Monday, 13 May 2013

why athletes should do yoga: a guest-post from Ellie Coats...

I’ll be honest...I have absolutely no clue how this post will be received.  

I have been wanting to post some thoughts on the purported benefits of yoga for athletes for a while, and when I read this one from Ellie Coats - a yoga practitioner in Cambridge, in the UK,  it fit the bill perfectly. It also proposes a couple of unique things that I had not thought of before, so I thought I would share it here.

I have personally ‘practiced’ (as that is what we are supposed to say, right?) yoga for 12 years or so.  And I still really suck.  In fact, I think I’m probably worse than when I started.  I got the breathing down pretty good....but the rest of it?  This old body just doesn’t move that way.  A few weeks ago, I figured I’d try it in the heat, so went along to a Bikram session...thought the added humidity, and the 110 degree heat would somehow, magically allow my body to move in ways not seen in a few decades.  

Nope.  Not even close.  

So while my own yoga career has never really lifted off (sort of like my track career), I have always espoused the benefits of it to my athletes, and have at times even included it in my programming.  It remains to this day a part of each training session’s warm-up.  

Folks on the east side of the Atlantic may be scratching their heads right now.  Yoga?  For athletes?  C’mon...

On this side of the Atlantic though, it’s not so uncommon.  I’m sure by now a majority of athletes in the States and Canada have at least tried it (and secretly most of them might even admit to enjoying it).

And if you haven’t?  I encourage you to give it a go.  At the very least, you had a fun hour enjoying exploring your ridiculousness (at least that is how it feels when compared to some of the 100lb yogis that frequent the classes).  Like Ellie said to me in a recent message - we’ve got to get past the pre-existing view of yoga as something that middle-aged women do in church halls to get flexible and breathe....

get stuck in... 


yoga for athletes...a guest-post from Ellie Coats

Yoga as a method of cross-training for athletes brings with it improved range of motion, balance and a quietened mind. Here I will discuss some aspects of yoga practice and what benefits it can bring to an athletic training programme.

Some Yoga Basics
  • The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning to yoke, bind or simply “union”.
  • Postures or “asanas” are a very small part of a traditional yoga practice. One purpose of asana is to prepare the body so that it is both strong and open enough to sit in meditation.
  • Western practice of yoga predominantly consists of posture work. “Hatha” yoga means any form of yoga which involves physical posture, although the word is often used differently to imply a gentle class style. Ha-tha translates as “sun-moon”.
  • There are many, many brands of hatha yoga. Iyengar and Astanga are two of the more classical Indian forms. Vinyasa flow, the style I primarily teach, has in many respects been taken from the Astanga tradition. Vinyasa can be translated as “flow”, “relationship” or even “transition”.
  • Both meditation and traditional breathing exercises (pranayama) can be used to bring benefits to athletic performance. However, my own yoga practice is almost exclusively based in hatha vinyasa - i.e. a physical practice with postures - and so it is this that I will be discussing.


In a vinyasa flow class, we link poses together into a sequence, moving from one to the next with either an inhalation or an exhalation. To begin each class, we normally do a form of sun salutation (“surya namaskar” in Sanskrit). A standard Astanga-style sun salutation warms the spine up in the sagittal plane with a series of forward and backward movements. This then proceeds to a more advanced style of surya namaskar where a step forwards is taken and the spine must begin to move in both the frontal and transverse planes. Progressing into standing poses, different asanas will improve the range of motion and proprioception at different joints. Standing prepares you for sitting, and when you sit the range of motion required at the hip joints substantially increases, so we ease our way in through lunges of various forms. We also practice backbending, arm balancing, and inversions like headstand and shoulderstand, all of which bring their own benefits to the body. 

Asana/postures are best viewed in terms of the spine and the benefits it enjoys from being moved into these different positions, increasing its range of motion and proprioception. One definition of yoga is a practice which lengthens the spine. If the spine is long, free and functioning well, then the body as a whole is likely to be functioning well.

Benefits for Athletes

As a method of cross-training, I have observed two major benefits of yoga practice. 

