Yoga Is a Great Cross-Training Option for Athletes

6 things the ancient practice may bring to your modern workout routine.

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Golf. Running. Swimming. Basketball. Football. Cycling. It's hard to find a sport for which yoga hasn't been suggested as a performance or injury-prevention aid. While there's not yet a whole lot of scientific research to quantify or qualify the benefits of yoga for athletes, it's easy to find sport-specific yoga DVDs, books, and testimonials from star athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Sasha Cohen. (More common is research examining how yoga can help the elderly or people with diseases or disabilities.) So absent a pile of studies to thumb through, I thought it might be instructive to talk to a handful of experts about how yoga might spill over into the rest of your workout life. They said yoga:

1. Will most likely make you more flexible. That's probably a good thing; there's debate on whether and how competitive athletes should stretch, but most agree that if you don't push it, the stretching in yoga isn't likely to harmthe average exerciser. "In my heart, I believe in stretching," says Nicholas DiNubile, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the author of FrameWork: Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones and Joints.

That's especially true for people who perform repetitive motions, whether hunched over a computer or on the pitching mound. "We get into these habitual patterns of doing the same things with our bodies every day," says Lillie Rosenthal, a New York-based osteopath who is board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Runners may have tight muscles in the back of their body, like their hamstrings. Tennis players and pitchers have overdeveloped dominant arms and shoulders. The stretching and strengthening in yoga may help manage those imbalances, as well as improve general flexibility, doctors say.

2. Improves your balance and body awareness. Many yoga poses can improve your stability and agility and your awareness of where your body is in space, says Sage Rountree, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based yoga teacher and cycling/triathlon coach and author of The Athlete ' s Guide to Yoga . Those skills are enormously helpful in sports—just think of a golfer, whose swing depends on being able to sense where various body parts are and how they move in relation to one another.

3. Can strengthen your core. "Core strength" is a buzz-phrase in pretty much every sport; the idea is that strengthening the muscles in your back, midsection, and butt will give you the stability to improve the power of your movements and reduce injuries. Yoga can do that, says Brian Halpern, a nonsurgical sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. (Core strength is part of a program designed to reduce injuries in female soccer players.)

4. Provides a chance for active recovery. "There is so much overtraining" among competitive athletes, says DiNubile. "Yoga really promotes recovery, due to the relaxation, slower movement patterns, and time off from beating yourself up." To get those benefits and allow your body to regroup, you need to think of yoga as a complement to training, not an extension of it, says Rountree. The harder you work out in your sports and other activities, the more mellow your yoga practice should be, she says. She suggests any basic class as a start; Iyengar yoga is a particularly good entry point.

5. Improves your mental state. "The mental attention and mindfulness that yoga could promote in an athlete is tremendous," says Rosenthal. Learning how to relax, focus, and control breathing can help in a competitive situation, she says. Beyond improving performance, yoga promotes balance in life as well as body, she says. Competitive athletes tend to think of everything as, well, competitive. Stepping out of that mode for a few hours a week can only be good, says Rosenthal. "Yoga is much more about the knowing than the winning," she says.

6. Has the potential to hurt youso take it easy. Stacy Ingraham, an exercise physiologist at the University of Minnesota, worries that yoga can push the muscles past their functional range of motion, and for serious athletes or those whose sport depends on extreme joint stability (like downhill skiers), that may not be a good thing. For the rest of us, "I wouldn't see the negative side," she says.

Halpern loves yoga for its physical and mental benefits but warns that athletes (and others) need to be careful. That means not assuming that athletic ability in other sports means you can step into an advanced class the first time out, and not aggressively forcing yourself into difficult poses. He says you should be careful of certain poses if you have back or knee problems. (A good instructor will ask newbies about any physical limitations.) "I don't care what kind of yoga you start with, but start slowly," he says. "Don't start off with three or four classes a week as if you've been doing it for 20 years."