Taking care of our bodies is a responsibility we should all take seriously, and for the athletes among us, the importance of this care becomes all the more critical. There are countless exercise regimens, routines, and practices that athletes all over the world implement to hone their bodies and optimize their physical performance, including yoga. What are the best yoga styles for athletes?
The best yoga styles for athletes are Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Bikram, Yin, and Jivamukti. Athletes will be looking for certain benefits such as increased strength, flexibility, endurance and mental resilience, among others.
Being a good athlete requires various types of physical and mental proficiencies. It is no surprise that no single type of yoga will deliver all the effects yoga, in general, has in store for us. Let’s see what types of yoga work best for athletes and just how they work.
Ashtanga in Sanskrit means ‘8 limbed yoga’; with these limbs referring to the guidelines that yoga teaches practitioners they need to follow in order to lead a disciplined, fulfilled life. The type of yoga we know as Ashtanga focuses on the third limb among these eight, which is the asana or posture limb. The idea is that by dedicating oneself to the practice of the ashtanga sequences, you will be able to manifest or realize the seven remaining limbs.
This background sheds light on why Ashtanga is considered to be the most physically intensive type of yoga you will encounter today. It involves carrying out an established series of postures linked through Vinyasa (flow movements), designed to generate internal body heat.
Controlled breathing (pranayama) is a part of ashtanga yoga, and it will help get your mind and body to work in alignment as you move through the dynamic motions of strengthening and stretching your body.
You will often find ashtanga yoga going by the name of power yoga, which perhaps makes it clearer to people what they might expect in these classes. Beginners will be introduced to the first of six series of asana sequences, and they will gradually move on to more physically and technically demanding series as they grow in proficiency.
The sets are fixed, meaning that the poses in each series will remain the same wherever you go. Most classes expect students to learn these sequences with the teachers to help guide you on the form, alignment, or other minor aspects of your session.
You will rarely have teachers giving step-by-step demonstrations, allowing you to focus inward on yourself and achieve a deeper meditative state.
Postures are not held for very long, as you will move through the series at a rate geared towards generating the most internal heat. The upshot of this is that the superficial or upper layers of your body (your muscles) will experience the most exertion and activity rather than your internal connective tissues and joints.
This is a powerful, structured yoga style that offers continuous challenges to your body and mind as you progress through the levels.
Ashtanga yoga is composed of numerous poses and sequences that call practitioners to ‘carry’ or bear their own weight. You will be required to go into relatively heavy repetitions of asanas and vinyasas such as chaturanga (it resembles an ordinary pushup stance), down dog, up dog, and more.
When you hold such poses and transition to others, various muscles in your body will be targeted, even more than the average gym routine manages to activate. Bone density and muscle strength are both enhanced through such practice.
Ashtanga yoga is a favorite with athletes looking to build their strength and flexibility over other types of yoga due to the way it makes use of the practitioner’s body. While strength training usually involves free weights or barbells at the gym, you could say that ashtanga yoga is a way to work your muscles using your own body’s weight intensively.
Strength training through yoga, such as Ashtanga, is a more balanced, functional type of power present across the practitioner’s whole body. Lifting weights or using machines often leaves people with some muscle groups overdeveloped, while others are significantly weaker.
Eccentric contraction happens to your muscles during yoga, which means that your muscles will contract as they stretch. You will end up with a long, sleek look to your muscular system as a result. Weight training subjects your muscles to concentric contraction, meaning that the muscles will become shortened through contraction, resulting in a compact, bulging musculature.
In short, ashtanga yoga is an excellent way for athletes to develop their strength and flexibility in a physiologically natural way since the challenge to your muscles will be directly in proportion to your weight and dimensions.
Bikram yoga takes its name from the man that introduced it to the Western world, Bikram Choudhury, but it is better known as hot yoga due to the unique circumstances under which it is practiced. It requires that the room where sessions take place be heated to a temperature of 105°F(41°C) with the humidity set to 40%.
The reasoning behind these specific settings is to recreate the climate found in India, where the yoga practice originated, so as to get the benefits and effects that were intended. Carpets are laid out on the floors, and the walls are usually covered with mirrors.
