bombay to one of the world’s most famous practitioners, BKS Iyengar.
The player thought he would be granted a five-minute audience with the man who teaches the country’s hero batsman Sachin Tendulkar.
Instead, the 85-year-old lavished him with two hours of attention …
“He (BKS Iyengar) was extraordinary.  A real inspiration to me.  He has crystal clear eyes; the eyes of a 20-year old, and he strode around the yoga room like a loepard…”

Other regulars are Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Michael Kasprowicz.

And Australian Yoga Life, Mar – July, 2005


“The first ‘project’ I was given was to try and help a well known BCFC player who also played for the England National team. This player had been devastated with repeated hamstring tears  and disc problems and was  recommended   and did infact have  back surgery.  However since the surgery the player had not been able to train or play for BCFC and was in need of  great help.  So the club decided to give him one last shot at recovery and this is where Iyengar Yoga came in!     I applied everything I had learnt from BKS Iyengar and taught the player 3 times a week for at least 10 weeks and he practised himself too.  I took advice from Iyengar himself.   Iyengar never wavered in his support.  The player and club were delighted with the results and he came back into the first team shortly thereafter and continued  for years after with Iyengar Yoga only recently retiring  and now managing a football club in the North.  Shortly thereafter I was entrusted with teaching the whole of the first team on a weekly basis and have done so every Monday morning since. Because of the nature of football the squad is always changing so I usually don’t have the same students for more than a couple of seasons. However many many players continue with the practice after they left the club  either on their own or  even being taught yoga at a new club.  If there is an player with specific injury issues then I work with them one to one and many have visited Iyengar Yoga Birmingham for medical classes.

My main project with the first team  however is ‘injury prevention’.    Guruji Iyengar gave me great advice to teach them as you would ‘normal students’ and as in Light on Yoga but to substitute poses like paschittmottanasana and uttanasana for single leg hamstring extensions such as Supta padangustasana and utthita hasta padangusthasana  .  This has worked very well and the players say they can’t do without their yoga classes!   Guruji gave the advice to not overwork the players and also to understand the need to rest and recover after games.  Many think that because they are young fit sportsmen with the world at their feet ( literally!) that you can ‘work them hard’- but because of his experience Guruji knew the balance required for these players between body, mind, spirit.   As a teacher of yoga to these players one also has to deal with psychological dejection for instance if they lose games  – or to use footballing terminology ‘ if their head goes down’.   So one has to consider the whole human being – just as we do when teaching in regular classes. To me this is the fascination of teaching Iyengar Yoga, how the practice is uplifting on so many levels.  Inner strength focus, courage, determination is required particularly in  big, crucial games and local derbys with our ‘friends’ across the city in Aston( AVFC!). !!”

Jayne Orton, on her experience teaching Birmingham City Football Club (Soccer)



“Yoga isn’t just about the body, it’s also about the mind and it’s a technique that has really helped me…

“It is something that really can help your balance,” James said. “I had some lower back problems a few years ago and once I started to do the yoga, it has helped them go away for now. Of course we can stretch but stretching only goes so far.”