1. Yoga can help ensure that an athlete’s base level flexibility does not decrease with the demands of their training programme. Indeed with regular practice it can vastly improve range of joint motion throughout the body. There are a couple of particular advantages to this:

  1. If an athlete can easily create the shapes required to properly perform their sport, they are more likely to efficiently eccentrically load the correct muscles needed for optimum performance. The initial reason most athletes will consider coming to a yoga class is to improve their flexibility. Over the last five seasons I have worked with many rowers and one of the things immediately obvious about the rowing stroke is that it requires considerable hip and spinal mobility to get into the 'catch' position - i.e. the tucked up crouch at the beginning of the stroke. The first push through the legs will be vastly more efficient and powerful if all the relevant muscles have loaded effectively in eccentric contraction, something they will only be able to do if they are pliable enough to allow the joints sufficient mobility to fully express the position. One reason I believe rowers return time and again to yoga is that the change that they notice in the boat is more immediate and palpable compared to that felt by athletes competing in other sports where the demands on flexibility are not as great.
  2. A good level of flexibility decreases the likelihood of injury. The “catch” position of the rowing stroke requires deep hip and ankle rotation and good movement through the lumbar spine, although the specific requirements will depend on the style of stroke the coach is asking of their athletes. As explained by osteopath Ed Paget in his recent article when discussing the sprint starts of Olympic speed skaters: “If their hip doesn’t have the flexibility to get into that position then it is easy to see how ‘something’ would get pulled, pushed strained or tweaked [during the pressures of a sprint start]”. 

2. As a further tool in the injury prevention arsenal. A good yoga practice encourages balance between left and right so that, when at rest, your centre of gravity is as close to the middle of your base of support as possible. This is a particular issue in sweep rowing, an inherently asymmetrical sport where one leg will often load more strongly than the other, in time pushing the perceived centre of gravity well away from true centre. Pain and injury can then manifest further up the fascial trains as a result of uneven tension distribution, rib injuries being one of the most unpleasant consequences. (If injuries to the ribs and their surrounding fascia do occur, a group yoga class is unlikely to be safe for the patient and appropriate one-on-one treatment becomes necessary. Group yoga sessions should be considered as conditioning rather than therapy).

Transition Zones

In a yoga asana practice we move in and out of what is called the “transition zone”, testing the edges of where we and our joints and fascia can safely reach. This is true whether we are working with static held postures or flowing through a vinyasa. “A transition zone can . . . be described as the zone when a muscle/fascial chain has come to the end of its eccentric loading phase and is switching into its concentric contraction.” (again from Ed)

Moving through a series of postures, we ask a joint, or joints, to explore the end range of their motion and with time improve proprioception at the edges of that range, and also test its function whilst working in couples with other joints. Then in time it gradually becomes more and more comfortable for e.g. the hip to deeply externally rotate. First perhaps gently whilst standing with an extended knee, then standing with a flexed knee and a rotated spine, then sitting - maybe initially on blocks, then whilst balancing on your hands with a flexed spine so as to challenge the body’s standard perception of its base of support.


All of this can be taught one pose at a time, allowing for a deeper settling in over the course of several breaths, or you can ‘flow’ from pose to pose, vinyasa style. At the highest level of this practice, as you move towards the edge of your range of motion in one pose, the fascia which has been eccentrically loading will switch to concentric contraction and depending on where you place your gaze (or your breath), the body flows into another shape and towards another edge where other muscles will reach the end of their loading capacity and send you onwards, encouraging the “perpetual movement situation” sought by rowers or the “flow” we often talk about in yoga classes. This requires practice and patience to achieve, but the benefits of retaining and not wasting energy via this method of movement are many.

A nice and reasonably simple example of flowing through a vinyasa from edge to edge can be found in the transition of standing straight-legged with lifted arms (urdhva hastasana) to folding down into a standing forward bend (uttanasana). I am assuming no conscious concentric contraction - i.e. no pulled up thighs, no cinched-in core etc*, just relaxed body weight through both feet - and we will simplify the movements and remove the raised arms. By lifting the sternum upwards (not backwards), the front body will lengthen, specifically the superficial front line and the deep front line. Initially the front body extension will create a smooth curve through the front of the body and down into the thighs, with extended hip flexors. As you reach the end range of your sternum lift (and this will depend on your flexibility and the condition of your fascia), the deep front line will come to the end point of its eccentric contraction - its transition zone or its edge - and will start to concentrically contract, shortening the hip flexors and pulling your front body in on itself until you find yourself in a forward bend. 

Not everyone will feel this automatic transition to start with. It may need some time to open the body and create sufficient sensitivity that the transition zone can be both explored and experienced. Initially in this example you may feel it as a softening or drop downwards behind your navel, but it may not have sufficient power to bring you forward. With time however, a smoothness of flow encourages the switching off of the chatter of the mind, bringing you fully into your body.


In this article, I have discussed the role of yoga as I have experienced it within an athletic training programme; that it can have an impact on whether you can get into the positions your sport requires of you and can decrease the likelihood of injuries experienced by athletes. Looking deeper, we can begin to explore the transition zone of fascia and the proprioception at joints, leading to a greater understanding of our own body’s function and capabilities - and possibilities - taking us to a space where we can move with ease whilst conserving energy.

