Yoga and rugby might seem like unusual bedfellows, but these two dramatically different activities are surprisingly compatible. Yoga sometimes gets a bad wrap as being all about meditation, chanting, veganism, and wearing hemp clothes, but more and more rugby players are embracing this ancient form of exercise and enjoying its far-reaching benefits.
Go to any yoga studio on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see massive guys, tough-as-nails MMA fighters, and even bulky bodybuilders working alongside people from less active walks of life.
Check out this video to see the England rugby league squad being put through a yoga session:
If you have never tried yoga, it’s time you opened your mind (as well as your hips!) and gave it a try. It offers numerous benefits that seem tailor-made for rugby players.
The benefits of yoga for ruggers
Yoga has a lot to offer regular participants, but some of the more noteworthy benefits include:Improved mobility – while yoga is more than just a structured stretching routine, many of the poses will improve your flexibility. Heavy strength training and a general lack of attention to stretching can leave your muscles feeling short and tight. That can increase your risk of injury, decrease your range of motion, and even reduce force production.
Yoga poses are best held for extended periods of time which means that tight muscles have little choice but to relax and lengthen.
Many yoga poses also include multidirectional movement while, in contrast, most standard stretches involves just one plane at a time. For example, in the warrior series, you stretch not just your hips and legs but also rotate your upper body AND stretch your chest and upper back. This means that yoga-style stretching is more functional than traditional linear stretching.
While some yoga poses will prove very challenging (or even impossible) for big, burly rugby players, most can be modified by using foam blocks and straps to make them accessible for even the tightest of tight head props!
Improved balance – many yoga poses involve standing on one leg, and some even involve full inversion. This can help you to develop better balance which is an essential part of successful rugby. Most strength training takes place using both arms or both legs at the same time and yet, in rugby, many of the aspects of the game happen one limb at a time. Poor balance can make it easier to take you off your feet, and that immediately reduces your effectiveness as a player.
Improved balance can have a big impact on all facets of your rugby – from multi-directional running to keeping your feet in a rowdy lineout situation.
Increased joint stability – if you want to stay injury-free, you need stable joints. Stable joints don’t wobble alarmingly during movement. Instead, they stay rock-steady, so your major muscles have a solid platform from which to work. As the saying goes, you can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe!
Increased stability means that your joints are more likely to be in a biomechanically-sound position which not only means better force production but also less wear and tear leading to fewer joint injuries.
Better core strength – while core strength is commonly associated with Yoga’s younger sibling Pilates, it still involves some challenging poses that will hammer your core. Boat pose and several tricky plank variations will soon have you cursing and praising your yoga instructor in equal measure.
Improved breathing – yeah, yeah, you know how to breathe but, in yoga, this simple process gets extra attention. In yoga, it is customary to only breathe through your nose while using your diaphragm as opposed to your chest muscles. This is like going for a run with a heavy cold where your nose is blocked with mucous. Needless to say, nose-only breathing makes even the simplest pose more demanding and is part of the reason that yoga really warms you up.
Yoga also teaches breath control. When you get tired, your breathing rate naturally speeds up, and that can lead to panic breathing or panting – when you cannot catch your breath and feel totally winded. Yoga teaches you to master your breathing to make sure each breath delivers plenty of oxygen to your hard-working muscles. This is crucial for sustaining you during the dying minutes of a tough rugby game.
Increased strength – yoga might not seem like an effective way to develop strength, but even the strongest rugby player will find some of the poses a real challenge. Yoga poses are often held for several minutes at a time and with joints in an extended position.
For example, you might do lunges in the gym where you are in and out of the extended position in a couple of seconds or less, but it’s a very different thing to hold a lunge for minutes at a time. Being big also makes many yoga poses much harder as all that upper body muscle mass acts like a weighted vest.
Better positional awareness – most yoga poses are centuries old and are taught and performed in a very specific and precise way. Joint alignment is paramount, and you need to be aware of the position of each and every limb as you move from one pose to the next. This increase in positional awareness is very useful and translates well to improved gym and rugby technique.
Better concentration – when practicing yoga, you have no choice but to be “in the moment” and focus one-hundred percent on what you are doing. From joint alignment to breathing to keeping your balance – there is a whole lot going on. Add to that the fact that you are trying to maintain a difficult pose while staying relaxed at the same time and it’s easy to see how regular yoga can help you to develop better concentration. If you let your mind wander, you may soon find yourself sat on your butt when you are supposed to be balancing on your head!
This ability to stay focused is very beneficial during a high-pressure game of rugby and can help you keep your head in the game even as those around you are losing theirs.
GETTING INTO YOGA
The best time to start yoga is during the off-season, and it’s the ideal activity for recovery days. Despite being a challenging workout, it does not take much to recover from an hour or so of yoga and, in fact, because it improves circulation and provides a deep stretch, yoga could enhance recovery from on and off-the-pitch training.
Yoga is a very accessible form of training as there are lots of yoga teachers and yoga studios around. Choose a class designed for beginners and avoid jumping into the deep end too soon. If possible, speak to the yoga teacher beforehand and explain that you are a yoga newbie and that you play rugby, so they can recommend adaptations and adjustments to accommodate your specific needs.
If you want to get the most from yoga, consider hiring a yoga trainer and working on a one-to-one or small group basis. You’ll get a lot more from your practices and make faster progress. Maybe invite a yoga teacher to team training so all the players can try it for themselves.
Alternatively, you might prefer to practice alone and in the comfort of your home. There are lots of yoga DVDs available, and YouTube has several yoga workouts designed specifically for rugby players, such as this one:
If an entire yoga class does not appeal to you, check out this video for some poses specifically selected Sun salutations; the king of yoga sequences.
Still not convinced that yoga is for you? No worries; try this simplified version of the sun salutation sequence as part of your next warm-up.
1. Stand with your feet together and your hands by your sides. Lift your chest, extend your neck, pull your shoulders back and think tall thoughts!
2. Raise your arms above your head. (INHALE)
3. Bend your knees as far as necessary, hinge forwards from your hips and place your hands on the floor. (EXHALE)
4. Bend your knees and drop down into a crouch.
5. Jump your feet back lightly and into the classic push-up position and simultaneously lower your chest down towards the floor. (INHALE)
6. Keeping your hips down, extend your arms and lift your chest up as far as your back flexibility allows. (EXHALE)
7. Lower your chest back to the floor. (INHALE)
8. Keeping your body straight and tight, extend your arms and come back up into the push-up position. (EXHALE)
9. Step your left leg up to your hands and into a lunge position. (INHALE)
10. Step in with your right leg into a crouch position. (EXHALE)
11. Stand up and simultaneously raise your arms above your head. (INHALE)
12. Lower your arms to your sides. (EXHALE)
Repeat from step 1 but use the opposite leg in movements 11 and 12. Perform this sequence for a set time, e.g. five minutes, or for a set number of rounds e.g. ten.
It’s important to realize that, like any type of sports training, there is a right way and a wrong way to do yoga, and having hands-on instruction will ensure you learn how to do things correctly, right from the start.
Yoga can put back into your body what rugby takes out and is, surprisingly, very compatible with rugby training. The poses and methods of yoga may be foreign to you and initially uncomfortable and difficult, but given time, you could find that yoga enhances not only your rugby but your general health and wellbeing too.
Photo credit: openyoga.com.au