The Benefits of Yoga for Gymnasts
Often it is thought that because gymnasts and already both strong and flexible, yoga would not be of great benefit to these athletes. However the body balancing benefits of yoga are essential not only to improve current performance but also from a longevity perspective. Most gymnasts are extremely open in some areas where other ares are relatively tight. The physical yoga practice will help to address and balance these areas out. The additional benefits of the more ‘spiritual' aspects of yoga, like pranayama and meditation, will help gymnasts to perform better during competitions and deal with competitive stress.
Competitive gymnasts train at least 10 hours a week. They are on a strict training schedule practicing entire routines repeatedly or a skill or sequence within a routine, develop new skills, and improve their strength and flexibility. Competition requires a high level of focus and concentration during a few peak performances on the day. Fear of failure and stress are very common aspects of competition.
The physical training aspects of gymnastics are dynamic and repetitive with high impact on feet, ankles, knees and the spine. Due to the mostly young age of these gymnasts, tightness in muscles (especially the hamstrings) related to growing bones is quite common. Overall, the muscles on the back body are strong and well developed while the front of the body is long and open. Especially the lower back and shoulders are areas prone to longevity issues, like wear and tear, due to body posture imbalance. Hyper flexibility of elbow and/or knee joints are fairly common, creating joint instability and making it harder to develop thigh and and upper arm muscles.
Yoga’s holistic approach to balance the body and to work both body and mind, helps to increase the level of body awareness. Listening to their bodies and making adjustments in their training accordingly; knowing when to push harder, when to pull back, and when to rest. Additionally increased body balance will help to not over rely on those muscles that already do most of the work and/or stretch those areas that are already open.
Even though all layers of yoga could be helpful, the main principles that can be applied are Asana (practice of postures), Pranayama (breath work), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) and Dharana (Concentration). Using these principles, yoga has a potential to help increase gymnasts’ performances in the following four main areas:
Body posture and awareness
Dealing with stress
Body Posture and Awareness
Due to the relatively young age of the gymnasts, and the relative lack of body awareness, together with the dynamic nature of the sport, imbalance in the body is very common. Certain muscles are over developed, making up for other muscles that are weak. Other areas are very open and flexible, being overused to open the body up. in this way creating a vicious circle of body imbalance.
Even though yoga may by many seen to just increase body flexibility, the inhibition and activation of certain muscles in yoga poses, is for these gymnasts more beneficial than the potentially increased flexibility. The practice of yoga postures with a focus on maintaining them to stimulate muscles activation, will help to strengthen weak areas and open tight areas. Additionally this will help to stabilise joints (especially hyperextended joints like elbows and knees) and increase body awareness, with the aim of creating lasting increases in functional mobility, stability, and mental stamina.
Injuries occur mostly in the tendons and ligaments of the body. Therefore the best way to help prevent injuries is to increase joint health. The strengthening and stabilisation of joints (most prone to injury) and the spine are essential, not only for injury prevention but also from a longevity point of view.
Yin yoga exercises, where we move into the maximum range of motion and stay there while releasing muscle tension, opening up the joints in the less mobile range of motion (eg shoulder extension, spinal twists or hip flexion) helps to create balance in the joints and will improve overall joint and ligament health. Another great benefit of practicing yin yoga is finding stillness in each stretch and connecting to the body while softening around these joints. The intensity of stretching into the maximum range of motion creates an internal focus and helps to build mindfulness. Practitioners of this type of yoga find a lot of lightness in their movement which is an excellent benefit for gymnasts.
A strong awareness needs to be created from the feet up. Building strength in the feet and ankle joint in order to provide a better basis for the ‘bounce’ required in the tumbling activities and helping to stabilise the knee joint. In any standing poses focus needs to be on prevention of hyper extension of the knees, helping students to better engage their quadriceps. For example a block behind the calves (preventing hyper extension) can help to find initial engagement of these upper leg muscles (see picture). Additionally a slight bend of the knees need to be promoted in straight legged poses in order to find the ‘neutral’ position of the knee.
Focus on lumbar spine mobility, especially in twisting and lateral movement is essential for spinal health and longevity. Most movement for these athletes comes from the lumbar/thoracic opening, which requires stabilisation to not overuse this part of the spine. This requires strengthening of the QL muscles in the lower back in poses like Salambasana (Locust pose) and Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) where the chest is lifted.
Dealing with Pressure
The highly competitive environment together with the pressure from coaches, parents and gymnasts themselves, creates a high level of stress during competitions. Gymnasts are required to wait extensive periods of time before they have to perform their routine directly in front of scoring judges and judging peers. Often negative mind chatter occurs while waiting. These young gymnasts judge themselves harshly.