You will definitely be working up a sweat during a hot yoga session. Each class is designed to run for about 90 minutes, and it follows a strict pattern consisting of 26 postures. These will include 24 asanas, on pranayama exercise, and one final shatkarma or purification exercise to end the session. You will find this same routine wherever you go for a Bikram yoga session.
The dedication to set routine, intense conditions, and the complexity of some of the poses involved in hot yoga make it a physically and mentally challenging yoga type to get used to. This is no surprise as the objective of hot yoga is to achieve spiritual purification and energy release.
You will find that the high heat settings allow your muscles to get warmed up and relaxed much faster, meaning that you will be able to get deeper into poses than you would under normal conditions.
Bikram’s hot yoga sequence is geared towards systematically challenging the body in its entirety – the muscles, veins, ligaments, and internal organs. Research conducted back in 2015 established that hot yoga results in tangible physical benefits, including increased lower body strength, improved balance, and a greater range of motion in the upper and lower body joints.
The discipline involved in hot yoga will help build mental strength and resilience. The physical settings of heat and humidity that sessions take place in are believed to help our bodies eliminate toxins from our systems through sweat and manage body weight by removing water weight.
While we in the Western world use the term ‘Hatha’ in reference to a type of yoga, Hatha’s original Sanskrit definition is a catch-all term for various yoga types incorporating physical postures. There are yoga types such as raja, karma, and kriya yoga that focus on more spiritual and mental elements, but as we understand it, Hatha yoga is a type of yoga that covers Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, and more.
Classes that advertise themselves as hatha yoga may be expected to be somewhat relaxed sessions that involve breathing exercises and poses that are found in many other, more well-defined yoga types. The pace is usually slower than most other types of yoga, which makes hatha yoga a great starting point for those with no previous yoga experience.
Plenty of teachers incorporate various props and yoga bands to help students learn how to achieve poses as they learn about proper alignment, breath control, mental focus, safe muscle extension, and more. Poses are held for relatively extended periods to allow for deeper muscle engagement and joint extension.
As we imagine most athletes to be, those who are relatively fit might find hatha yoga classes to be rather mild. Still, many find it a great way to get familiarized with the basic principles, poses, and practical yoga applications. You will be in a great position to choose a more involving yoga type that will deliver the kinds of benefits you are specifically hoping to gain through practicing yoga.
While you won’t achieve Vinyasa’s cardiac workout or the muscle exertion of Ashtanga, you can expect to leave a typical hatha yoga class feeling relaxed, looser, and longer. Athletes will note some improvement in their flexibility, stability, and endurance as they progress in their practice.
Named after its developer, B.K.S. Iyengar, this type of yoga is differentiated from other popular yoga types by its emphasis on the proper structural alignment of its practitioners’ physical forms as they assume each pose.
It may be said that Iyengar yoga is characterized by these three elements:
- Sequences – The asanas are widely varied and may be arranged in different sequences to facilitate the best results for different types of students and abilities while avoiding injuries.
- Precision – Meticulous attention is paid to each part of the body’s positioning and alignment as one assumes the different asanas.
- Prop Use – This is the yoga type that pioneered the use of props such as cushions, blocks, sandbags, belts, resistance bands, blankets, and more to help students achieve the correct postures.
The desire to achieve precise musculoskeletal positioning within each asana means that poses are held for much longer than other yoga types. This allows your muscles enough time to properly relax and lengthen into the asanas, as well as encouraging greater awareness of them.
Class teachers will typically be active in correcting and helping students achieve proper forms, unlike most other yoga types wherein you are asked to simply imitate the teacher’s demonstration as you gradually gain in proficiency.
You can expect to encounter asanas that will usually be taught to more advanced students in other yoga types, such as standing poses like Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), with great attention being paid to the careful placement of body parts.
The use of props and the comparatively slower pace of Iyengar yoga make it very welcoming to the elderly, those recovering from injuries, beginners, and those who are unwell in some form of other. They will all be helped achieve their asanas by using suitable props that reduce the amount of effort that must be generated by the muscles for each pose.
