Yin Yoga for Fighters & Athletes


Guest post by certified Yin Yoga trainer Jacqie.
Yoga Alliance-certified Yin Yoga teacher Jacq will be holding at JAI in Wellington on Saturday March 7, 2015 specifically focusing on techniques Muay Thai practitioners can use to improve their training.
Click here to find out more and purchase tickets to the workshop.

Yoga for athletes – that’s not a new concept by any means. But as an athlete myself, I’ve hit my head against a brick wall – hard – when it comes to the actual application of it.

I have been a practitioner of Muay Thai for the last 7 years, fighting for the last two. As anyone who’s ever been in the ring will tell you, training for fitness and training to get into the ring are two completely different things. Whilst even the most basic Muay Thai session is hard enough work for the average person, slamming your shins and digging your kneecaps 300 times each on a hard sand bag; rounds of hard, fast padwork and two 8km runs a day BEFORE actual training begins takes a real toll on your body. It often had me limping back home and reaching for the Ibuprofen after a session of training. I do that 4 to 5 days a week in preparation for a fight, coupled with track training and plyometrics in between.

Muscle soreness I’m used to dealing with, but joint fatigue is debilitating for progress in my training. Sure, I don’t feel it during a training session. But when I get out of it, I can hardly walk straight. In those times, my body screams out for something that would take it in the opposite direction from the constant pounding and beating on the joints.

It’s common to think of yoga as a form of active recovery. It is normal for athletes to regard even the most dynamic forms of yoga as an easier form of physical activity compared to the million types of (burpee) hell to get to their goal. I am guilty as charged. While I didn’t do any Ashtanga Yoga nor Dynamic Yoga, I started incorporating some basic Hatha yoga classes in my weekly training regime – mostly on my non-training days, or before/after a training session. The problem was, so many of the yoga poses I was made to do had me standing on my toes, pressing my body weight down into my joints, doing long-held push-ups and planks. One series of poses in particular, the Warrior series, had me pressing down hard at the knees, which I really needed to preserve for my training. The day after every yoga session, I would notice my knees buckling during Muay Thai and needing a patella guard when running.

It wasn’t until recently when a close friend of mine, who also fights, complained of injuring his knee after doing this same Warrior pose. Now, before my fellow yogis get all up in arms about what I just said, let me qualify that I am not a qualified physio or sports therapist and can’t make a conclusive judgment on anything. But I speak truthfully from my personal experience.

Then I discovered Yin yoga, a lesser-known, less commercially available form of yoga, built around the concept of stretching the connective tissues, rather than the muscles. It is a profound, meditative practice that uses long held poses, and is done in stillness, to get past the muscles and into the connective tissues – the joints, ligaments, tendons and fascia. The buzzword here is fascia – that cellulose, Saran-wrap-like coating that wraps around your joints, muscles and organs, and that keeps your joints well lubricated.

I didn’t fall in love with Yin instantly. The first time was a culture shock.

I stumbled into class right after a Muay Thai session without so much as even Googling the word Yin yoga, and was subjected to a series of seemingly simple, but torturous yoga poses on the mat. My muscles were tight and I just could not get used to not using them to hold my body into position. I was annoyed with my body, pissed with the teacher for making us hold these poses for what seemed like eternity and embarrassed that the 70-year-old gentleman on the mat next to me was able to get his chest on the floor while I struggled like a stiff marionette.

But what that first session did was to mentally prepare me for the next session, and the next and the next. The effect of having a regular Yin practice was that I felt better able to walk into the gym the next day with my limbs intact, ready to take on the day’s hundreds of smacks, twists and thumps on my joints. I still feel like a jointed wooden puppet sometimes – but a lot, lot less with stretching out the 50% of the body tissue that I didn’t even knew existed before.

Accessing the other 50% of the body

In Muay Thai, sports and weights, we work your muscles constantly. We are aware of their presence, and how they help us run, kick, punch, knee, lift. But are we ever aware of how these muscles are able to function smoothly, to rub up against each other numerous times in each exercise, without the pain of friction? Fascia is the buzzword here.

The fascia – a smooth, dense network of connective tissue fibres composed primarily of collagen – works behind the scenes to coat each muscle, joint and bone, reducing friction between the muscles and enabling them to slide against each other for movement. The muscles are also able to transmit mechanical tension/energy to the bones via the fascia network. Two big reasons why we should not be neglecting the health of this very vital part of our bodies that we tend to overlook and take for granted.

Yin yoga accesses the fascia, joints, ligaments and tendons (collectively known as the connective tissue) and the other 50% of the body that you don’t exercise in sports, conventional yoga and even day-to-day activities. We tend to focus solely on our muscles and take the connective tissues and joints for granted. It’s not until something breaks down that we start to feel it and seek solutions.

While this applies to everyone, it is especially true for athletes because of the frequency of their muscles being tensed and used.
In very simplified terms, we can view the joints as the spaces between the bones, and it is these ‘spaces’ that make movement of the bones possible. The ligaments, muscles and tendons bind the bones together and stabilize the joints.

You gotta pull the string of an arrow backwards, in order to launch it further forwards.
Wanna accelerate faster on the track, kick harder, split further? Take care of your fascia.

Winding up your Inner Spring

Want to kick harder and higher, knee deeper and rebound faster? Take care of your fascia! When the fascia is loose, long and juicy, springiness of the body follows. That elastic layer of ‘body stocking’ is what’s allowing you to do more with less muscle power and less body fatigue. Thing is, you gotta stretch, lengthen and soften it in order for it to retain its natural spring. Think of it as having your own personal trampoline within your body. The force of those multiple kicks, punches and knees you launch on the bag, pads or opponent is transmitted back to you through the whole tensional fascia network. Yin yoga’s long, static stretches slowly coaxes the tissue from a dried-out, gellified state to the desired liquefied, hydrated state. This inner spring is necessary in all forms of martial arts and high impact sports.

