Many men come to the practice of yoga through the "back door": Avid athletes who injure themselves turn to yoga as a last resort alternative to mend and restore their bodies. While yoga can help you to recover from a sports injury, you don't have to do yourself bodily injury before you can benefit from it. In fact, yoga is one of the best fitness activities to help prevent injury from occurring in the first place. Yoga practices can help you enhance your performance in nearly any physical activity by preparing you for the activity beforehand, guiding you with mindful awareness through its performance and helping to restore you afterward. In addition, it can help you strengthen yourself further by helping you to compensate for areas of your body that are not exercised by your sport so as to have full and complete overall body strength and vitality.
Yoga can help you to prepare to engage in your fitness activity or sport by strengthening, stretching, and toning your overall musculature. Practicing a basic yoga session (for example, "A Complete Yoga Practice Session for Men" on page 112) can help improve the functioning and tone of all the muscles of your body, as well as increase flexibility and range of motion in joints, improve circulation, and promote optimal functioning of your internal organs. Thus, you'll be better prepared to practice your sport with much less risk of injury, as you benefit from enhanced muscular and joint strength and flexibility, and perhaps even improved breathing capacity.
Once you practice your sport, yoga can help you to stay present and aware during your activity. With increased attention, you're bound to perform better. You'll be more aware of your movements and be better able to remember—and learn from—any shortcomings in your performance. The balancing postures of yoga—such as Tree Pose (Fig. YPS.5a, b, and c, page 124 )—are especially beneficial for developing a sense of centeredness and balance that will serve you well in the execution of any sport. Should you opt to incorporate the practice of meditation into your yoga practice, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover your sense of balance and grace growing even further as you reach an athlete's "high," wherein you attain that blissful state of "meditation in motion" while you enjoy your favorite fitness activity.
Once you've finished your sports activity, yoga stretching can help in the elimination of toxic waste substances that your body builds up during exercise, as well as lengthen and restore muscles to their relaxed state following peak exertion. This can help in any sport, including weightlifting. In fact, studies have shown that muscles that are stretched are able to lift more weight and actually become stronger as the result of the stretching.5 Doing yoga stretching after physical exercise can also be very helpful because your muscles and other body tissues are already warmed up by your physical activity. This means that you'll be able to stretch further than you could if your muscles were "cold." When stretching after physical exertion, be especially mindful to move slowly into your stretch and to hold it at its maximum point for at least 20 to 30 seconds if you can. And, as with any stretching, don't bounce or jerk yourself into position. Move slowly, gradually, and mindfully, allowing your breath to take you to your deepest stretch. Never stretch to the point of pain or beyond your level of comfort. Respect your body and yourself.
Finally, incorporating yoga into your fitness practice may actually help you achieve a level of overall physical conditioning that is more complete and more balanced than that which you may be achieving by practicing your particular athletic activity on its own. Most sports activities tend to use certain body parts or one side of the body rather than all parts of the body equally. For instance, a runner may emphasize the use of the legs and feet; a boxer, the hands, arms, and upper body; and a tennis player uses one arm, hand, and shoulder more than the other. Such tendencies can result in imbalances in the strength and tone of your musculature, which, in turn, can translate into postural imbalances. Overuse of certain muscle groups or joints can also lead to pain and an increased chance of injury. By being aware of how you are using your body, you can consciously tailor a yoga program to fit your specific fitness needs while simultaneously stretching and toning all the major muscle groups of your body.
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