The structure, pace, and practice are designed to help students build up strength, balance, and flexibility through their bodies’ proper alignment. Its effectiveness might be attributed to the depths students are able to reach in their asanas thanks to the availability of props and support.
It is especially advisable to consider Iyengar yoga as an athlete should you have any injuries you are working to recover from. The focus on props and alignment makes it a very safe yet intensive form of physical therapy that will help you recover your physical strength and functionality. This is a cautious and mindful type of yoga.
The term Vinyasa may be translated to mean ‘placing in a special way,’ and this is in reference to the postures or asanas that it comprises. The defining characteristic of this yoga type is the seamless flow with which poses move into each other making one continuous session rather than a series of individual poses.
Classes here will involve making movements in coordination with controlled breathing to achieve high-intensity core and full body involvement. The main focus here is not so much on the poses themselves but on the transitions that take place between them. You won’t be holding these poses for extended periods.
Different teachers and schools might have their own Vinyasa interpretations, meaning that the poses involved and their sequences might vary. Therefore, students are expected to be challenged, even as they become more experienced and accomplished. It is not as rigid when it comes to sequences as yoga types such as Ashtanga may be, and this flexibility is what allows many to class other types of yoga under the Vinyasa umbrella.
You can expect to get your body sweating and your heart pumping in a vinyasa class due to the constant motion involved. In fact, many consider Vinyasa to be the most athletic yoga style out there due to its ‘cardio’ emphasis. Depending on your weight and muscle composition, you can expect to burn approximately 300-500 calories in the span of an hour-long vinyasa session.
It will all depend on the type of class you are attending and your own determination. In short, you can expect vinyasa yoga to help you a great deal as an athlete when it comes to endurance, flexibility, stability, and breath control.
This is a yoga type that differs quite slightly from the rest of the yoga types mentioned herein. It is heavily focused on developing awareness, consciousness, and mental strength. With its foundation lying on the Chakra system, kundalini yoga is characterized by heavy use of controlled breathing and body core work.
The idea is to activate your kundalini energy, also known as shakti, a type of primal energy believed to reside at the base of the spine. The motions, breathing, chants, meditations, and poses employed are designed to release this energy and drive it upwards towards your head through the seven chakra points.
Kundalini classes involve plenty of sitting down when compared to other yoga types, with gestures, breathing, and meditation taking center stage. This is not to say, however, that there is no physicality involved. The poses and techniques will give you an effective core workout, raising your heart rate and temperature in the process.
The exercises here are known as kriyas, and these are repetitive motions synchronized with pranayama. The pace will be moderate to slow, depending on your particular instructors or the class you attend.
Kundalini yoga can be a useful practice for athletes despite its focus on the practitioner’s mental and spiritual aspects. The breathing techniques employed here effectively help train our bodies to increase the efficiency with which oxygen is delivered to the muscles. This not only helps build endurance but helps in muscle recovery as well.
The meditation and focus required for proper kundalini execution will help an athlete develop the mental strength and determination often needed to achieve difficult objectives; whatever the sport in question may be.
Yin yoga takes its name from the Taoist concepts of Yin and Yang, which are used to express opposing and complementary natural principles. In this case, Yin refers to the immobile, stable, feminine, cold, and downwards moving. On the other hand, Yang denotes the mobile, changing, masculine, hot, and upward moving.
Our body’s relatively still or rigid connective tissues, namely the ligaments, tendons, and fasciae, are considered to fall under the yin classification, while our more pliable and active muscles and blood are considered to be of the yang variety.
Therefore, Yin yoga focuses on applying stress to these tissues, which play vital roles in the facilitation of joint movements and flexibility. This serves to increase blood flow to those specific regions and stimulate the body’s chakras (meridians/nadis).
The result is a very slow-paced and non-physically intensive yoga type that came to the fore thanks to the initiatives of yoga teacher Paulie Zink. The length of time poses chiefly defines it is held in its practice, with some practitioners holding specific poses for up to 5 minutes at a time.
Aside from these physical qualities, yin yoga’s slow pacing is designed to allow for and encourage deep awareness, meditation, and contemplation, which have positive effects on practitioners.
Sessions take place in rooms that are slightly heated up (though not to the extent of hot yoga) in order to help muscles warm up and relax since the yoga itself will not raise the student’s body temperatures.
