Lately, yoga’s earned a reputation as a luxury suburban activity that pairs best with fashion-forward leggings and $10 bottles of kale juice. The reality? The 5,000-year-old practice has benefits for athletes of all shapes, sizes, and genders.
Just ask professional basketball player DeMarcus Cousins, who swears by yoga for improving flexibility and getting his mind right between basketball games. Not only is the flow-driven workout an ideal way to give your muscles some TLC after heavy lifting sessions, but it can also ease lower back pain; improve your cardiovascular health; and, according to a study published in the Journal of Research in Applied Sciences, improve your self esteem.
“Yoga promotes physical flexibility and strength, and as a side effect, also creates mental flexibility and strength to push through any obstacle,” says Brooke Easton, instructor at Lyons Den Power Yoga in New York City. “It can also help prevent injuries by strengthening lesser used muscles, critical for HIIT workout fans.”
In short: Getting bendy can help you maintain flexibility and strength, both physical and mental, that are essential for nailing everything from rope climbs to barbed-wire crawls. So whether or not you’re ready to go full-blown yogi, you can benefit massively by incorporating a few key moves into your normal routine, says Easton. Below are her favorites, which deliver the biggest payoff in functional mobility. Work them into your workout and you’ll find yourself moving faster through and over every obstacle in your next Spartan race.
1. Downward facing dog
Start in high-plank position with your shoulders stacked over your wrists. Lift your hips away from ground to make an inverted V shape with your body. Keeping a micro-bend in your knees, sink your heels towards the ground. Hold for 60 seconds. Body benefit: The perfect way to stretch out tight calves and hamstrings, downward facing dog also boosts circulation.
2. Crescent lunge
Start in downward facing dog. Ease into the lunge by stepping your right foot forward between your hands and keeping your left leg straight behind you. Your right knee should be stacked over your heel, with a 90-degree bend. Now reach your arms straight overhead with palms facing inward. Hold for 5 seconds; repeat on opposite side. Body benefit: Build stability in the front and back of the torso, as well as boost flexible strength in the legs and hips. Stronger legs equal greater power to ascend even the toughest climbs.
3. Leap frogs
Start in downward facing dog. Slide your feet together so that your big toes touch, and then step your feet an extra foot toward your hands. Bend your knees wide while looking down straight between hands. Jump up, stacking shoulders over wrists and hips over shoulders—you’re almost doing a handstand with your knees bent, with your big toes still together. Repeat for 10 reps, then rest 30 seconds. Body benefit: Hello, explosiveness! Work your calves and core with this plyometric move. Adding as little as six weeks of plyometric training, like hops, shuffling, and backpedalling, can dramatically boost agility, according to one Western Michigan University study.
Start in a standing position with your feet together. Lift your right leg and extend it backward, pivoting forward at the hips so that your chest and right leg are parallel with ground. Bracing your core, look forward and draw your shoulder blades together to open your chest forward. Reach hands toward your back foot with palms facing down toward the floor. Hold for 10 seconds; repeat on opposite side. Body benefit: This balancing move requires you to work on your stability as well as strengthen your ankles and legs. The stronger your foundation is, the less likely you are to sprain an ankle.
Start in downward dog. Step your right foot forward, between your hands, and turn your left foot perpendicular to the front of your mat. Stand up and ground down through both feet, keeping both legs straight. Now lift your arms straight out at shoulder height, and hinge forward over your right leg, taking your right hand to the floor or a block on the outside of your leg. Shoulders should be stacked, gaze on top hand. Take 5 to 10 breaths, and then do it again with the left foot forward. Body benefit: Stretches and strengthens the ankles, knees, thighs, and the groin.
6. Seated single-leg extension
Start in seated position with your right leg extended forward. Press the sole of your left foot onto inner right thigh. Point your chest forward and drop down over your extended leg until you can’t reach any further. Hold for one minute; repeat on opposite side. Body benefit: Stretches your calves and hamstrings. Stretching your hamstrings can be useful to alleviate lower back pain as well as restore pelvic movement, according to one Federal Institute of Rio de Janeiro study.
7. Half pigeon
Start in downward dog. Lower your body, and as you do so, bring your right leg forward and rotate your leg so that your shin is parallel to the top of mat. Extend your left leg backward with the top of your foot pressed into the floor. Fold over your right leg, keeping your hips square, and hold for one minute. Repeat on opposite side. Body benefit: Weak hips can be a cause of a slew of common running issues, like patella tendonitis (runner’s knee), piriformis issues, or IT band pain, according to a study published in Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. This pose helps stretch and strengthen the hips to make them better for all that running and climbing that goes hand-in-hand with racing.
8. Bound angle pose
Start in seated position. Lay down, bringing the soles of your feet together. Let your knees fall apart toward ground, creating a diamond shape. Now close your eyes and relax, you earned this. Body benefit: After hitting all these poses, you deserve a little restoration. Not only does this pose help stretch the inner thigh, groin, and knees, but it also boosts circulation and relieves anxiety.