Yoga poses and physical therapy exercises have a lot in common. I know--that's not a great sell for yoga if you've had a severe injury and some difficult physical therapy sessions. But, hear me out.
If you've done yoga before, you'll likely notice how the focus is on balancing all parts of the body during any given practice session. Some poses use the entire body, and the ones that are single-sided (for example, a crescent lunge) are always repeated on the other side. This helps keep joints aligned properly and working smoothly. Most classes focus on both strengthening and stretching the muscles, both of which work together to stabilize joints and aid in joint mobility, which in turn help prevent injury. These are also common themes in physical therapy regimens--rehabilitate, strengthen, stabilize, and prevent further injury to a given muscle or area of the body.
Another benefit to strengthening and stabilizing the body through yoga is increased athletic performance. Yoga builds strength in itself, but also helps with power and performance in other weight-lifting or aerobic endeavors, like CrossFit, for example. With stability and strength, your body moves more freely, with more power behind those movements. Endurance can increase. Focus can improve. Yoga is truly a double whammy for athletes. In fact, you might enjoy our article on yoga for weightlifters.
As always, if you have an injury, visiting your doctor and deferring to their recommendation is key. If you're ready to work yoga into your training routine, check out the suggestions below. We'll focus on a few key areas that are prone to injury or "stuckness" in athletes and non-athletes alike--the ankles, knees, and hips.
Start with Your Foundation
Strong and steady ankles and feet affect your body all the way up the kinetic chain. It may seem like focusing on such a small part of the body may be a waste of time, but mobile joints and strong arches help keep your entire body stable and less likely to be injured. More than that, they can help convert that stability into power and speed. The more range of motion you have in your ankles, the more force you are able to generate, which translates to powerful kicks for swimmers, ease of acceleration for runners, and improved performance for weight-lifters. When your ankles are mobile and strong, their job as shock absorbers improves, helping prevent ACL injuries and strains and sprains that come from sudden changes in movement or direction.
If you've suffered a mild ankle sprain, or are in the later recovery stages of a more severe strain or sprain, ask your doctor if you can attend a yoga class to help your ankle heal. Movement itself isn't the most important part when you're dealing with an injury--the key is proper movement. Taking a class with a registered yoga teacher will ensure that you're getting proper alignment cues and observation by a trained instructor. Look for a class that offers standing poses in a gentler format until your ankle is back in top form. These classes are often labeled Slow Flow or Yoga Basics. Poses in these classes will mimic the range-of-motion exercises physical therapists often prescribe for ankle rehab. Low lunges, squats, and balance poses will look familiar to anyone who has gone through physical therapy before.
If you're looking to prevent injury and improve performance, where should you start? The same poses mentioned above will also work for you. If you're familiar with yoga and feel confident that you can practice at home, use Yoga Journal's sequence library to find a practice that takes about fifteen minutes to complete. You can go through the poses before a workout or do a standalone yoga practice the day before a planned physical activity. Evidence shows that dynamic stretching is best just before a workout, so be certain to hold poses for no longer than a breath or two each. If you'd rather take a class in order to get all of the benefits--and motivation--of having an instructor coach you through the poses, look for Slow Flow, Power Yoga, or Vinyasa Yoga classes.
Check Your Knees
The knees are the next joint in line, and they also act as shock absorbers. The best way to start improving knee health is to get your ankles in top condition, but working on the strength and flexibility of the leg muscles is also key. Luckily, there are many, many poses that target the muscles and tendons in the legs. Strong quads can aid in explosive power, something necessary for sprinters, weight-lifters, and most other athletes. Strong, flexible hamstrings bend your knees and move the hips backward, as in a squat. This is helpful, even if you're a casual athlete that isn't worried about your 5k time.
Even if these yoga poses don't sound familiar, they've got nearly identical counterparts in the physical therapy world. Pyramid pose has the hipbones level and facing forward, the legs straight and about 18” apart. You bend toward the front leg and then raise yourself up using leg and core strength. The same movements are present and the same muscles worked.
Another ubiquitous pose in most vinyasa yoga classes is the squat. You'll find it in nearly all physical therapy regimens for the knees as well. It is one of the best poses to develop the quadriceps and gluteal muscles.
As noted above, be sure to align your knees, ankles, and hips correctly, and don't try something you're not sure of. Take a class if you need help with alignment, and be sure to check with your doctor before beginning a yoga practice if you are nursing a knee injury.
Hips Are Key
It has to be said: even if you are logging lots of miles each week, you are likely not running as efficiently as you could be if you spend most of your day sitting in an office chair. Since this is inevitable for many of us, take the time to give your hips a little extra love. They'll reward you in the form of fewer instances of back pain, better run times, and a more enjoyable workout. Many people who are highly physically active still have trouble sitting cross-legged on the floor, or dropping into a low squat. Luckily, there is a wide range of yoga poses that address the hips.
The Warrior Series is a group of poses that is one of the most recognizable and is found in nearly any class not labeled “gentle”. There are three main poses in this series and variations on those poses. They are much like the lunges found in physical therapy, and offer the same benefits. The hip flexors are stretched and rotated, the quads are strengthened, the muscles of the feet and ankles are strengthened. A less active yoga poses that mirrors a basic physical therapy exercise is Bound Angle Pose. Sitting on the floor, you bend your knees out to the side and bring your feet together, soles touching. With a long, straight spine, fold over the knees just as far as you can without your back bowing. As you breathe, imagine your hips releasing. If you have especially tight hips, sitting with your back against a wall and focusing on your hips instead of folding is a great start.
Like I mentioned above, there are many, many yoga poses for the hips. If this is an area of concern, take a class and see which hip-openers you enjoy most, then incorporate them into your training routine.
As you can see, there are plenty of poses for each area of the body. Whether you use these as part of your cool down or in between workout sessions to help maintain physical fitness, be sure to warm up, watch your alignment, and have fun.