Home Baseball Content The 5 Most Common Errors Athletes Make With Yoga

The 5 Most Common Errors Athletes Make With Yoga

Written on May 2, 2014 at 12:42 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from yoga expert, Dana Santas. Dana has built up an impressive client roster of professional athletes and teams, and it's no surprise, given how educated she is in applying yoga the right way. Enjoy! -EC

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Yoga is a popular topic in the sports world these days. Undeniably, yoga can offer some amazing benefits for athletes. However, those benefits can only be realized when it’s taught correctly and adapted specifically with the goal of increasing sports performance. Otherwise, at best, yoga can be marginally helpful in sports, and, at worst, can actually be dangerous.

These are the five biggest mistakes I see athletes, coaches and trainers making with yoga:

1. Viewing Yoga as a Harmless “Stretch Class”

The most prevalent misconception about yoga that I encounter is that it’s best used for “stretching.” In my opinion, yoga applied for sheer flexibility has no place in sports. Flexibility without stability is nothing more than a recipe for injury. If you only use yoga to “stretch out” athletes without understanding and addressing the cause of the tension, you’re only applying yoga for temporary relief and can actually do more damage than good. A perfect example is the typical complaint: “I need to stretch my hamstrings because I can’t touch my toes.” When the hamstring tension is caused by an anterior pelvic tilt pulling the hamstrings into a lengthened yet inhibited position, attempting to stretch the hamstrings without correcting the pelvic tilt will only lead to tearing the hamstrings.

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Most tension in athletes is caused by dysfunction or compensatory movement patterns. Fix the pattern and you release the tension--without unnecessary static stretching (like in the hamstrings example above).That’s why I never call what I do “increasing flexibility.” Is it a byproduct? Certainly. But I focus on using yoga for mobility, which--to me--means increasing stable, functional range of motion.

2. Not Understanding the Differences (and Dangers) of Yoga Styles

Saying “I do yoga” is like saying “I drive a car.” Really, what kind? There’s a big difference between a Hyundai and a Ferrari. When it comes to yoga, the variety of styles goes on and on...Hatha vs. Ashtanga vs. Bikram vs. Yin vs. Power vs. Blah Blah (everyone is making up their own version); I even have my own style! Athletes, coaches and trainers have to take the time to educate themselves about the techniques and rationales of the different styles before jumping into a class.

Personally, I believe some styles should be entirely contraindicated for athletes. I realize I’m going to piss off all the hot-yoga disciples by saying this, but one such style is Bikram, where the heat is turned up to an obnoxious 105 degrees. Yes, I know this is popular with athletes because they love to sweat. Great--push yourself properly in 75 degrees to sweat (or go to the sauna), but steer clear of a yoga style that teaches its instructors to shout commands like “lock your knees” while you slip and slide in sweat over the course of 90 minutes. Of the 26 poses used in Bikram, there are two I don’t think most athletes should attempt because of stress on the knees (Reclined Hero) and cervical spine (Rabbit). Another style that I’m not crazy about – Yin yoga – is widely marketed to athletes. The deep, static stretches of Yin are intended to stretch out the connective tissue--including ligaments. I don’t agree with encouraging athletes to stretch out areas that provide joint stability.

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3. Not Vetting The Yoga Instructor

Most people don’t realize that yoga instruction is almost entirely unregulated. As such, there's no law requiring any specific certification to teach yoga. So, anyone can buy a certification online. Consequently, there isn’t a requirement for any anatomy training at all. In fact, even the current gold standard of certification through Yoga Alliance only includes a limited number of anatomy hours, which can be entirely comprised of energy anatomy (chakras, nadis, etc.) rather than muscle and joint function.

Despite this, yoga teachers are encouraged to manually adjust their students in postures. If you’re asking yourself how anyone without anatomy and biomechanics training can properly adjust someone into alignment in complicated yoga poses, you’re contemplating a very valid question. What happens when ill-advised instructors adjust students in classes? Well, injuries aren’t uncommon. One of my MLB clients suffered a cervical spine injury when an instructor in a gym placed a strap around his neck and did “traction” to help him “rest comfortably” while supine at the end of class. Yikes!

