Yoga is great for improving flexibility, but it also builds a strong and calm mind. For these reasons, it’s no surprise that athletes are increasingly turning to yoga to round out their training. In fact, many professional athletes, including NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Love and Seattle Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson, have publicly discussed how yoga has helped keep their bodies and minds healthy and focused.
Here are five poses for any athlete who wants to improve flexibility, core strength and mental focus.
1. Downward Facing Dog
This is a powerhouse pose in that it stretches and strengthens the body in many ways. While stretching the calves, hamstrings and lower-back muscles, it also builds strength in the shoulders and arms. For athletes with tight hamstrings or stiff shoulders, it might take a while to feel comfortable in the pose, but with practice the body will adjust to and may even begin to crave this pose.
Begin on hands and knees, with the hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips. Walk the hands one hand length forward, tuck the toes under and lift the hips into the air. Notice where your weight shifts. Keep a slight bend in the knees and work to lift the tailbone toward the sky.
Root down through all 10 fingers, pressing the floor away. Draw the shoulder blades down the back and away from the ears. Hold for three to five breaths and then release back to hands and knees.
2. Side Angle
This pose stretches and strengthens the legs and hips, while also enhancing balance and building focus.
From a standing position, step the left foot back into a wide stance. Plant the whole left foot on the floor so it is at about a 45-degree angle. Bend the right knee, keeping it in line over the ankle. Bring the right forearm to the top of the right thigh. Stretch the left arm toward the sky and sink the hips lower. Lift the chest, rolling the ribs and left hip upward. Hold for three to five breaths and switch sides.
This pose targets the core muscles, including the transverse abdominis, and builds strength in the hip flexors and the upper back.
Begin seated with the legs bent and the feet flat on the floor in front of you. Stretch out the arms so they are on either side of the legs, palms facing up. Inhale and lengthen the spine, lifting the chest. Exhale and begin to move the torso backward until you feel the back begin to curve. Pause at that spot and hold for three to five breaths, maintaining as strong a V-shape as possible.
Increase the intensity of the pose by lifting the legs either into a tabletop position or straightening them all the way so you are in a full V-shape.
This pose is a great way to stretch the hip flexors, psoas, glutes and outer hips. Variations also allow for chest and shoulder opening and quadriceps stretching.
Start on hands and knees. Bring the left knee toward the outside of the left wrist and set the shin on the floor with the ankle toward the right wrist. The left shin is working toward being parallel to the top edge of the yoga mat. Slide the right leg back until you feel a good stretch. Square the hips, and if they are not touching the floor, place a yoga block, blanket or pillow underneath the hips for support. Inhale and extend the spine. Exhale and walk the hands forward so the chest is moving toward the floor. Hold and breathe for five to 10 breaths and switch sides.
To add more chest and shoulder opening, keep the hands close to the body and the torso erect. Lift the chest and roll the shoulders down and back, away from the ears. To add a quad stretch, bend the left knee and reach back to grab the left foot with the left hand.
5. Twisting Lunge
Twists are great medicine for the spine. Twisting in a lunge provides the added benefit of stretching and strengthening the legs and hips.
From a hands-and-knees position, step the left foot forward so it lands between the hands. Continue to edge the left foot forward until you feel a good stretch in the inner thighs and hips. Let the hips sink toward the floor. Inhale and sweep the left arm up toward the sky, opening the chest and shoulders. For additional shoulder opening, wrap the left arm around the lower back. Hold for five breaths and switch sides.
For a more leg-strengthening pose, pick up the back knee, which will also challenge balance.