Finally, and most fundamentally, a yoga practice is at its best when it is fun and enjoyable - a session where you get to turn yourself upside down and balance on your head, or your hands and laugh when you reach that point just a fraction beyond your current edge and you fall over. There is a freedom to this kind of practice which can offer a relief within an intense training programme and a time to wind down and take a breath.

* I was first introduced to the concept of not consciously concentrically contracting muscles by Anatomy in Motion founder Gary Ward. By using an electronic foot scanner which measures your body’s sway in every direction whilst standing on a pressure pad, he was very quickly able to show me that we are much more unstable standing classical Tadasana style with pulled up legs, core etc. than simply standing relaxed on two feet with slightly flexed knees in a Qi Gong or a Tai Chi-style stance.

Ellie Coats is a yoga teacher, shiatsu practitioner and anatomy in motion (AiM) practitioner. She has worked with Cambridge University Lightweight Rowing Club for the past five seasons and taught yoga to Sophie Hosking (Olympic gold, lightweight women’s double sculls, London 2012), Steph Cullen and Imogen Walsh (both World Championship gold, lightweight women’s quad, Bled 2011) and their coach Paul Reedy from 2009. Ellie has had success with both injury prevention and treatment using all three practices she is trained in and, working in collaboration with coach John Thicknes, has developed methods which have helped ensure that there have been no significant injuries at CULRC for at least the past 3 seasons. You can reach Ellie at, and give her a follow on Twitter at @Elliesyoga


  1. Interesting stuff. A lot of the stuff here is really applicable to rock climbing too.

    Climbing puts your hips in all sorts of awkward positions, and then requires you to use your legs to initiate the next move. If you have the flexibility to feel comfortable in those positions it's so much easier to generate enough power to move out of it fluidly and explosively.

    1. Hi Ed, yes. As much as I would say that rowing requires a rather extreme range of motion in flexion, climbing does perhaps even more so with the need to be able to flex and also extend the hips in all planes of motion. Cultivating strength, power and flexibility relevant to your sport should all be possible with a well thought through sequence and a strong foundation in standing poses with an emphasis on a fluid entry and exit.


  2. I think any situation in which we present the the body with a context in which the innate desire for movement can be explored in a controlled and relaxing manner has potential for benefit. I think with athletes there is often a tendency to move through quite mechanistic pre-programmed routines (this is something I have been guilty of) and presenting an opportunity for interoception and novel information to be presented to the brain, be it through yoga, feldenkrais etc, can be a great way to expand awareness of how our bodies move. For me it's more about the context than the label of the method, but conceptually it can be quite hard for people to understand without some guidance, and hence where I think practice like yoga can be helpful in that regard. Tied in with this is the socio-cultural perspective on yoga, the expectations people hold regarding what yoga "is" which can aid the outcome. I also think this type of practice can have positive psychological benefits in an athlete when it can be seen as separate from training (compared with say, a flexibility portion of a training session) and if done away from the usual training environment in providing a sense of relief from the hardships of training and encouraging the PNS to thrive. Again, it's all about context.

    Equally though, I think yoga practise which is more focused on rigid positions rather than exploration of movement will have limitations in the same way as mechanistic flexibility routines. Furthermore, like any situation when we open our bodies to the guidance of others, my concern would be in finding competent practitioners that progress individuals as their movement allows and do not force them to progress when it wont. There's plenty of stories of injuries from yoga when these conditions are not met. I would actively avoid practitioners that hold pseudo-scientific beliefs in their explanations.

    1. Hi Alex,

      Many thanks for your comments and you raise some interesting points I wanted to take some time to think on and respond to.

      Your first comment I entirely agree with. I believe that taking yourself out of, as you put it, “mechanistic pre-programmed routines” is key and moving the body in lots of different ways keeps things interesting - presenting novel info to the brain - and also reduces risk of injury as if you move in only one way the whole time, something eventually is likely to give, either in the manner of repetitive strain, or because under pressure - eg a sprint start in poor conditions - you ask something unexpected of the body and if you train only in one plane, it won’t know how to deal with it. Speaking too from experience, I can say that a body which is used to moving in all different directions is far, far easier to rehab than one that is stuck in a single pattern of movement.

      There are certainly psychological benefits to be had. The rigors of a physical practice can be a challenge for the mind, but additionally meditation is an extremely useful tool as are breathing exercises. Combining meditation in a session where the coach is talking through your race plan, for example, has the potential to be very helpful.

      Breath exercises (pranayama in yoga) can be used (always carefully and with a very very experienced and competent teacher) to increase your breath capacity, and strengthen and power up your breathing muscles, something likely to give you a bit of extra edge when the rest of you is flagging.

