Yoga is increasingly incorporated into college and professional football programs as part of their year-round training efforts. A system combining movement, breath and mental focus, yoga provides many valuable benefits to athletes, including:
- Flexibility and strength
- Improved joint health
- Increased balance
The University of North Carolina’s football team participates in regular yoga classes with instructor and author, Sage Rountree who explains, "Yoga aids athletes by increasing holistic, organic strength; by creating enough flexibility in the muscles and range of motion in the joints so that they can move fluidly; and by sharpening mental focus."
Although the athletic requirements of football players can vary greatly by position, there are a few common areas that all players can address using yoga's dynamic stretching and targeted strength work.
Knees and Ankles
Football requires quick changes of direction, which can place stress on the knee and ankle joints. This cutting motion is a leading cause of ligament tears. Yoga poses that strengthen the muscles around the joints can help create increased stability in these vulnerable areas.
Hips and Hamstrings
Athletes frequently complain of tight hamstrings. However, it's often the case that the hamstrings are not actually in need of a stretch, but are already stretched to their max and "locked long.” Working on opening up the front of the hips can help the pelvis return to neutral and bring length back to the hamstrings. An added benefit of increased hip mobility is an easier (and maybe faster!) running stride.
Neck and Shoulders
The extra weight of football pads and helmet, when coupled with the forward leaning stance of many positions, can create tension in the neck and shoulders. A combination of poses that build strength and also provide some length for the muscles of the shoulder can be helpful in releasing excessive tightness.
The following sequences can help address these areas and get your youth football player ready for the season. They can do this on a yoga mat or on the field. Athletes would benefit from practicing yoga 1-2 times a week and can continue after the season has ended. Parents, please join them. After all, who can't benefit from stronger ankles, improved balance and mental focus?
Raise the Mountain
This sequence builds ankle and calf muscles while also developing quad strength and balance.
Stand in Mountain Pose with your feet hip distance apart. Lift both arms overhead while pressing up onto the balls of your feet and come into balance. Sit down into Chair Pose with arms extended straight out in front. Make sure your knees are aligned behind your toes. You should be able to look down and see your toes. Return to Mountain Pose and then repeat this sequence 3 times holding each part for 3 full breaths.
Crescent to Low Lunge to Lizard
The combination of these poses work to open up the hip flexors and stretch and strengthen the quads.
From Mountain Pose step your left foot back and balance on the ball of your back foot in Crescent Lunge. With arms extending overhead bring awareness to the knee making sure its aligned over the ankle and pressing towards the outer edge of the foot. Release hands to the ground coming into a Runners Lunge. Lower your left knee to the ground, sinking your hips down into Low Lunge. Bring both hands to the top of the thigh. Slowly bend your left leg and reach back with your left hand to clasp the foot and take a quad stretch. Release the left leg back down and bring both hands to the ground and inside the right foot. Walk the right foot out a few inches and sink your hips to the ground coming down onto your forearms. Hold each move for three full breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Wide Legged Down Dog with a Twist
This pose provides an opportunity to twist and engage the obliques while also lengthening the hamstrings and the muscles of the neck and shoulders.
Come into a wide legged stance with your feet a few inches wider than hip distance apart. Slowly hinge forward from the waist and lower your hands to the ground. Walk your hands out in front of your face and let your head hang heavy. Take 5 full breaths. Walk your hands back in closer to your body. Wrap your left hand around your right ankle, and raise your right arm into the air above your head. Draw your chest toward your legs and press into your hands to deepen the twist. Hold for 5 full breaths, release and then take the twist on the other side.
This challenging balance pose uses the whole body with a focus on opening the shoulders, engaging the core, building the glutes and providing the hips an opportunity to work in internal rotation.
Start in Mountain pose. Open your arms out to the side and the cross them in front of you bringing the right arm under the left. Bend your elbows and start to bring your palms together. If this isn’t possible, press the backs of the hands together. Release your shoulder blades down your back, lift your elbows up and press your forearms away from your body.
With a slight bend in your knees, lift your left foot up and, balancing on your right foot, cross your left thigh over the right. Strongly press the thighs together. Point your left toes toward the floor. You can stay here or start to play with hooking the top of the left foot behind the right calf. Sink your hips toward the floor, maintaining a long spine. It can be hard to find a focus point in this balancing pose so turn your focus and concentration inward toward the rhythm of your breath. Hold for 10 full breaths and then repeat on the other side.
For more information and photos of these poses, head to www.yogajournal.com, a great resource for information about yoga. While you are there, check out the blog, The Active Yogi, which is a wealth of information for athletes by one of my teachers, Sage Rountree.