Yin Yoga for Athletes: 5 Ways to Improve Mind-body Health

I’ve been in a (tumultuous) love affair with yoga for over 20 years. In the beginning it was rainbows and butterflies—yoga could do no wrong. We were made for each other, and not only was I better because of yoga, but yoga was better because of me. I was on fire when I was teaching, and my passion infused the postures with a metaphysical glow.

Then we had our first fight.

Like any good fight, it was nasty. I was injured and full of blame, and yoga didn’t seem as sexy anymore. Yet, this fight opened the door to a world of growth and intimacy that wouldn’t have been possible without it. I’m not saying that you need to fight with your sweetie in order to grow closer, just that when you do fight, it’s an opportunity to evolve.

My first set of injuries included a spondylolisthesis in my neck (not good) and a low back injury that made me walk like the dead (yes, that’s right, I looked like a zombie). For those who want to know, cervical spondylolisthesis is a condition in which one vertebrae moves forward or backward from the vertebrae above or below. When you’re young, the most common cause (for the neck) is holding your head in the wrong position for a long period of time. At the time, I was practicing a style of yoga that asked students to hold headstand and shoulder stand for up to 75 breaths in every practice. The back pain was associated with too much stretching and not enough strengthening—you might think of it like this: I was so loose that my muscles had to spasm in order to keep things integrated.

These experiences (painful as they were) helped me understand that the body needs strength, challenge, rest, and variety in order to grow—and that’s how I became an athlete. Since then I’ve tried all kinds of things—from CrossFit to personal trainers, Orange Theory Fitness to the Lagree Fitness Method (Pilates on steroids)—but I discovered that the sweet spot for my body is a blend of strengthening, cardio, and stretching.

Currently, I run and bike twice a week each, complete two strength training workouts, and practice yang to yin yoga three times per week. Honestly, I’m stronger than I was at 20 (I’m 42). I have energy to spare and I can sprint. Let me say that again, I CAN SPRINT!

The most interesting thing I’ve noticed is that a stronger body = a stronger mind. This integration has deepened my yoga and meditation practice and my relationship to myself. In particular, I’ve noticed that yin yoga is key in keeping me relaxed, healthy, and resilient. In fact, I’ll go further and say that yin yoga for athletes is like fine wine and chocolate, together they’re greater than the sum of their parts.

There are 5 ways that yin yoga can be an invaluable tool for athletes:

1. Less stress, more happiness

Yin yoga has always left me feeling blissful, and that feeling has increased exponentially since I’ve supercharged my workouts. According to Farinatti et al. (2011) stretching rapidly increases parasympathetic activity (the rest, heal, and digest response) in the body and improves heart rate variability (HRV) [1]. When HRV improves we’re more resilient, able to respond instead of react, and our overall wellbeing and mood improve. Another study showed that passive static stretching improves parasympathetic activity which was shown to continue even after stretching was completed [2].

The effects of chronic stress and anxiety are well-documented. According to the Mayo Clinic, the cumulative effects of stress are measurable in your body and you act them out behaviourally [3].  And while aerobic exercise is excellent for increasing feel-good endorphins or metabolizing the biochemical mediators of stress (think adrenaline or cortisol), it’s the slow, contemplative practices that pack the biggest punch in soothing the nervous system.

2. Improved health (less disease)

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that non-communicable diseases, or NCD, represent an impending disaster for many countries. Now you might ask, what exactly do NCDs have to do with me or yin yoga?

NCDs are diseases that you know well. Some examples include diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease. In studying these diseases, researchers found that a biomarker called adrenomedullin (ADM), becomes elevated years before the onset of NCDs. In light of this, scientists believe that ADM plays an important role in the development of NCDs.

A randomized controlled trial recently examined the effects of a 5-week yin yoga intervention on the levels of ADM. The results showed significantly greater pre-post reductions in plasma ADM levels, anxiety, and sleep problems in the yin yoga group versus the control group [4].

So far, the most effective strategies in combating NCDs include cardiovascular exercise, healthy diet, and a reduction in alcohol and tobacco use. However, this pivotal study shows that combining exercise with yin yoga could amplify your ability to fight debilitating disease.

3. Less pain: ease your delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

I noticed two things when I started a regular dead-lifting practice. First, my back no longer went into spasm every 3 months (sometimes I would just reach into a cupboard and boom, my back would be in spasm for 10 days). This alone was a big win. Second, the delayed onset muscle soreness could be so intense, that sitting on the toilet was tricky for a couple days after working out. While this is great for infection control in public toilets, it’s annoying at home. When I started practicing yin yoga at night (before bed) a couple times a week, the problem was solved.

According to Rick Sharp, professor of exercise physiology at Iowa State University, “Stretching helps break the cycle, which goes from soreness to muscle spasm to contraction and tightness.”