      As it turns out, I also agree with your final paragraph. “Rigid positions” are certainly what this article is not about. I have suffered at times from classes with too much of that. Tightening the body only increases the likelihood that you will be distributing weight through the feet unevenly, thus leaving you open to injuries at your weakest links.

      I think too that yoga teachers (or teachers of any sort) should be viewed as you would view a coach. Select someone whose work you like and be clear what you are hoping to cultivate as a result of training with them. Do you want to be able to move like them? Can they get you to places you couldn’t have got on your own and can you feel/see the benefits of the practice when you train? And there are certainly many injuries in the yoga world -don’t be fooled. Technique and deep understanding of movement and biomechanics is vital. Additionally, a serious practitioner/teacher will do their own self practice at least 3 times a week, if not every day. That should put them in a good position to fully explain what something should feel like (as well as break it down anatomically) and what the benefits of a particular aspect of the practice are likely to be. You will also be able to see in their bodies what their practice is cultivating.

      In the end, yoga is not the single answer to anything. The word “should” in the title of this piece is Stuart’s and not mine. There are a lot of people out there doing a lot of cool things. As well as checking out Anatomy in Motion, as mentioned above, I train with Jon Monks ( /, have tried and thought awesome MovNat and have a lot of time for what Ido Portal is doing at the moment. Figure out what you’re trying to gain and shop around.

      Oh, and don’t be put off by all pseudo-scientific beliefs until you’ve explored them a little ;) - equally don’t be sucked in by everything you hear. There is a buddhist saying: if I gave you a piece of gold, you would test it to make sure that it is gold before you did anything with it. Get informed and test everything!


  3. I think we can find use in a many other practices (such as yoga) for our athletes. However, i think we must demand better than simply sending an athlete off to do yoga, should we not be providing more specific mobility/stabilty work for elite athletes? As with everything in our line of work, there will be good and bad practitioners and Ellie seems to be someone who 'gets it' and i'm sure the work she does is hugely beneficial. Could we take this and optimise it by adapting specific content from yoga and other techniques to address an individual's needs more specifically?

    1. agreed! 'Bolt-ons' stem from coaches not understanding what it is they are trying to get - so they just send their athletes away to do 'something' - because they heard from 'someone' that it is 'good'. Whether this is yoga, or strength training, or massage, or chiro, or anything you can think of, effective integration to the program is essential. Far too many coaches don't understand the totality of the system - how coaching is not only MULTI-disciplinary, but's not just that there are lots of things to worry about, it's that those lots of things to worry about all interact with each other - in different ways, and at different times...

    2. Hello both,

      “Could we take [yoga] and optimise it by adapting specific content from yoga and other techniques to address and individual’s needs more specifically” - Hell yeah! I think the key is excellent communication between coach and practitioner. Coach says “athlete needs X” and practitioner then helps athlete find X via relevant movement techniques. I do this kind of work as well when an athlete has a niggle, addressing very small problems - just a touch of pain - so they never become real injuries. It is an extremely effective way to work, but requires you to be very proactive as you must insist that your athletes tell you regularly exactly what is going on with them. I do this at the beginning of a weekly yoga class to check in with how everyone is and trying to catch things early.

      I also agree that simply sending an athlete off to do yoga can be unhelpful unless the goals of the athlete/coach are understood by the teacher and (actually just as importantly) vice versa. Getting a teacher to come and teach a group class to your squad is one way to do this.

      Additionally, this touches on something that really bugs me - when other healthcare professionals tell someone that it’s smart for them to go and do any generic yoga class as part of their rehab when classes, teachers and practices vary so massively. Anyone recommending a yoga class as rehab should recommend a specific class with a specific teacher for specific reasons.

      Fully agree with all of Stuart’s points :)


    3. . . . not sure word in square brackets should have been [yoga], but hopefully I didn't entirely miss the point and mine is nevertheless clear.


  4. First of all, whoever is responsible for the pictures- they are awesome.

    Ellie, I am also a teacher working with athletes, and I appreciate how succinctly you explained the benefits here. I had never thought to explain something like "transition zones." Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Hi Sam,

    Top two pics are courtesy of Stu, the astavakrasana is of me.

    Really glad you enjoyed it, although I must credit Ed Paget for the transition zones - do read his article on this blog if you haven't already. It's absolutely fantastic, my main inspiration for writing this article and fully relevant to everything we do as yoga teachers in this sphere.

    Give me a follow on Twitter if you're on there and if I see you I'll follow back :)


  6. Nice article. So many athletes are starting to take up yoga, you hear about it all of the time! I think it's great and can really improve an athlete's capability on/off the field.

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