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4. Trying to Become a Yogi

Simply learning to do a particular style of yoga as a form of cross training is like a baseball player playing basketball in the off-season. He may benefit from the cardiovascular exercise and even improve his agility, but nothing he does playing basketball is specific to him becoming a better baseball player. And, it could even put him at a greater risk of injury as he feeds into existing dysfunctional patterns within the movements of the new sport. The same logic applies to athletes learning to be yogis.

Consider this: a MLB player came to me as a new client after practicing yoga the two previous off-seasons. His movement across the transverse plane was poor and his right SI joint was jammed due to pelvic rotation left to right. He knew how to do yoga sun salutations (albeit while employing myriad compensatory movement patterns), but he lacked the ability to shift appropriately into his left hip and tap into core power and hip mobility for powerful, fluid rotation. He was a left-handed DH, not a yogi, and should’ve approached his yoga practice as such. Consequently, I designed a custom yoga practice for him that focused on establishing the ability to properly shift into his left hip while increasing fluid movement of his pelvis and hips supported by integrated core strength. That’s the kind of yoga he needed!

Another point I have to make about athletes not striving to become yogis is regarding learning advanced inversions and arm balances. Yes, standing on your head looks really cool, but, can easily cause disc herniations when done incorrectly. And arm balances are awe-inspiring, but offer no benefit to athletes (especially throwing athletes) that outweigh the risks. When pressed by clients to teach these poses, I ask them: “Are you an athlete who wants to reach the top of your game or would you rather join Cirque du Soleil?”

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5. Wasting Hours in Yoga Classes

The standard format for a yoga class is a 60- to 90-minute class. With grueling training and game schedules, athletes have limited time to get the best possible training and have any semblance of a life outside of their sport, so every second counts. In my opinion, spending an hour-plus in a generic yoga class is not time well spent.

When taught athlete- and sport-specifically, yoga can be applied in a variety of ways that require little time commitment (i.e., a yoga mobility warm-up can be done before a workout or game, restorative yoga and/or deeper stretches can be done after games and/or on off days, yoga moves used as corrective exercise or functional training can be added into workouts in between sets of complementary moves). My clients’ in-season programs never include anything more than 20 minutes at a time and are also broken down into individual movements intended for integration into other parts of their strength and conditioning programs.

The bottom line is that all of these mistakes and potential dangers can be avoided by practicing due diligence. When athletes are smart about why and how they add yoga to their training, they can use it tap into another level of function, awareness and control that will help them move, breathe and focus in ways that directly translate to enhanced sports performance and decreased injury.

About the Author

Dana Santas is creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga-based mobility and sports-training style designed specifically to help athletes move, breathe and focus in ways that enhance performance and decrease injury. Nicknamed the “Mobility Maker,” she's currently the team yoga trainer for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Philadelphia Phillies, as well as sports mobility consultant to more than half a dozen other teams and hundreds of MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL and MLS pros. You can learn more about her and get information about her upcoming workshop in Waltham, MA at www.RadiusYoga.com.

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  • Christian

    So effectively you’re not a yoga teacher (in the traditional sense)I am sorry but to this day I’d not have confidence sending any patient that comes to see me to a yoga teacher.

    I am glad you are bucking the trend and bringing the professional you represent upto scratch but as a whole yoga sucks. Last yoga class I went to the instructor requested no one drink for the 2 hours and that the dark yellow colour of your urine after class was “toxins leaving your body”

  • Rune

    Thanks for a great post! I have a question regarding yoga and the different styles.
    My girlfriend goes to an osteopath, because she has vaginismus. The Osteopath says her whole pelvic region is more or less “locked”, as well as her thoriatic spine. I’ve been saying this for years, and have begged her to start foam rolling and do some mobility drills. She’s not interrested in that, but her osteopath has recommended yoga, which she’s considering. There’s only a few yoga classes in our area, since we live in Norway. That being said, which kind of yoga would you recommend to a slim, out of shape, 20-something girl with extreme lack (of all kind) of mobility.
    I will attend the classes with her to see if the mobility part is safe(ish). I know my share of anatomy, but I have no idea where to start looking, when it comes to yoga.