4. It’s the gateway to mindfulness meditation. And meditation = better performance.

An increasing number of athletes are using mindfulness meditation and the results are clear: those who establish a regular mindfulness practice perform better, have increased focus, and improved sleep. [5] [6] [7]

Fortunately, one of the foundations of a yin yoga practice is mindfulness. As you come into each posture you’re asked to train your awareness on the present moment and to stay there with openness.  As you repeat this practice, the open attitude on your mat will start to relax your resistance off the mat. Inevitably, you’ll hone your ability to focus on what matters while leaving any self-defeating stories behind. You’ll find that you can function better without sabotaging your performance or success as a result of obsolete beliefs.

5. Your brain will change: better memory, better thinking, less freaking out

Consistent yoga and meditation practice slowly transmute your brain into a tool that is better, stronger, and more reliable than it was before.

Yes young Jedi, the truth speak I.

There is a slow, but steady stream of studies that have used functional MRI to compare brain activity between those who practice Yoga and Meditation (YM) and those who don’t.

In one 2012 study, researchers found that the YM group exhibited greater cognitive flexibility, response inhibition, and goal-appropriate response selection than the control group, after viewing negative images [8]. This was particularly interesting given that the YM group showed increased activation in the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for…wait for it…cognitive flexibility, response inhibition, and goal appropriate response selection [9].

I don’t know about you but when I look at humans, I find that those who let their mind get the better of them crash hard. No one knows this better than athletes—that’s why sports psychologists are a critical support in helping people up their game.

Another 2018 study showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus for those in the YM group, with an overall difference in structure and function of the areas of the brain associated with executive function and working memory [10]. Tentatively, this means that adding yoga to your recipe for health can help to maintain and even improve your cognitive function over time. In this case, yin yoga is particularly powerful because you are asked to practice mindfulness meditation in every posture.

So, what is Yin Yoga?

When you practice yoga in a yin way the class looks like this:

  1. Almost all of the postures are practiced on the floor (you’re seated, lying down, or you have your legs up the wall).
  2. You are guided into the postures slowly, and once you’ve found your first tissue stop (this might be the first sensation of stretch, or where your range of motion stops unless you push yourself), you stay there for a period of time. Depending on the teacher or the pose, this could be anywhere between 1-5 minutes.
  3. Most of the postures are hip centric or spine centric. There are a few outliers that target either the whole body or just the ankles and wrists.
  4. There is no pushing, pulling, straining, or specific goal in the postures, other than learning to lean into the experience.
  5. There is an opportunity to acclimate to the effects of the postures in between each pose. This time is just as important as the pose itself and often involves lying down in savasana (on your back).

Five postures that will rock an athlete’s world:


This posture addresses both stiffness in quads and hip flexors.


    1. Come to hands and knees with a blanket under the knees.
    2. Step one foot forward between the hands.
    3. Place blocks, pillows, or a bolster under the hands to elevate the torso.
    4. Allow the pelvis to shift forward until you feel the first sensation of stretch.
    5. Breathe slowly and deeply, staying in the position for 1-3 minutes.
    6. Rest for 1 minute before practicing on the other side.

Avoid the following:

  • Pain
  • Rigidity
  • Bracing

Benefits for athletes:

Anyone who is a runner or cyclist can attest to stiffness in both the hip flexors and quadriceps—this posture will address both. This is also a very functional stretch. We lunge to some extent in our activities of daily living, so this is an action that we need to maintain for our overall mobility.

Shoulder Stretch

Shoulder stretch helps those who spend a lot of time on a bike


Shoulder stretch is also an amazing way to stretch the pectorals for those who are lifting weights, doing a lot of push-ups


  1. Lie on your belly, stretching the right arm out to the side (palm down), wrist should be level with the shoulder.
  2. Roll toward the right side of the body.
  3. Bend the knees and slide them up to hip level.
  4. Keep the neck in line with the rest of the spine.
  5. Stay for 1-5 minutes.
  6. Rest for 1 minute before practicing on the other side.

There should be NO:

  • Pain
  • Rigidity
  • Bracing
  • Do not practice this pose if you have a history of shoulder dislocation

Benefits for athletes:

There are a number of reasons to practice this posture. First of all, it’s excellent for posture—especially for those who have an overly rounded mid to upper back (thoracic hyperkyphosis). It’s also an amazing way to stretch the pectorals for those who are lifting weights, doing a lot of push-ups, or spending a significant amount of time on a bike.

Swan on a Bolster

Most physiotherapists feel that these muscles in athletes are really strong, and really tight–they need stretching. This posture is an ideal way to target both.
The muscles in the glutes tend to be really strong (and tight) for athletes.



