Yoga & Sports

01.08.2011
Yoga Aktuell

Dr. Ronald Steiner on yoga as a complement to other sports and a therapy for sports injuries

Yoga Therapy

As a sports physician and yoga teacher, you certainly have a lot to say on the topic of 'yoga and sports'. Let's start with sports injuries, which are the reason for many people to start practicing yoga. Did you yourself have many pupils who came to a yoga class to cure such an injury?

Athletes in particular often have a great interest in yoga therapy and therefore frequently come to my special clinic. This is understandable since health is extremely important both for amateurs and for professionals. For professionals, it even constitutes the foundation of their success. Athletes appreciate being able to understand how their body works and with which exercises and techniques they themselves can actively contribute to cure certain injuries and conditions. Knee injuries and back pain are among the most frequent reasons why athletes consult me in yoga therapy.

Do you believe that yoga is a sensible complement for almost all other sports?

Definitely. Climbers, for instance, turn to yoga to find a balance to the motion patterns dominating their sport. Among those practicing martial arts, word has spread as well on the efficiency of yoga. Here, the physical aspects of yoga practice are used to develop the flexibility which is essential for this discipline. For rowers, in contrast, yoga offers an efficient way to strengthen the back - which in turn leads to an increased performance in the rowing boat. And soccer players like to use yoga as a prophylaxis to prevent injuries.

Why, in your opinion, is yoga such an effective complement?

I teach in the tradition of ashtanga yoga. From a physical point of view, what we find here is a very balanced combination of endurance, strength, flexibility and coordination training. This results in a very homogeneous development of all basic sports skills. Which in turn counteracts one-sided strain. Especially for professional athletes, such a balance is extremely important since many competitive sports develop the body in a very one-sided way. For instance, in a marathon runner, endurance will be predominant, in a weight lifter strength and a rower will predominantly train in a very one-sided body posture. This form of unbalanced strain and training often leads to health problems in the long run. Here, yoga can serve as a prevention mechanism to counteract injuries and over-strain.

Which sports injuries can be treated particularly well with yoga?

I can't think of a single sports injury on which a targeted yoga therapy would not have a positive effect. With the right exercises, a change in the muscle tone, an improved body posture or alignment of the joints, a refinement of the neuromuscular interaction or muscular balance and many more other things can be achieved. Particularly quick results can be achieved with back pain that is caused by disbalances or chronic overload characteristic of a specific sports discipline.

For which sports would you recommend yoga as a prophylaxis to prevent injuries and why?

Amateur soccer players come to my clinic particularly frequently. This is only partially due to the fact that soccer is so popular in Germany; a more important aspect are the high demands soccer has on the musculoskeletal system: quick changes of direction, sudden stops and potential tackling with other players can cause a number of injuries and symptoms of overstrain. Frequently, both are connected, with the acute injury being the result of chronic overstrain. Therefore, yoga therapy can both promote healing after an injury and have a preventive effect. With targeted exercises, one-sided strain is balanced and a potential injury prevented. The same mechanism applies to most other team sports. In individual sports, in contrast, injuries usually develop because of persistent one-sided strain, even without an acute trauma. Here, yoga can likewise have a preventive effect.

Why is it, in your opinion, that yoga is not used to a much higher degree by professional athletes and sports clubs? After all you've said this would seem only natural.

Many professional athletes already have such a tight schedule with their regular daily training that they simply do not take yoga and its balancing effect seriously enough. In this regard, professional athletes are not much different from many other people in sitting jobs: sitting permanently at a desk in the long run likewise causes poor posture, muscular disbalances and ultimately often back pain. Yoga can provide efficient help here as well but is nevertheless still used in a systematic fashion way too rarely.

We have already talked about a reduced risk of injuries and about injury therapy by yoga. However, it also happens that yoga practitioners sustain an injury during a yoga class. What, in your eyes, is the reason for this?

Everthing with an effect also has side-effects. The more intensive and effective the yoga technique, the more important a conscious and responsible approach towards it. Not all yoga teachers have the necessary knowledge to use this powerful tool in the best way. What is more, some practitioners become over-ambitious and thus forget the right measure. It will always be a challenge to motivate a pupil to practice regularly on the one hand, but to simultaneously remind them to respect their limits on the other hand.

Which aspects should an athlete with a sports injury consider when choosing a yoga teacher?

What's decisive is the teacher's training and experience. Therefore, regular further training should be a given for any yoga teacher. To prepare yoga teachers better for dealing with sports injuries, I continuously teach courses on special topics in anatomy. In this way, yoga teachers receive practical input on how to effectively address frequent conditions and injuries.

You have a very broad range of patients – from athletes in the national squad to geriatric patients and yoga teachers. Which, for you, is the common denominator when you try to make people more familiar with yoga?

I meet everybody at precisely the point where she or he is at the moment. "Everybody can practice yoga," as my teacher, Pattabhi Jois, pointed out over and over again. Therefore, I'm permanently searching for ways and possibilities to share and pass on yoga in new contexts.

Do injured athletes recover more quickly with the help of yoga than people practising no sports? Or is it possibly even the case that athletes are by no means as supple and flexible as yoga practitioners and therefore need more time to recover?

In general, athletes achieve quicker results with yoga therapy than non-athletes. There are two reasons for that. For one thing, athletes are very familiar with their physical body, they quickly learn new exercises and are usually soon able to perform them correctly. On the other hand, professionals are highly disciplined and determined. Once they've realised the benefit of an exercise for themselves, they usually practice it persistently and on a regular basis.

Do professionals find an access to yoga therapy or don't you even try to get them interested in it?

For me, philosophy is an integral part of yoga. For this reason, I always integrate it into my classes. Athletes are usually very open for this aspect. Basically, each athlete is a yogi – sometimes unknowingly so. For instance, you need a lot of self-awareness and self-knowledge if you constantly perform at your limits over hours in a triathlon. For a sprinter, maximum presence and acute awareness of each step during the race are absolutely essential. For this reason, most professionals understand very quickly what I'm talking about when I tell them about Patanjali since they have already experienced many aspects themselves in their respective disciplines.

Which question in relation to yoga do athletes ask you most often?

"Should I rather practice before my regular training session or after it?" – With overloaded training schedules, it can sometimes be a quite difficult task to find the right moment for yoga practice.

What is your creed in your work as a sports physician who integrates yoga into his practice?

Yoga can become a holistic therapy for anybody. When a person's practice succeeds, a harmony in their physique, energy, emotions and thoughts develops.

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