Let It Go Yoga for Athletes

Let is Go Yoga is like an old, wise friend that I can always depend upon to make me feel better. The practice has positively impacted my life and body in so many ways.  As a mom of three it has allowed me a safe and healing place during my pregnancy, through postpartum recovery, and during challenging parenting moments. Practicing  Let It Go Yoga has strengthened my belief in mindfulness. Teaching it has given me a ‘go to’ practice for any student needing a gentle yet effective class. But perhaps the greatest way this amazingly versatile practice has impacted me is as an amateur athlete.  I surf and swim and bike and play with my kids.  I have scoliosis, which tends to manifest in structural and postural imbalances in my body (read incredibly tight hips regardless of my consistent yoga practice).  In addition, my shoulders have always been where I carry my tension. I remember as a child sitting at the piano practicing and my shoulders (specifically my trapezius muscles below and alongside the neck) were hard as rocks.  Swimming and paddling seem to make them even tighter. Let It Go Yoga has given me a way to be consistent with working on softening, stretching and loosening these areas. It’s a simple and satisfying way to give the areas of my body that want attention, the attention they deserve. A story I always tell my yoga classes before I teach this particular style of yoga is that before I started practicing Let it Go yoga, I could never carry my surfboard under my arm…I was just a couple centimeters shy of being able to reach around it with my arm.  So I carried my board balanced on my head.  I remember being shocked one day when I was able to hold my longboard under my arm.  Same arm, same board.  So what had changed?  I had added Let it Go Yoga to my life.

