Story by: Khaled Allen, Photos by:
The New York Giants and Denver Broncos both do yoga, but in case you think football is a soft sport, know that the Toronto Maple Leafs practice it as well. Playoff performance aside, each team houses some pretty hard-core athletes. That being said, I know how hard it can be to imagine that deep breathing and awkward stretches are legitimate ways to improve your performance.
I was among the hardest of the hard-core, and I thought I didn’t need yoga. After all, I could rip over 300 pounds off the floor and then churn out a few dozen pull-ups. How was downward dog going to improve on that?
After I injured my back, there wasn’t much besides yoga that I could do. I turned to yoga with the hope that some gentle exercise would give me back the ability to get dressed in the morning without crippling agony. After a few weeks, I noticed I wasn’t as stiff in the mornings as I had been, so even after my back healed, I kept it up.
Then I returned to my gym for an intense workout. I expected to find myself a bit behind, having done nothing for the last month, but to my surprise, I was even faster and more powerful than before. Prior to the injury, my movements had been powerful but brutish. Now, I was precise and efficient. I wasn’t fighting my own inflexibility, so my muscles could direct all of their energy toward moving the weights, and being more mobile made it less tiring to get into the proper positions. I was amazed at how much smoother the whole workout felt.
Relax into strength
If your sport relies on fast, coordinated movements — as most martial arts and team sports do — being able to relax muscles at the right time can make the difference between victory and defeat. When you aren’t fighting your own stiff muscles, you can drive all of your power into smashing your opponent, spiking the ball or chasing down whoever just nabbed your boyfriend’s wallet.
There are three reasons why learning to relax can make you more powerful.
First, strength comes from muscular tension, but in order for a muscle to contract, it must first be stretched. The deeper the initial stretch, the stronger the contraction will be. Think of a rubber band. If it is stretched to its full length and then released, it snaps much more powerfully than if it is only stretched a little bit. If something prevents the rubber band from stretching fully, it’ll never generate its full power. In the same way, if your body normally limits how much your muscles can stretch, they’ll never generate their full power. The flexibility work in yoga will train your brain to allow for deeper stretches.
Second, tense muscles move more slowly. What makes martial artists so fast is their ability to relax until the moment they need to tense for a punch. Holding unnecessary tension slows the body down by stiffening joints. Relaxed muscles let you move fluidly and rapidly. The same principles apply to sprinting, jumping and any other quick movement. Yoga teaches you how to turn tension on and off at the right time, and with the right rhythm.
Third, muscles work in pairs. If one side of the pair is too tight, it prevents the other side from working properly. The working muscle will have to overcome the force of its tight partner in addition to any weight it is trying to move. In order to hold the poses in yoga, you will learn how to totally relax some muscles to get the most out of the ones holding the pose.
So, regardless of whether your goal is strength, speed or power, there are a lot of benefits to being able to relax.
More to it than stretches
Most people know that improving their flexibility can help alleviate aches and pains that accumulate as a result of sedentary living. Yoga is usually understood as something that helps people find peace with stiff bodies. But while it is well known for its benefits for flexibility and mobility, it is about much more than simply stretching. Yoga, as a practice, trains the mind and body to relax muscles at the right times, rather than making them hold constant tension. The mindfulness you practice in yoga translates to more precise movement, even when you don’t have the luxury of being fully present. It develops fine-tuned, whole-body coordination that enables you to get the most out of your body and perform in sports and life.
4 places to do yoga in Seoul
Body & Seoul Martial Arts and Fitness Center
Phone: (02) 749-2485, 010-6397-2662
Magic Pond Yoga
Phone: (02) 782-1003, 010-3689-1799
Phone: (02) 319-5655
Phone: (02) 2052-0096
About the writer: Khaled Allen is a fitness and health consultant for Body & Seoul Martial Arts & Fitness Center. For more of his writings, go to www.khaledallen.com. Seek professional advice before attempting the exercises reviewed in this column. — Ed.