The om advantage: Six best yoga poses for athletes
Once regarded as an alternative activity for those who were more into meditation than "Monday Night Football," yoga has long since left the fringe and joined the mainstream playing field. And for good reason. The mind-body focus of yoga can benefit athletes in every sport.
"I started practicing by watching FitTV way back in 2001," said Chad Durbin, a relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. "I enjoyed the calming aspects. I was in Triple-A Omaha and worrying about all the variables I couldn't control. Yoga helped me focus and relax -- and it's good for my pitching."
Durbin and other athletes give us a peek at their favorite practice and poses.
Athlete: Chad Durbin, relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians
Highlight reel: Durbin posted a 3.62 ERA in 194 appearances over three seasons with the Phillies. He's now back with the Indians, for whom he played in 2003 and 2004.
Yoga style: Ashtanga. "I'm not at all advanced or even intermediate," Durbin said. "I'm very much a beginner."
Pose pick: Three-legged downward dog. "It strengthens the core and the muscles in my upper back that essentially slow down my arm when I throw," Durbin said about this classic pose. It helps provide the strength, flexibility and range of motion to both accelerate and decelerate his arm during a pitch.
Do it: Start on your hands and knees. Tuck your toes, lift your knees off the floor, extend your arms and lift your pelvis toward the ceiling, pressing your sit bones back and your heels down so your body forms an inverted V. Step with your feet together and raise your right leg toward the ceiling. Hold. Then lower your right leg and switch sides.
Athlete: Melanie McQuaid, professional triathlete
Highlight reel: McQuaid is the queen of off-road triathlon and the 2003, 2005 and 2006 XTerra Professional World Champion. She just won the first International Triathlon Union (ITU) Cross Triathlon World Championship in Extremadura, Spain.
Yoga style: Yin yoga, an ancient (and challenging) style that focuses on elongating the ligaments and connective tissues by having you hold poses for several minutes. "I like the longer holds because I don't use yoga for strength, but for relaxing and loosening tightness," McQuaid said.
Pose pick: Triangle. "I like poses that relieve tension where I carry tightness," said McQuaid, who enjoys how triangle pose releases tension through her hips and hamstrings (which get tight on cyclists and runners), as well as from her lower and upper back.
Do it: Stand with your feet three feet apart, and turn your left foot in and your right foot out so they are parallel with the edge of the mat. Bring your arms up parallel with the ground. Extend your torso and lean over to the right so your right hand is touching your right foot and your left hand arm is straight in the air. Hold. Repeat on the opposite side.
Athlete: Emily Cook, freestyle skier
Highlight reel: The two-time Olympian took home gold at the 2011 U.S. national championships in March. Cook is also an ambassador for Lululemon, a yoga apparel company.
Yoga style: "I like Anusara because it combines physical, emotional and spiritual awareness with an emphasis on alignment," Cook said. "It makes me feel peaceful and happy, which makes it easier to focus."
Pose pick: Handstand. "I like inversions because they're challenging and literally strengthen your body and mind at the same time," she said.
Do it: Place your mat's front edge against the wall. Perform Downward Facing Dog, head toward wall, hands shoulder-width apart, about 2 inches from the wall. Step with your right foot forward, and then kick into Handstand with your left leg, keeping it straight and then bringing your right foot up to meet your left. Squeeze your abs toward your spine for support. Hold for 10 seconds.
Athlete: Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (JHK), professional mountain bike racer, Subaru/Trek Mountain Bike team (and husband of fellow mountain bike racer Heather Irmiger)
Highlight reel: 2004 Olympian, nine-time national champion, 2009 pro XCT champion, U.S. national XC champion, U.S. marathon champion
Yoga style: Hot Yoga (a variation of Bikram). "It's a bit slower and more meditative -- and slightly less intense than traditional Bikram," Horgan-Kobelski said. "Since I get so much athletic activity on the bike, I don't need 'intense' yoga."
Pose pick: Pigeon pose. "Cycling makes your hips tight because of the repetitive seated pedaling. Pigeon is the perfect hip-opening complement to that and leaves me feeling more balanced on the bike."
Do it: Start on your hands and knees. Draw your left knee forward so it's touching your left wrist. Bring your left foot forward toward your right hand, so the shin is about parallel to the front of the mat. Slide your right leg straight back as far as comfortably possible, pressing the top of your right foot into the floor. Lift up onto your fingertips as you tuck your tailbone and lift your chest. Hold. Repeat on the other side.
Athlete: Heather Irmiger, professional mountain bike racer, Subaru/Trek Mountain Bike team (and JHK's wife)
Highlight reel: 2009 Singlespeed world champion, 2009 U.S. national XC champion, finished sixth at 2010 UCI World Championships
Yoga style: Hot Yoga. "We do 26 poses in a 90-to-100-degree heated room," Irmiger said. "This practice is focused on heart opening and intentions, so I get mental and emotional balance. I'm more in tune with my body spiritually. It's the yin to my yang of competing and something I need."
Pose pick: Standing bow. "As a cyclist, I'm hunched over and curled forward 15 to 20 hours a week, which makes for tight hip flexors, hunched shoulders and a tight chest and upper back," Irmiger said. "Bow pose stretches your quads, hips, shoulders, chest and upper back -- all in the direction opposite that of a bike. It's completely invigorating. And I think it looks beautiful."
Do it: From a standing position, bring your right foot back off the floor and grasp it with your right hand. Extend your left arm straight overhead. Bend forward from the hips, allowing your left arm to come forward, reaching straight out in front of you. Extend your right leg out and up, drawing your torso toward the floor until your stomach is parallel to the floor, while lifting your chest, so your body forms a bow. Hold. Repeat on the other side.
Athlete: Desiree Davila, long-distance runner
Highlight reel: Finished second in this year's Boston Marathon, missing first by two seconds and setting a personal record by four minutes. Her 2:22:38 finish was the fastest Boston time ever by an American woman.
Yoga styles: Slow Vinyasa or Bikram, styles that flow from one pose to another with an emphasis on strength and flexibility. "I started practicing my senior year in college and really enjoyed it," Davila said. "It's a great way to make sure I do my stretching and core strength work."
Pose picks: Warrior I, II, and III. "These three are great for stretching and strengthening my legs, ankles and feet," said Davila -- a must for the marathon distance.
Do it: (Warrior I) Stand tall with your feet about hip-width apart. Take a giant step forward with your left foot, turning your right foot to the side so your right arch faces the heel of your left foot. Bend your left knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor, keeping the knee directly in line with your ankle. Raise your arms overhead, keeping your shoulders down and pressing your palms together. Reach through your arms, pressing up and forward with your ribcage. Hold 30 seconds. Then switch sides.