Proprioception and Injury Prevention

Ever heard of proprioception? Neither have I. Until I realized that it was the littlest careless actions that were causing me the worst injuries (like absent-mindedly kicking someone with one toe out of position), than absorbing a high impact attack from a much bigger, much stronger training partner. Turns out, my proprioception was bad. For the uninitiated, proprioception is your body’s instinctive ability to sense its relative position in space and to orchestrate movement seamlessly. With the fascia being the body’s largest, richest sensory organ, it is an important system of proprioception.

Keeping your fascia healthy and supple can improve your proprioception for better movement coordination in a cadence-reliant sport like Muay Thai. But very importantly, if your proprioception is in top form, you’re more likely to lessen injuries in a high impact sport.

Propels lower body power

Though yin yoga accesses all parts of the body, it concentrates predominantly on the lower half of the body. An athlete’s thighs ¬– hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes and IT Band – are high traffic areas, used in running faster or sending that kick smashing through the pads. The hip flexors, adductors and abductors are also important muscles for athletes, dancers and yoga practitioners. Many of the poses utilized in Yin yoga target these areas slowly but surely. With the average of 3 to 5 minute holds in each pose, we gently ‘melt down’ the fascia surrounding the muscles in those areas well used in our specific sport, bringing the fascia to a more liquid, pliable and mobile phase. More pliable fascia means better muscle mobility and range.

Periodization and Active Recovery

Yin yoga is a great periodization activity in between seasons, but it is also a form of active recovery during training season.
Personally, I’d still do conventional yoga in the periods between training for a fight, but not during fight training months. Conventional yoga stretches out and lengthens the muscles, and this I find to be counter-productive when I’m trying to get the muscles as compact and strong as possible, to be in top shape for competition.
Yin yoga exercises the connective tissues and regains the space and strength in the joints. Other forms of yoga, just like sports, exercises the muscles with rhythmic, repetitive motions. Athletes already get plenty of that in combat sports, running, crossfit and the like. We need something that’s going to complement, not add more burden on our sports performance. Conventional yoga lengthens the muscles, but does nothing for the connective tissue.

Yin yoga, on the other hand, leaves the muscles alone and zeroes in on the fascia, making sure that it is strong and flexible enough to withstand the huge amounts of impact placed on the joints by hard training.

Yin yoga can be practiced even during competitive seasons – in fact, it will be the secret tool that can propel an athlete further.

Mental training

Yin yoga poses are simple. There are no fancy handstands, no glamorous Cirque du Soleil-type moves here. But don’t confuse simple with easy.
It’s crazy how long 3 minutes feels when you have your legs bent in a diamond shape and head hanging towards your feet. The urge to twiddle your thumbs, scratch an imaginary itch and just fidget in general is probably the most challenging part of the practice. Being still in the pose is what lets the stretch effectively work beyond the muscles and on the connective tissue. This still, profound practice trains the mind to be still so that the body can be still. Or it could happen the other way round.
I’ve seen the benefits of this mental training not only in my daily life, helping me to mould a more even temperament (and those who’ve known me well and for a long time would tell you that I was born with a fireball temper), as well as in Muay Thai training and in the ring. As an athlete, you’d already know that mental training is what separates the winning athletes from the ones who merely train well but crack under pressure during competition.

I almost always start my classes with a short meditation just to ground the energy of each participant, calm any mind chatter and instill presence of mind to best benefit from the yin session to follow. Each pose, held for minutes, is also a mini meditation in itself.
At times, we are challenged by noisy traffic from outside the window, or noise from classes in the neighbouring studios. Even better. We train our mind to be still amidst chaos.

The Yin and The Yang of it

Sports shorten and tightens the mucles. Yin yoga lengthens and loosens the connective tissues. This is just one example of how the theory of opposites – the Yin and the Yang – work together to form the complete picture. Have too much of one and too little of the other, and the scales tip over. The result is injury, sickness, even mental fatigue and training depression.
Yin provides some – well – yin to the overly yang life of an athlete.

And unlike the other more glamorous forms of yoga, there is no competition about who can touch their toes better; no sneaky sideway peeks to check out someone else’s Bakasana (crow pose). There’s no competitive spirit in Yin simply because there’s no fixed way a pose is supposed to look like. Sure, there’s a template that we start with – and people who have done yoga would be familiar with a lot of the yin poses. But in yin, you’re not judged on alignment simply because everyone has different skeletal structures and different tenseness of the muscles and connective tissue. There’s no right and wrong here.
We can do the Frog pose in a Yin class and see 10 different types of ‘frogs’ on the mat.

There’s every possibility that a sedentary person may be able to go deep into a pose while a professional athlete would struggle to even get into the most basic expression of a pose. And this is often the case.

I like providing a safe, cozy and non-judgemental environment for my class participants. To me Yin yoga is the great equalizer.
We don’t need any competition – any yang spirit – here. We get enough of that outside!

In Yin, we don’t use our bodies to get into poses. We use poses to get into our bodies.

Replies for “Yin Yoga for Fighters & Athletes”

  • Fightgearguide.com

    Jacqie, thank your for this wonderful post. It really helps to broaden my knowledge. I have been training for a couple of years now as a hobby and so many times I need help from therapeutic massage to release my pain and strain. However, after reading your post, I think I need to start practicing yoga on the side.

    Too bad that your workshop is in New Zealand. I wish I could attend.

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