More and more athletes and athletic teams are discovering the benefits of implementing a yoga practice to enhance performance in their chosen sport. Some of the obvious pluses include improved flexibility, core strength, kinesthetic/somatic awareness, injury prevention, and mental focus.
When I started working with the Harvard men’s and women’s crew teams back in the 1980’s, many of the students I worked with were understandably skeptical about yoga’s relevance and usefulness to their sport, but now everyone seems to be carrying around a yoga mat and talking about the pros and cons of particular styles or schools.
What many people don’t know is that yoga is a vast field of inter-related practices, including breath work, mental focus, meditation, static physical postures and movement. The newcomer or coach faces a broad array of styles and disciplines that may or may not best suit their needs. It may take weeks, months, and possibly years to find a practice that is the right fit.
At a recent talk I gave at The Joy of Sculling Conference, I tried to hone down some of the essential benefits and key postures that can enhance rowing. While there is no substitute for working with a good teacher, these guidelines may at least give the reader a rough guide for a safe and streamlined way to integrate yoga into their training regime.
Initially, for the purpose of both economy, I’m going to talk about five categories of postures, each of which address a different line, or aspect, of the human body:
In anatomy these are often referred to as the myofascial sheaths, and they combine groups of muscles into interconnected chains.
- The Back Body: If you haven’t figured it out already, rowers have incredibly strong backs, which can also get incredibly stiff and sore. The hamstrings, calves, and even the fascia on the soles of the feet are also part of this “dorsal” muscle chain. A tight back body can lead to lack of good compression, not to mention back pain. Here, I’m going to offer three postures as remedies for the back body—Garland Pose, Standing Forward Bend, and Child’s Pose. You can alternate between the first two poses, holding each for five breaths and repeating three times; the last one, child’s pose, is more of a recuperative posture and can be held even longer, and if the toes are tucked under it helps stretch the facia on the soles of the feet—also good for better compression!
- The Side Body: Also known as the lateral body, this includes the notorious illiotibial (IT) band, outer hips, external serratus, lats., and triceps, among others. Like the back body with which they interact, these side supports need to be strong for good posture, but they also need to be lengthened periodically, or they will also compromise reach at the catch—particularly from the outer hip to the hand. With this in mind, any side to side stretch will prove useful, but I’ve shown two Side Plank Pose modifications, which both strengthen the side with the extended leg. Do both sides! Additionally, I’ve shown the classic Figure Four Pose, which does a good job of getting into the outer hip bank. You can also do this with the far leg extended if your hip flexors are not too tight!
- The Front Body. The main culprits here are the hip flexors, the quadraceps, and the pectoralis (across the upper chest). I generally work the lower body first, and the easy version of Bridge Pose I’ve shown here is an easy way to get into the hip flexor. Lunges can also be used, if you prefer. The Cat and Cow poses , done in compliment, are also easy way to get the spine moving into some back bending, the classic of which is the easy cobra I’ve shown here—laying on the belly and forearms. If you want to go a bit deeper into the upper back, laying over a foam roller can work wonders, which is a variation of Fish Pose.
- The Spiral Body. These are essentially twists, which sweep rowers do already, but generally only on one side! Twists help reduce the axial loading (downward pressure) on the spine that occurs when with sit or stand for long periods of time. As a side benefit, they also help the lymphatic system, which is important when athletes get overworked and run down. They are multifunctional in other ways, too, because they interconnect with some of the areas of the body I’ve already mentioned, like the low back. I’ve shown two basic Supine Twists here—one with the knees bent, which is more accessible, and another with the legs straightened.
- The Core Body: Much has been said about “core,” but the yoga core exercises are generally more inclusive than those found at the average gym. My favorite strengthener is the Straight Leg Crunch illustrated here with the block between the legs, but you can keep your knees bent if you must. My favorite core lengthener is Reclining Bound Ankle Pose, using a boat strap around the back and the tops of the feet to provide wonderful traction for the lumbar spine—a must after a long erg or row.
Biography: Dan Boyne is a long-time sculling instructor and yoga teacher in the Boston area, teaching online classes now at: https://danboyneonline.net/. He is also the author of The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning, and The Water, Kelly: A Father, a Son, an American Quest, and The Seven Seat.