  • Laurie Burns

    I used to do 75 minutes of yoga once a week but stopped after my massage therapist told me it was too much for me especially if I was running and lifting weight as a track athlete. It was definitely too much and doing some if the yoga stretches would be ok, but not along with an hours worth of other things. I was facing overdoing things. Actually resting is better!

  • Drew

    What do you think of the Surya Namaskara as part of a mobility warm up?

  • Thanks for the terrific article. Pitchers that I work with youth-college typically have ankle, hip and thoracic mobility issues. Many trace back to previous injuries during youth. Would like to know your favorite poses and yoga resources for those mobilities. And, what should I do for that 5% with extreme laxity. Should they attempt yoga?

  • Mik

    Not a fan or a detractor of yoga, but how do you explain the fact that Kareem did yoga throughout his career, which just happens to be the second longest in the history of the NBA?

  • Jim Nonnemacher

    As a yoga instructor, 2 certifications from Kripalu and another in the Iyengar style, as well as a CSCS, I have for a long time been, shall we say, upset with the state of yoga instruction. I particularly dislike the perception that yoga is just another form of exercise. Yoga was never meant to be a form of exercise; it is first and foremost a spiritual practice. The view of yoga as exercise developed in the early 20th century (see Yoga Body by Mark Singleton). A yoga practice needs to include, as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 8 components: study and practice of the yamas & niyamas (abstentions & observances); asana, pranayama (breath control), pratyhara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (absorption). If all you do is the asana’s…. the postures…. you’re not really practices yoga, you’re just participating in a stretching class.

    For athletes, practicing yoga with ALL of its components will be of great benefit. What athlete doesn’t need to have good breathing (as Eric has commented on many times); what athlete doesn’t need to be able to concentrate in the heat of competition (here is where pratyhara will come in).

    If you want to practice yoga, find an instructor whose classes included all of the 8 limbs….don’t go for the Madison Ave marketed “power yogas” they aren’t yoga, just a poor substitute for a complete practice.

    oBTW, I think Bikram is the worst of the yoga impostors.

  • Steve cairns

    What an excellent post and an excellent commentary on one of the classicly widely accepted and unquestioned but totally flawed concept of flexibility (without stability) within sports performance (and everyday movement). Too often in the ‘bro-science’ gym world the maximum extent to which corrective training goes is stretch it or find a weighted exercise that isolates it.
    A pity I’m the wrong side of the Atlantic to attend Dana’s classes.
    Great post and I’ll look out for your work.

  • Diana Pollard

    I totally agree with this article especially the Bikram yoga thing, people not being properly certified and the many risks involved. As a trainer who offers corrective conditioning I see many people with imbalances which need to be addressed before doing some of the yoga poses I see (but don’t get). It’s true that in any group class we cannot address each individuals needs but we need to do everything possible to be responsible for the participants & at least understand and warn of potential dangers.

  • Jim Nonnemacher

    I am a certified yoga instructor, in the Kripalu and Iyengar traditions as well as holding a CSCS certification I have many concerns with the manner in which many yoga classes are taught.

    Firstly, I am of the opinion that much of what is passed off as yoga is not. These classes may make use of the asanas used in yoga but they are nothing more than a stretching class. Yoga is first an foremost a spiritual tradition that is 2-3 thousand years old…it was never intended to be a form of exercise. That perception, that yoga is another form of physical exercise is only about 80 years old, being formed as a result of the westernization of yoga in the early part of the 20th century (see Yoga Body by Mark Singleton)

    A complete practice, class of yoga should include all of the 8 limbs as described in Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These “limbs” are: study and practice of the yamas & niyamas (moral & ethical observances & abstentions); asana; pranayama (breath control); pratyhara (withdrawal of the senses); dharana (concentration); dhyana (meditation); and Samadhi (absorption).

    Each of these limbs, when practiced correctly will be of benefit to athletes. If you’re coming out of a “yoga” class and feeling drained it is not a yoga class. A properly designed and led yoga class should not leave someone tired or drained but refreshed and alive.