Most classes incorporate plenty of floor poses – usually 18 to 24 in number – designed to engage the lower body parts such as the hips, lower spine, pelvis, and inner thighs. The reasoning behind this is the relatively high concentration of connective tissues in this region of the body.
Yin yoga is often referred to in the same breath as restorative yoga, and many believe they are the same thing. The truth is, there are some key differences between the two, even though they are very similar in aspects such as prop use, session pace, and the asanas involved.
Restorative yoga can be described as a type of yin yoga variation designed to help people suffering from illness, stress, or injuries. It is designed to help restore their quality of life by speeding up the healing processes. Classes are much smaller than yin yoga classes so that practitioners can receive more personalized attention and assistance.
The pacing and inward focus of yin yoga encourages plenty of mental introspection and stillness while relaxing the body and relieving stress.
Athletes stand to benefit from practicing either Yin or restorative yoga in the form of increased mental strength and flexibility, with restorative yoga being especially useful for those hoping to recover from injuries or speed up their muscle recovery time.
Muscle recovery time refers to how quickly your muscles return to a normal, functional state after intense exertion of exhaustion. This is an important measure for athletes, especially those engaging in more physically demanding sports and activities.
Developed back in 1984, Jivamukti yoga is a type of yoga with a heavy emphasis on physical, spiritual, and ethical practices, propounding veganism, environmentalism, and animal rights.
In comparison with yoga types such as Ashtanga or Bikram, Jivamukti yoga takes a decidedly non-physical emphasis in its practice and philosophy. Jivamukti yogis will be encouraged to pay as much attention to what is happening inside their minds and bodies as they do on the surface and outside of them.
Jivamukti implements its tenets of meditation (dhyana), music (nada), non-violence (ahimsa), scripture (shastra), and devotion (bhakti) to foster these ideals and awaken deeper consciousness in students.
Jivamukti sessions typically start with breath control exercises, chanting, and life lessons before moving into asana sequences linked through vinyasa flows. Relaxation and meditation will mark the end of each session.
You will find that Jivamukti classes are far more flexible and relaxed when it comes to the practice of asanas in comparison to relatively rigid yoga types such as Ashtanga. Note that there will, however, be differences with regard to the particular teaching styles and pacing separate classes, but the spiritual elements of Jivamukti will rarely be overlooked.
Jivamukti yoga is an especially appropriate type of yoga for those seeking to increase their mental strength owing to its heavy focus on inward focusing and meditation. Controlled breathing exercises will contribute towards endurance and stamina. Implementing physical asanas might not be at the forefront of Jivamukti practice, but it still comes to bear in each session, helping increase flexibility.
Below is a great video demonstrating what a yoga routine that is optimized for strength might look like. Don’t worry if it seems like too much for you as there are different sequences, poses, and paces in most yoga types that allow for all students’ levels:
There will be different intensity levels from class to class, depending on the teachers involved and your level of fitness and determination. You may prefer to start slow or jump right in, but that will be up to you and your instructor to figure out.
It does not matter whether your chosen athletic pursuits rely more on physicality, flexibility, speed or any other capabilities – you will be sure to find a yoga type that helps you grow your abilities. Remember that yoga is designed to accommodate everyone, so you can be confident that you will find a good fit.
As we’ve seen, yoga can be a very useful part of any athletic program owing to the variety of effects and benefits different types have to offer. It doesn’t really matter what you’re looking for here, be it strength, flexibility, endurance, mental strength, muscle recovery, stability, balance, or whatever else you need. With the right approach, dedication and mentality, you will definitely reap the rewards of your efforts – just as you do in any athletics.
You should quickly identify a yoga type that will give you the results you’re aiming for by simply observing classes in action if you happen to have sessions taking place nearby.
If you still aren’t sure what will be best for you, ask your instructors for advice – they will be sure to know what will serve your purposes best.
- Wikipedia: Yoga
- Selffa: Can Yoga Replace Strength Training?
- Aligned and Well: What Is the Best Type of Yoga for Flexibility?
- The Art of Balance: Balance Your Body with Yoga
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