  1. Use a bolster or roll a blanket into a cylinder.
  2. From hands and knees, lift the left shin and bring the whole shin forward in front of the bolster.
  3. To target the piriformis (a small muscle located deep in the butt), the knee is kept in line with the hip or even a bit medial of the hip.
  4. The knee is behind the wrist, and flexed enough that there is no discomfort in the knee joint.
  5. The whole pelvis is supported by the blanket cylinder/bolster.
  6. Fold forward and rest the upper body on the floor or a pillow.
  7. Stay for 1-5 minutes per side.
  8. Come out of the pose and rest for 1 minute before practicing on the other side.

There should be NO:

  • Pain
  • Rigidity
  • Bracing

Benefits for athletes:

The glutes and piriformis can be an annoying cause of back pain when they’re really tight. Gluteus maximus is one of the strongest muscles in the body and heavily used by football players, runners, and Olympic sprinters to get the push action while running. Gluteus medius is a stabilizer which ideally holds the pelvis in a neutral position while running. Gluteus minimus and piriformis externally rotate the flexed thigh, which actually prevents you from falling while running. Most physiotherapists feel that these muscles in athletes are really strong, and really tight–they need stretching. This posture is an ideal way to target both.

Reclining Hand to Toe – Reclined Hand to Toe Twist

Hamstring and calf muscle tightness are common contributors to low back pain (LBP), especially for athletes. This pose targets the hamstrings.
Using a strap over the foot allows you to work more intimately with the calf muscles which is critical in decreasing LBP.


  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Bend both knees.
  3. Loop a strap or bathrobe tie around the sole of the right foot.
  4. Straighten the leg by extending the knee, the ankle may be above the hip.
  5. Toes pull back toward the nose.
  6. Stay here for 1-3 minutes, breathing slowly and deeply.
  7. Take the straps into the left hand, and move the right thigh toward the midline—the foot moves toward the floor on the left side.
  8. Stay for 1-3 minutes.
  9. Come out of the pose and rest for 1 minute before practicing on the other side.

There should be NO:

  • Pain
  • Rigidity
  • Bracing

Benefits for athletes:

Hamstring and calf muscle tightness are common contributors to low back pain (LBP), especially for athletes. Reclined hand to toe targets the hamstring and calf muscles beautifully and the adduction, or twist component, targets all the lateral rotators including the piriformis. Using a strap over the foot allows you to work more intimately with the calf muscles which is critical in decreasing LBP. [11]

That’s a wrap folks! You have everything you need to practice yin yoga for a more balanced mind and healthy body. My final tip is to pick one of the postures and try it every night before bed, and just tune in to how you feel. I would love to hear about your experiences, or to field any burning questions.

Big Love,



[1] Farinatti, P. T., Brandão, C., Soares, P. P., & Duarte, A. F. (2011). Acute Effects of Stretching Exercise on the Heart Rate Variability in Subjects With Low Flexibility Levels. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,25(6), 1579-1585. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e06ce1

[2] Inami, T. , Shimizu, T. , Baba, R. , & Nakagaki, A. (2014). Acute Changes in Autonomic Nerve Activity during Passive Static Stretching. American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 2(4), 166-170.

[3] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987, June 14th, 2019 13:09.

[4] Daukantaitė D, Tellhed U, Maddux RE, Svensson T, Melander O (2018) Five-week yin yoga-based interventions decreased plasma adrenomedullin and increased psychological health in stressed adults: A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE 13(7): e0200518. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200518

[5] Glass, C. R., Spears, C. A., Perskaudas, R., & Kaufman, K. A. (2019). Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement: Randomized Controlled Trial of a Mental Training Program With Collegiate Athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1-20. doi:10.1123/jcsp.2017-0044

[6] Jekauc, D., Kittler, C., & Schlagheck, M. (2017). Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention for Athletes. Psychology, 08(01), 1-13. doi:10.4236/psych.2017.81001

[7] Lau, W. K., Leung, M., Wing, Y., & Lee, T. M. (2017). Potential Mechanisms of Mindfulness in Improving Sleep and Distress. Mindfulness, 9(2), 547-555. doi:10.1007/s12671-017-0796-9

[8] Froeliger, B. E., Garland, E. L., Modlin, L. A., & Mcclernon, F. J. (2012). Neurocognitive correlates of the effects of yoga meditation practice on emotion and cognition: A pilot study. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6. doi:10.3389/fnint.2012.00048

[9] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/ventrolateral-prefrontal-cortex

[10] Gothe, N. P., Hayes, J. M., Temali, C., & Damoiseaux, J. S. (2018). Differences in Brain Structure and Function Among Yoga Practitioners and Controls. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 12. doi:10.3389/fnint.2018.00026

[11]  Seif, H. E., Alenazi, A., Hassan, S. M., Kachanathu, S. J., & Hafez, A. R. (2015). The Effect of Stretching Hamstring, Gastrocnemius, Iliopsoas and Back Muscles on Pain and Functional Activities in Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Open Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 03(04), 139-145. doi:10.4236/ojtr.2015.34019

Edited by Jaimee Hoefert

Illustration by Katya Uspenskaya

Photos courtesy of the author

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