  • Jack

    let me first say, i am sick of hearing how detrimental stretching is! likely, this trend of downgrading stretching and all forms of it is a fad that will fade into disuse in about 10 years. i am a certified massage therapist and many of my clients are athletes and dancers. most of the athletes are generally very muscularly tight and when asked if they spend any quality time trying to increase their flexibility, they say “no, but i need to.” if they have suffered injuries, more of the time it was because they lacked muscular flexibility when they attempted a maneuver that required greater flexibility and for which affected their mobility.

    most agree that professional dancers are athletic AND extremely flexible. (the sports science community regards them as an exception to the rule- probably due to the their bodies having adapted to stretching over the course of their training.) in any case, dancers usually do some type of stretch before taking daily class- which, by the way, is full of strengthening and stretching movements. most of the stretching they do is ‘static stretching.’ tell a gymnast not to stretch and see what they say! tell a high-diver to not stretch out and see how they respond. are you kidding? as a culture, we don’t stretch enough!

    Articles such as the one Dana Santas wrote really needs to be re-written with the clarification that every rule has an exception. And in the sports world- there are multitudes of exceptions. Every sport has its own form and technical demands. To claim that “at best, yoga can be marginally helpful in sports,” reveals you have no clue! “Marginally?” Really? I agree with commenter, Jim Nonnemacher, who lays out the true benefits of yoga. If you, Dana, take issue with “stretching,” wouldn’t it be better to expose poor stretching techniques, and lay out what good stretching (static and dynamic) techniques are? don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

  • Marla

    I agree with a lot of what you have shared. Even though there are many things beneficial in Yoga, there are some things that may be practiced in some “Yoga” classes that are not appropriate for everyone. This is why I appreciate and respect the work of Jill Miller with Yoga Tune Up. (www.yogatuneup.com) It’s deeply rooted in anatomy and takes each persons unique body into consideration.

  • christian

    Jack,

    I don’t think it’s ever been a matter of stretching being detrimental, but rather a well warranted critique of stretching (particularly static) when prescribed as a sole for, of injury prevention and rehab tool.

    People are finally waking up and realising whilst static stretching has a place there are far more productive ways of “warming up” or “prehab/rehabbing”. It’s pushed people to think and apply mobility/flexibility work with more purpose. Rather than being at the forefront, it is now more commonly (and rightly so) used as a complimentary tool in improving the effectiveness of movement programs.

    Yoga and the like put too great an emphasis on flexibility, the exercises they use are too generic and don’t account for the individual’s needs. We all have our differing opinions based on our own ever evolving training philosophies which is what forces productive changes such as the way we now look at the role of this exercise modality.

  • I’m also guilty of seeing yoga as a harmless stretching class until an instructor opened my eyes after showing me what he was able to do thanks to yoga.

  • Les Butler

    I’ve been doing yoga and weight traing for a long time and am always looking to learn more about both.

  • Rhonda

    Thank you

  • Sorry it took me so long to find the time to reply to all your thoughtful comments. I was traveling for workshops and clients but I will respond to everyone today. Thanks so much for your patience.

  • Christian, I’m assuming you made both of the comments from “Christian,” so I’ll address them both. Thanks for the kind words! Yes, unfortunately, yoga instruction being unregulated and very subjective, can often include some terrible “instruction/information,” like you encountered regarding the cue for not drinking. This is another reason I think general yoga classes can be dangerous for athletes, who are used to taking instruction from their coaches and trainers. They might blindly follow that type of instruction.

    And if you are also the Christian who replied to Jack regarding stretching, I agree with your statement that it should serve “as a complimentary tool in improving the effectiveness of movement programs.” When applied and taught correctly yoga asanas (postures) can be used as part of a movement program that isn’t just focused on stretching.

    Thanks so much for your comments!

  • Hi, Rune. I am not familiar with vaginismus and I try not to recommend much without assessing a client. However, regarding your question about the best type of yoga. You should be safe with an Iyengar class. Iyengar is very focused on alignment and the use of props to support proper alignment. I believe it is one of the safest and best taught styles of yoga available. Because it is not marketed or taught as a power class, it is, unfortunately, less popular with athletes. That said, having studied Iyengar extensively, I have to admit that there are some particulars about how asanas are taught that I disagree with…but, on the whole, I respect this style above all others.

