For many athletes, finding the time to stretch properly is challenging but becomes even more important as we get older and our bodies require more focus on improving flexibility. Athletes must balance the need for enough tension to perform well while supporting healthy joint alignment and function.
The benefits of starting with these beginner yoga poses for aging athletes also meet these distinct goals. Performance demands, previous injuries, and even daily habits can all result in a range of motion that is less than ideal and increase our potential for injury.
The benefits of yoga for athletes can go a long way towards making you feel better. While starting a yoga practice can be intimidating, you can also benefit from yoga by including a few essential yoga moves in your post workout cool-down.
Here are ten of the best beginner yoga poses for athletes. While these specifically address the benefits of yoga for aging athletes, they can help anyone feel better, especially if you need a little help stretching after a hard workout.
Ten Beginner Yoga Poses to Help Athletes Maintain Their Performance Levels
Child’s Pose: From an all-fours position, stretch your hips back towards your heels and reach your hands forward, resting them on the mat. Try to rest your head on the mat, or place a block or folded blanket under your head.
Purpose: To align and stretch the muscles of the low back and shoulders.
Variations: Place a towel or folded blanket under the knees if you need additional padding. You can also fold a blanket or roll a mat and place it behind your knees for additional support if it is difficult to lean back onto your heels.
Cat Cow Vinyasa: A Vinyasa is simply a movement between different yoga postures, using the breath to enhance the movement. From Child’s Pose, return to all fours. On your inhalation, let your belly drop down towards the earth while you look up. On your exhalation, arch your back up like an angry cat, while looking down. Rather than exaggerating the curves of your spine, simply feel your functional mobility. This includes a curve in the low back on your inhalation and additional core engagement on your exhalation. Repeat for 3 to 7 rounds.
Purpose: Encourages healthy spinal mobility and alignment while introducing core stabilization.
Bird Dog Vinyasa: Returning to a neutral spine while on all fours, engage your low belly with an exhalation. While inhaling, reach your right arm in front of you and your left leg behind you, bringing them to the level of your body (not higher). Reengage your core and on your exhalation, reach the arm and leg out to 45 degrees. Keep the arm and leg parallel to the ground (not higher than your body), by engaging your right shoulder and left hip towards each other while drawing your abdominal muscles in towards your spine. On your inhalation return the arm and leg to front and back and on your exhalation, return them to the ground. Repeat on the left side. Complete 5 to 10 repetitions on each side.
Purpose: Improve core strength and alignment, especially under movement.
Hero’s Pose: After completing your Bird Dog Vinyasa, kneel back, placing your hips onto your heels. Your feet should be tucked under your body with the soles of the feet facing up and your five toes aligned to point straight behind you.
Purpose: To stretch the quadriceps and improve circulation by compressing the knees, feet, and ankles.
Variations: If bringing your hips to your heels is too challenging, place a block between your feet and sit down on the block. For greater compression in the feet, knees, and ankles, and further stretch in the quadriceps, take feet out to hip distance and sit onto the floor between your feet. Be sure to keep your feet in line with your legs, pointing five toes behind your body.
Reclined Hand to Toe Pose: From Hero’s pose, turn around and lie down onto your back. Using a strap (a band or even a necktie will also work), take hold of your right foot. Extend your leg straight and away from your body. Gently guide the leg in closer to the body without straightening the leg until you feel a stretch in the low part of the hamstring above the knee. (variation 1).
(Variation 2) After stretching the low hamstring for 1-2 minutes, slightly bend your knee. The sensation will shift into a stretch in upper hamstring, closer to the low back. If you feel a strong pull or sharp sensation, bend your leg more and come slightly out of the stretch. You can also encourage circulation by massaging any tender areas with your hand while you hold the stretch.
(Variation 3) From variation 2, keep your hips in contact with the floor while slowly bringing the right foot across the body towards the left shoulder. You will feel a stretch on the outside of the right hamstring, as well as in the low back and hip. If you feel the sensation only in your calf and ankle, let your knee bend more until you feel it in the upper leg and pelvis.
Purpose: To encourage healthy range of motion in the hamstrings and piriformis, improving knee and hip alignment.
Yin Yoga Dragon Pose (variations):
Winged Dragon: Turn over and return to a kneeling position. Bring your right leg forward into a kneeling lunge. Turn your right toes out and allow the thigh to rotate outwards. You will feel a stretch on the outside of the right hip. As you come deeper into position, you will also feel a stretch on the front of the left hip. Stay for about 2 minutes.
Purpose: To stretch the external rotators of the right hip and the hip flexors of the left hip.
Overstepping Dragon. From Winged Dragon, bring your right foot back in closer to your body with the toes pointing forwards. Your knee will now move straight over the right foot. Lower your hips until you feel a stretch in your right calf and ankle. If the heel leaves the floor, you can bring the foot away slightly, if you do not feel a stretch, bring it closer. As you come lower, you will also feel a stretch deep into the front of the left hip. Stay for 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat the series on the left side.
Purpose: To improve foot, ankle, and calf mobility and to deeply stretch the hip flexors.
Triangle Pose Variation: Come into a standing position with wide legs. Feet should be aligned so that they are underneath the wrists with arms extended parallel to the floor (about 3 ½ to 4 feet apart). Turn right toes out and slightly turn the left leg in, maintaining alignment of the right heel with the left arch or heel. Reach right arm long, engaging the core, and keeping hips open towards the side of the mat. Bring the right arm down to whatever point your flexibility allows, making contact with your thigh, shin, or the floor. Reach your left hand up and look up to the extent allowed by your neck flexibility. Stay for 3-5 breaths. Now flex your left wrist and look down towards the right food. Stay for an additional 3-5 breaths while you stretch the nerves of the left wrist, arm, shoulder, and neck. Repeat with wrist flexed in the opposite direction. Repeat on the opposite side.
Purpose: Stretching the adductors, encouraging knee alignment, and building core strength while stretching the nerves and muscles of the upper body.
Supported Bridge Pose: Returning to a reclined position, bend your knees with feet on the floor in line with your hips. Come into a bridge pose by pressing through your heels to lift hips up. Stay in bridge pose for 5 breaths, strengthening the posterior chain and encouraging good alignment. Move into supported bridge pose by placing a block underneath the tailbone/low back, in alignment with the spine. You can use the block in any position that is comfortable for you, ranging from the lowest to highest position, depending on your mobility. Let your low back rest on the block. You can progress by slowing extending your legs to a straight position while keeping your legs on the floor.
Purpose: To fully stretch the psoas while aligning the sacrum and low back.
Supported Fish Pose Svasana: Coming into a reclined position, place a yoga black under the shoulders so that it is in alignment with the spine supporting the spine beginning at the base of the neck. Your neck should be free to “fall” back towards the floor, opening the front of the neck. Rest your hands and arms at your sides and lengthen your legs.
Variations: Place an additional block behind your head if it is not comfortable to let your head drop back.
Purpose: Encourage healthy shoulder function by reducing impingement in the front of the shoulders.
Regeneration Day Yoga
Approach these beginner yoga poses as a restorative practice. They should assist you in recovering from your workouts and developing a functional strength that is supported by your breath. As you practice, emphasize feeling sensation and breath in the areas of your body that you are focusing on, rather than on reaching an ideal form or image of the position.
Each beginner yoga pose provided has images and more information on the benefits of yoga for athletes moving beyond their prime and looking to maintain their top performance levels. Practice the ten yoga moves included in this article as a complete practice or feel free to use only parts of the practice. Know that you can customize focus of your yoga practice to your own schedule and needs as an athlete.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.