Being well prepared for the performance is essential, however often very little guidance is provided here and this is where the breath comes in as a useful tool. It has been proven that slow, steady, long breaths help to slow the heart rate, calm the mind, increase the blood oxygen levels to improve performance and improve endurance during times of physical and mental stress. Breathing exercises can help gymnasts to prepare themselves better and to keep calm during the period in which they have to wait their turn, meanwhile getting their body and muscles ready for their performance.
During competitions there are many distracting factors; sounds, noises, encouraging parents and coaches, other gymnasts performing their routines at the same time. The ability of the gymnast to focus and to not get distracted by their senses, will help improve their performance.
Yoga practice, designed to balance body and mind, will help to create balance and mental focus. The mindfulness created during the practice for the poses will help to increase their powers of concentration and help quiet the mind. Additionally the practice of meditation will help create withdrawal of the senses and increase concentration. One way to do this is to use the breath as a tool to focus the mind but it can also be achieved in meditation and the use of visualisations.
The positive effect of visualisations has been proven to improve performance, even without physical practice. There is evidence that gymnasts who have the ability to imagine themselves perform the routines and to feel themselves going through the moves, perform better. The effect of visualising themselves going through their routine successfully while waiting to compete will help them quiet their minds and prepare them for the routine.
Implementing Yoga in a Gymnast’s Training Schedule
It is advisable to integrate a yoga practice into the weekly gymnasts training schedule. Already two to three yoga practices a week will establish a lasting change for the gymnast. Given that these gymnasts already train strength and flexibility, some of these sessions could possibly be replaced with a yoga asana (poses) practice. Optionally they could attend sessions at a nearby yoga school.
Excellent poses for gymnasts to include in asana practises include:
Good poses to increase body awareness from the feet to the hips Utthita Trikonasana (triangle), Virabhadrasana I and II (warrior poses) and Vrksasana (Treepose).
Poses to increase focus and create stillness of mind are balancing poses like Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (extended hand foot pose) and Virabhadrasana III (warrior pose).
Poses to help opening the back of the body and the hamstrings like Uttanasana and Paschhimottanasana (standing and seated forward bend) are helpful however extreme care needs to be given to have the movement come from the hips and not the lumbar/thoracic spine. Adho Mukkha Svanasana (Downward facing dog pose) is also a great way to build strength while opening the back of the body. A strap should be used when the elbows have a tendency to overextend.
Adho Navasana (low boat) and Lolasana (Pendant pose) lifts are a great way to increase (lower) abs and hip flexor strength.
The QL muscles in the lower back can be strengthened in poses like Salambasana (Locust pose) and Bhujangasana (Cobra pose), lifting the chest and legs away from the floor.
Helpful yin poses include awkward boat pose (to open the shoulders in extension), peace pose (twisting the spine and stretch into the posterior shoulder muscles), Banana pose (shoulders, lateral spine, obliques and ITB stretch), and Sleeping swan pose (gluteus and ITB stretch).
Additionally meditation, breath work (including movement with breath), and visualisation sessions should be added. These sessions don’t have to be too long, 10-15 minutes per session is sufficient. Practice makes perfect, the more the gymnast can practice meditation and visualisation the better they will get at it. Gymnasts should be motivated to practice these techniques outside the gym environment a few times a week.
Resources and References
In order to determine the benefits of yoga for gymnasts I have studied a small group of young girls who are trained to perform tumbling routines at a national level. They perform routines on trampoline, tumbling floor (sping/air floor) and mini trampoline. As part of this I have spoken with their trainer (who also trains the national team) and their physiotherapist. Additionally, I have studied researches based mainly on longevity impact on elite gymnasts, sport psychology, and impact of elite training regimens and competitive performance on young athletes (see references below).
I have mapped the outcomes of this research to yoga articles about sport and yoga, yoga books, application of ideas to the group of young gymnasts mentioned above, and my own extensive yoga knowledge based on 17 years of study, practice and teaching.
Psychological factors that impact on training, performance and recovery - http://www.jaconline.com.au/liveitup/downloads/LIU2_09_295.pdf
Psychology of the elite athlete: An exploratory study - Michael J. Mahoney, Marshall Avener - http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01173634
Research Informing Practice: Current Issues in Gymnastics Research “Injury, skill development, elite performer and fundamental movements” - Gareth Irwin, Patria Hume, William Sands, Toshiyuki Fujihara - https://ojs.ub.uni-konstanz.de/cpa/article/view/5899
Yoga for Sports Performance - Sue Hollingshead - http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/for-sports-performance
YinSights - A Journey into the Practice & Philosophy of Yin Yoga - Bernie Clark - http://www.yinyoga.com/ys0.3_table_of_contents_complete.php
Light on Yoga - B. K. S. Iyengar
Yoga for Every Athlete : Secrets of an Olympic Coach - Aladar Kogler
Body, Mind and Sport - John Douillard