  • Hi, Laurie. What about incorporating yoga as a great mobility warmup before running and then as cool-down stretches afterward? If you are focused on breathing and practicing the asanas, it’s still yoga–even if it isn’t 75 minutes in a class.

  • Drew, I think sun salutes are awesome mobility warm ups and I use customized variations of them all the time for clients. My biggest concern for athletes using them generically is that, like all other yoga postures, they’re taught as though the body is symmetrical and functional. When was the last time you saw a symmetrical athlete who didn’t have compensatory/dysfunctional patterns? Yoga has so much more to offer athletes when it is taught with corrective exercise in mind because all of the moves can be used to correct dysfunctional patterns. For instance, cuing the lunges to address any pelvic and hip rotation will help correct those issues as opposed to feeding into them.

  • Thanks for the kind words and questions, Stephen. Because I adapt/change traditional yoga poses to turn them more into a series of movements and less “poses” to make them work better for my clients, it’s really difficult to pick a few “favorite” postures. That said, I have a feature with one of my MLB pitchers coming out in the next issue of STACK that will include a four-page photo breakdown of some of the elements of his program. You might want to check that out. In terms of your question about laxity, I would say that, when taught correctly, many yoga asanas can be used for increasing stability; in fact, all yoga postures should be taught with an eye on both stability and mobility (which is why I am so averse to the overuse of the term “flexibility”).

  • Hi, Mik. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not a yoga hater. I LOVE yoga. But, as some people have pointed out in the comments, much of yoga has been altered to be unsafe and gimmicky. I wasn’t aware Kareem practiced and I don’t know what the rest of his strength & conditioning program looked like. People with good body awareness and a decent instructor (which I assume was the case with Kareem) can practice traditional versions of yoga and still benefit immensely from the functional training aspects of it. But, unfortunately, the reason I say that, as a whole, it can only be “marginally helpful” to athletes is because of the myriad styles and unregulated, subjective teaching that is prevalent and widely marketed to athletes today.

  • Hi, Jim. Your comments are my favorite because they made me realize that, based on my article, most people who weren’t familiar with my work would not truly understand it. My article is strictly about the five most common errors I find athletes, trainers and coaches making with yoga; in no way was it meant to represent everything that I do with my athletes as a yoga trainer. Personally, I have studied yoga for nearly 20 years. I did a great deal of my early training with Manju Pattabhi Jois (son of Pattabhi, the “father” of modern day Ashtanga yoga). Personally, I practice the eight limbs. I also have run my own 200-hour Teacher Training Program through Yoga Alliance, teaching yoga instructors all eight limbs of yoga.

    Because of this, I know that it takes a great deal of time and dedication to study and practice all eight limbs of yoga. I am not arguing that all eight limbs would not benefit athletes (they would benefit all human beings) BUT, in my nearly decade of working with professional athletes, I have learned firsthand the time and energy demands put on them to play at a professional level. For that reason, I adapt and offer the best aspects of the whole yoga practice to my clients. When I say “adapt,” I also mean that my yoga training for athletes is clearly influenced by all of the science-based movement modalities I’ve studied and all I have learned about breathing biomechanics (particularly through PRI, which is much of what Eric references when he speaks about the importance of proper breathing). I’ve also studied physiology to design yoga-based techniques that stimulate hormonal responses to get my athletes into “the zone” by decreasing cortisol and increasing testosterone. I have studied Yoga Nidra extensively and I incorporate those techniques into focus exercises. And although Yoga Nidra is not intended for actual sleep, I have adapted techniques to help my clients with sleep issues (naps are so important and grueling schedules throw sleep off and get them hooked on ambien). Almost all of my pro athletes and two of my pro MLB teams have my Yoga Nidra-based audio programs to help stimulate sleep.

    One other interesting point I want to make is that–as I understand it–the limb of yoga that is the asanas (postures) was originally created thousands of years ago as a means of “conditioning” yogis’ bodies to be able to sit for long periods of time in meditation (while working on the other seven limbs). So, in essence, the asanas were created as “sport-specific” training…with meditation being the “sport” of yogis. Of course, yoga asanas evolved to be an even more important part of the practice as a whole, but they were originally designed to help yogis have the hip mobility, core strength and knee stability to sit cross-legged. I know Pattabhi Jois discussed this often and I believe Georg Feurstein has mentioned it in his texts; I think the concept was also covered in the documentary “Yoga Unveiled” (one of my favorite documentaries that I made all of my teacher trainees watch, BTW).