How it Works for Athletes:
It only seemed natural then to begin sharing this special practice with other athletes.  I started by introducing my husband, who is a three-time water polo Olympian to the practice.  He was so impressed with the immediate sense of increased mobility and openness it created in his hips that he asked me to teach it to his collegiate water polo team during their preseason “hell month” training.  I created a special Yoga for Athletes class at the University of California Santa Barbara incorporating Let it Go Yoga.  I have taught this practice at UCSB to the rugby team, the men’s baseball team, to swimmers, track and field athletes, women’s softball players and more.  I also have taught the practice to recreational athletes, surfers, runners etc in my typical yoga classes.  Basically if you exercise in any way, you are going to have tighter hip and shoulder muscles.  When you build strength it often compromises flexibility.  Let it Go Yoga helps tip the balance back in the athletes’ favor. It not only helps increase flexibility and thus prevent injury, it guides athletes in paying attention to the body, mind and breath.  Attention to each of these areas is invaluable to any athlete and provides and edge to their performance in often unexpected ways.
Benefits to the Physical Body:
The Let it Go Yoga Practice is a hip opening and shoulder opening practice.  Generally, students tend to feel most of the poses, especially some of the more intense poses, in the hips.  I do feel that a great amount of the benefit of the practice is focused in this area.  But then again, there is the story about my surfboard! So clearly other areas, especially the shoulders are being affected as well.  My teacher of Let it Go Yoga, Sue Anne Parsons, tells me that she hears of myriad ways that the body, and its parts are made better through the practice of Let it Go Yoga.  Often students feel the poses in their ankles or calves, areas that are being strengthened and stretched during the practice as well.  The simple flexing of the feet during the entire practice stretches the Achilles and calf muscles, which in turn aid ailments caused by tightness in these areas, such as plantar fasciitis.  Also the holding of the foot with the ankle in a flexed foot position while resisting with the arm, builds a lot of ankle strength, with a sensation of fatigue in the ankle similar to what one might feel the first time ice skating.
Speaking of resistance, there is resistance training built right into the let it go practice.  The idea behind resistance flexibility training is that you can stretch muscles more effectively while resisting the stretch.  I personally believe it is a great way to increase flexibility while keeping everything safe, as you cannot overstretch while resisting. In a great many of the poses in the Let it Go practice, you are using your arm to hold the leg as you try to move the shoulders back and down and the knees open and down, creating a great natural resistance and increasing the effectiveness of the stretch.  I think this is one of the secrets to the effectiveness of this practice.  While it seems passive, it is actually quite active.  In addition you are not just doing one or two hip or shoulder stretches.  The poses require you to hit the hip and shoulder at many different angles, which create a lot of mobility in both areas.
Benefits of Mindfulness:
In addition to the benefits it provides to the muscles and joints in the body, Let it Go Yoga can be a meditative and spiritual practice as well.  After all, you are lying prone on the earth for over an hour, so it is an automatic way to slow yourself down and start to pay attention.  At first, as with any meditative practice the mind may resist and skip around all over the place.  This is normal, and honestly the level of mindfulness for me still varies from practice to practice.  But with consistency, there is a learning that takes place.  Yoga in general and specifically Let it Go Yoga calls upon the student to become aware of how the body feels, both of areas that are in need attention and of areas that are strong and open.  The awareness is learned through movement with breath.  While paying attention to the breath while moving into specific postures, you are allowed to experience the body with a mind quiet enough to listen.  This mindfulness will grow to not only encompass the physical body but your energy body and emotional body as well.  What’s that you might ask? It’s a simple way of saying that by paying attention to one thing, in this case focusing on the breath, you give your mind a break.  In turn you can begin to feel how your body actually feels, fell what your energy level is, feel and honor the emotions you are experiencing at that moment. In addition you learn not to become overly attached to any of these things because they are always changing, but just to observe them.
This mental noting, or awareness can be of benefit to the athlete in so many ways.  An athlete’s ability to control the mind to a subtle disciplined awareness increases their focus so that the body moves effortlessly without the mind interfering.  All of the training and knowledge that is ingrained within is let to reign, while the mind sits quietly in the background noting.  I believe it also helps prevent injury in the sense that one becomes less careless, more focused and aware of any areas of the body that need attention before it becomes a major issue.  It helps keep the body healthy by informing us when we are run down and need to slow down. Finally it helps keep the mind strong and better able to control emotion, which is almost always a benefit to the game.   It is no coincidence that so many professional athletes and teams have begun to incorporate yoga into their training.  If it were simply the physical benefits that was key, Pilates, or stretching or some other form of exercise would do just as well.  But it is the Mindfulness and awareness along with the attention to the breath that are the true gem, sought by so many athletes.
Benefits of Breath:
Mindfulness and awareness of the breath go hand in hand in yoga, but it is worth nothing that there are specific benefits to the way we learn to breathe in Let it Go Yoga that will increase endurance, reduce stress and create a more healthy person and athlete.  In yoga breath is through the nose with the mouth closed.  Breathing through the nose increases oxidation of the blood, cleanses and warms the air you breathe, and also can relax the nervous system.  Learning to take slow full breaths through the nose stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms you down.  Whereas shallow short breathing stimulates the sympathetic flight or flight response which can result in anxiety and lightheadedness. Learning diaphragmatic breath, which really means taking full but not exaggerated breaths, to expand the lungs and contract the diaphragm, can help athletes by creating a sense of well being and calm.  It optimizes oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. It teaches them to breathe correctly, which improves focus and can reduce performance anxiety.  Of course during exertion most athletes will breathe through their mouth but with increased awareness of their breath, they will be able to return to normal breathing more quickly and reap the benefits of the calm it provides while bringing their bodies to rest more quickly.
How to Incorporate Let It Go Yoga into an Athlete’s Life:
So now that we are aware of all the wonderful benefits that Let it Go Yoga can bring to an athlete’s life, how do you go about incorporating it into your training schedule?  It is actually very simple.  I tell myself that it is just as important as any other physical activity I plan to do that day or week.  And it is.  It will help me do the sports and activities that I love to do without pain or injury.  Initially, it is a great goal to try to practice Let it Go Yoga a couple times a week to get the hang of the poses and the breath work.  But I find even doing it once a week, if done consistently, provides wonderful benefits.  I try to sneak in a few of the poses when I wake up or before I go to bed.  If you can only do one side and must do the other side later, so be it.  Sometimes when I know I want to do the practice but don’t have a full hour and a half, I lead myself through the practice and hold each poses for less time.  I have started teaching some of the postures to my daughter who is an active amateur athlete.  When I noticed that playing sports was causing tightness in her hips and shoulders, I knew I had something that could help.  And now, so do you.

Contributed by Barbara Won Wigo.
Barbara is a Certified Let It Go Yoga Teacher and teaches Let It Go Yoga to athletes and students at UCSB and other Santa Barbara locations. You can contact her at barbarawigo@yahoo.com
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2017-05-21T21:37:28+00:00 Let It Go Yoga Blog|0 Comments

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