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Different Types of Yoga: Yoga Therapy for Sports Injuries

Man running on a track

Over the course of any given sports season, we often hear of athletes getting injured and being nursed back to health by a team of doctors, therapists, and trainers. Treatment commonly includes medications, physical therapy, and the occasional surgery. Perhaps you yourself have been a beneficiary of the wonders of modern medicine, but have still been left to wonder if there is a less invasive way back to health, one that doesn’t include a laundry list of side effects we hear sped up on a TV commercial. 

Enter yoga therapy for sports injuries. In recent years, yoga has undergone a radical transformation from its beginnings as an individual practice and way of living to studios full of able-bodied individuals sweating it out. Yoga therapy is, in a way, circling back and paying homage to its roots. Rather than striving for a perfect crow pose, yoga therapy seeks to use practices from traditional yoga to help people heal and improve their lives.

What is Yoga Therapy?

So what exactly is yoga therapy, and what makes it different from a typical yoga class? Just as yoga itself boasts many definitions, yoga therapy is much the same. The International Association of Yoga Therapists provides an entire page comprised of varying definitions for the modern term “yoga therapy.” One of the best comes from Gary Kraftsow of the American Viniyoga Institute: 

“Yoga therapy, derived from the Yoga tradition of Patanjali and the Ayurvedic system of health care refers to the adaptation and application of Yoga techniques and practices to help individuals facing health challenges at any level manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality, and improve attitude.” (iayt.org, n.d.)

Yoga therapy may include asana practice, pranayama, nidra, and mantras, among other practices. The end goal is to create a holistic treatment that improves the health of all aspects of life – physical, mental, and spiritual. 

Why Do Athletes Need Yoga Therapy?

If you have ever participated in any kind of athletic endeavor, be it a high profile road race or a pick-up basketball game at the gym, you may have realized that sport is more than just physical. Otherwise, we would likely not hear teammates and coaches yelling “get your head in the game,” “stay focused,” or “leave it all on the field.” The best athletes know that the majority of their performance occurs in their head, with just a part of it actually translating into physical movement. 

There is perhaps no better practice for syncing the body and mind than yoga. Yoga has the power to connect us to ourselves in a way that no medication can. Especially in the world of sports, people will get inevitably get injured at some point, and what that athlete does after the injury can make all the difference. 

The athlete who chooses to distance themselves from their injury or treat it as an inconvenience may not take the time to ensure it heals fully. They likely want to return to play quickly and may go back to their sport with feelings of frustration toward the injury or even fear that it may happen again. Contrast this with someone who implements yoga therapy as a part of their healing process. They will still likely go through physical therapy, perhaps with added asanas or postures added in. They may learn breathing practices that help them sit through the discomfort of exercising the sore body part, and also help them focus and center themselves once they’ve returned to play. 

Yoga nidra can help the body more fully relax and allow it to heal itself and improve rest between future games for better performance. Mantras can help the athlete release fear and envision positive results. These practices, along with many others, make up an effective yoga therapy treatment program that helps athletes not only heal physically, but also elevate their future performance.

While this all sounds good in theory, does it work in practice? Research has shown that it does. 

A yoga teacher guides her yoga therapy student through a yoga flow. This is just one of the different types of yoga that can help students heal from their sports injuries.

One of the most challenging aspects of healing a sports injury can be inflammation. Inflammation is part body’s natural response to injury or illness, but too much of it can be detrimental to the healing process. The added stress of injury in a sports capacity can result in further inflammation, slower healing, and lingering health problems. 

In her article “Medical Yoga Therapy,” Dr. Ina Stephens illustrates the connection between yoga and the reduction of such inflammation: “inflammation can have serious health implications when it becomes prolonged and chronic. Chronic systemic inflammation may not be as apparent as acute inflammation, and can persist undetected at low levels for years. This can slowly damage the body… yoga is beneficial for decreasing both acute and chronic stress levels.”

She goes on to site other studies that have shown that yoga decreases inflammatory markers and increases immunoglobulins (antibodies which fight off germs). Regular yoga practitioners have also been shown to “have higher levels of leptin and adiponectin in their bodies, both natural chemicals that work to alleviate inflammation” (Stephens, n.d.-b). 

Aside from reducing the initial effects of injury, yoga therapy can have lasting benefits on sport performance. The beYogi webinar “An Introduction To Yoga For Athletes” hosted by Renee Harrington discusses how all five components of fitness needed by athletes can be improved through yoga, including flexibility, muscular endurance, muscular strength, cardio-respiratory fitness, and body composition. It can also help repair muscle imbalances, a leading cause of injury in sports. (beYogi, 2021). 

Between helping athletes heal faster and improve their performance, there is no doubt that yoga therapy for sports injuries will see an increase in interest over the coming years. What has been a fairly niche industry is now exploding with research and the results can’t be ignored.

Where & How to Become a Yoga Therapist?

If you’re thinking that this sounds right up your alley, let us point you in the direction of your calling. There are many schools and programs now offering yoga therapy as a path of study. Some are more sports oriented, while others help those with chronic diseases or other injuries. The International Association of Yoga Therapists provides a list of accredited yoga therapy training programs to help you find the program that best fits your needs. 

If you don’t quite want to narrow your field of training to a single subgroup, you can also look for wider population-based trainings like integrative yoga therapy. BeYogi contributor Julie Bernier shares more about this type of yoga saying: “It’s an entire teacher-training program based on the therapeutic use of yoga. Graduates are prepared to teach yoga one-on-one or to groups with specific needs or challenges, such as prenatal, seniors, cancer, and heart disease…Students at the higher level learn in-depth how… yoga can be used to heal all levels of being.” 

Whether you want to work with professional, senior, or weekend warrior athletes, there is a yoga therapy program that will help you help others.


References

Stephens, I. (2017). Medical Yoga Therapy. Children, 4(2), 12. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/children4020012

Bernier, J. (2015, April 24). Welcome to the Future of Yoga: Integrative Yoga Therapy. Beyogi. https://beyogi.com/welcome-to-the-future-of-yoga-integrative-yoga-therapy/

beYogi. (2021, February 18). An Introduction To Yoga For Athletes. Beyogi. https://beyogi.com/teach-yoga/introduction-to-yoga-for-athletes/

iayt.org. (n.d.). https://www.iayt.org/page/ContemporaryDefiniti

Sara Jackson
Sara Jackson
Sara loves helping others live and move in a way that empowers and uplifts them. She encourages people to connect to their bodies and the world around them through fitness, nutrition, and mind-body work. She provides workshops, training, and consulting to individuals and businesses to foster growth and improve well-being. She collects education like raindrops, including a B.S. in Exercise Science, 200-Hr CYT, and CPT among many others. When she’s not in the studio teaching, she’s probably outside somewhere finding her soul up in the mountains or out in the desert. Connect with her at uplifthealthtraining@gmail.com.