    Again, thanks for your comments. I hope this all makes sense to you. Namaste.

  • Thanks so much, Steve! Make sure you sign up for my email list on my website. I am increasingly booking workshops all over the country–maybe I’ll be near you sometime this year.

  • Love your comments, Diana! Thanks for taking the time to read the article and respond.

  • Hi, Jack. Thanks for raising some interesting questions that I’m happy to answer. Yes, marginally, really, AND dangerous. Why? Because of everything I said in the post. I stand by my statement that the majority of tension I see in athletes is caused by dysfunctional/compensatory movement patterns that pull muscles out of the kinetic chain. Restore the chain and the chronic tension is relieved. I also stand by my point about the dangers of stretching without understanding the true source and nature of the tension–as in my hamstrings and anterior pelvic tilt example. Once you correct the dysfunction, there is no danger to stretching and there is a significant benefit in increasing functional range of motion–which means stretching while also keeping stability in mind. Let me give you the example of one of my pro client’s wives, who is a yoga instructor and former college hockey player. She came to me with high left hamstring pain and a jammed right SI joint. She was VERY flexible. Two years prior, she had pushed herself into Hanumasana (Monkey God split pose) because she was “tired of feeling so out of balance and inflexible in [her] left leg.” Consequently, she tore her left hamstring badly–very badly. You know why? She wasn’t “inflexible” on her left side. Her pelvis was rotated left to right and anteriorly tipped, especially on the left. This meant that not only was her left hamstring pulled into a lengthened and inhibited state but her left glute didn’t fire properly so she was using her left high hamstrings as her primary hip extensor muscles. Her hamstrings weren’t tight, they were lengthened and taxed. Stretching them out injured her very badly and she suffered for the next two years until she came to me and we corrected her pelvis and restored proper muscle firing patterns. Do you understand what I’m saying now? Stretching can be great–but only if you are sure you need to be stretching. My argument is not against stretching or yoga, but against stretching without knowing why or how to do it properly…and unfortunately, that’s what a lot of yoga is delivering: flexibility for the sake of it. Athletes don’t need that and, as I illustrated, it can be dangerous.

  • Thanks, Marla. I will check out Jill Miller.

  • Very cool, James. Thanks for your comment.

  • Thanks for reading the article and commenting, Les.

  • You are very welcome, Rhonda.

  • Dana; can I just say thankyou for providing me with a very humbling article to read. Not only that, but the replies you’ve left to your comments have also been incredibly informative, as I debate just how beneficial my Yoga practise currently is for me.
    I currently participate in either 60 minute classes of Hot Yoga or 90 minute classes of Bikram Yoga, which I actually enjoy for the spiritual and meditational effects. In saying that, I am very much into strength training, and can see where some of the postures may be working against me gradually. Luckily the benefits from my Bikram classes have been slowly coming, complimenting the gradual re-allignment of my Anterior Pelvic tilt/Tight Hamstrings.
    I will however take into account all of what I have read here, and place more emphasis on trying to customize my Yoga practise to my own needs. Performing lock-out work to strengthen my wrist stability on the Bench Press is hardly complimented by placing my palms flat under my lying body, I imagine.
    Very, very great read. Please come to Australia one day!

  • Here is a link to an article on pelvic floor dysfunction. Jill Miller and her trained folks really have a great understanding of this stuff.

    http://www.tabatatimes.com/womens-only-no-peeing-with-double-unders/

    If you can find a teacher who also has medical training-win..win!

  • Bojana Vitkovic Lalovic

    Hi Dana, thank you for your writing, It is very inspiring. Yoga nowdays is tought of as a cureall, but it is not univeraly applicable nor efficient. I was intrigued to read you do not agree with the Iyengar class in full. Can you be more specific? Plus how would you approach young tennis players, my kids being in the sport, given the asymmetries that arise early in l/r upper body, and stiffness in lower extremities. I would appreciate your suggested series of asanas or movements for postworkout recovery stretch. Thanks and keep up the great work! Bojana


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