Yoga for Golfers – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Weighing in on the benefits and the risks

Yoga has become the “workout fad” of the decade. Along with Pilates, it is touted as a “miracle” workout, guaranteed to lean you out, zone you out and promote all kinds of strength, while enhancing flexibility enough to make a pretzel jealous. But as fitness trainers and coaches know, this kind of hype needs to be backed up with science and safety. Many trainers avoid Yoga completely, labeling it as a recipe for injury – and they are correct to a large degree. Many Yoga classes do not provide the correct type of stimulus for our goals. They either contain all flexibility work, which can, in the long run, produce hypermobility and injury risk, or they move too fast, not allowing proper form and technique, which can increase the risk of injuries to golfers.

So, for golfers (and other athletes), it has to be the RIGHT kind of Yoga class, a Yoga class that addresses the areas of tightness and weakness that are most common in golfers. But how does the average golfer (or trainer for that matter) know what type of Yoga class is safe and helpful and what poses will increase injuries and create poor performance? This article will hopefully educate the golfer to what to look for, and what to avoid.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Yoga’s beginnings, Yoga is a form of physical, mental and spiritual practice that dates back almost 4000 years. One of the oldest known written texts, The Rig-Veda, contains elements of Yoga. Well trained Yogis spent years- decades!- learning proper Yoga postures and breathing techniques, so when Yoga was first introduced to the West, it maintained many of its safe, simple principles. But like everything in this millennium, things are moving faster than ever- and Yoga has changed dramatically from its origins. But, since Yoga is 4000 years old, there has got to be some validity to its benefits!

The Good

Let’s look at the benefits first:

  1. Yoga is phenomenal for teaching proper breathing. Many of us (especially women who have been holding their stomachs in for decades!) do not breath properly- we either hold our breath during improper times or breathe from the upper chest, not the diaphragm and belly, where the deep anterior core muscles lie. Until we learn proper breathing, we will never be able to correctly activate some of the anterior core muscles, which are a key factor for back safety and clubhead speed and power during the golf swing.Breath awareness also leads to postural awareness and release of physical tension. Are you aware of where you hold tension? Are you aware of your unhealthy postural tendencies? Perhaps not. For golfers, carrying tension in the shoulders and neck, or addressing the ball with poor posture, has a significant negative impact on your golf swing. I have found that sitting quietly in a Yoga class, focusing on breath, posture and awareness of physical tension or relaxation, can be of great help to golfers.
  2. Almost all of the traditional strength exercises and mobility and movement prep exercises we do come from Yoga. All lunges, squats, planks, bridges, side planks, dead lifts, airplanes, hip flexor and hamstring stretches, supermans, quadruped, push-ups, thoracic spine mobilizations, piriformis stretches, are variations of Yoga poses. So, we need to give credit where credit is due!
  3. Yoga teaches the golfer and athlete to stay present and focused even in times of physical, mental and emotional stress. Hold the pose Down Facing Dog for a few breaths, and you learn patience and presence in your body, even while feeling mildly uncomfortable. In Yoga, we do not try to disconnect, but instead, connect to our feelings, physical as well as emotional, and then explore these feelings with patience and awareness. For golfers, it’s easy to imagine the benefits of staying present and focused as you prepare to sink your putt for the club championship. Yoga can even teach you patience as you wait in the line at the bank!
  4. And the obvious: Yoga greatly enhances flexibility, balance, core stability and postural awareness- all key elements to a good golf game. For example, even our golf address can be enhanced by Yoga: as it requires good core activation, a sense of proper balance and weight shift, and of course, great posture to create an optimal spine position, with no rounding of the upper back or excessive curve of the lumbar spine. Many golfers can not even achieve a proper address due to physical weaknesses and muscular tightness. If you can not address the ball in an optimal position, you’ll never have an optimal swing! Personally, I have found that just two Yoga classes a week have a profound effect on my chronic tightness and pain, both limiting factors for the avid golfer.

The Bad

The first year I taught, I followed a cookie cutter method of teaching Yoga. I utilized poses that were traditional and common- like Uttanasana- forward bends with lumbar flexion. My back was killing me! Duh! Since then, I have completely overhauled my class and taken out any and all poses that don’t meet the standards I follow when training my clients. Coming from a fitness background helped me modify my class to be safe and to target the physical areas of the body that most people need work on.

In general, The BAD things about Yoga which I observe are:

  1. Some Yoga Teachers do not fully understand kinesiology, biomechanics, back safety and injury prevention. They do not take a detailed medical history. Yoga may not be for EVERY body, as some poses can cause injury or aggravate existing conditions. For example Cobra or Up Facing Dog is disastrous for students with some back conditions. Sustained lumbar flexion? Sciatica city.
  2. Yoga has become westernized- sped up, heated up, competitive. This is the opposite of the traditional Yoga mindset of no ego, quiet awareness and moving with proper form and execution. When deconditioned students join “Power Yoga” or “Hot Yoga”, they invariably get injured. All new students should master slower, more precise forms of Yoga before trying any of these faster/hotter classes. Yogis and Yoginis spend years learning just one pose. How can we learn 26 in one class? And, in my opinion, working out in 105 degree heat in a hot Yoga class to “cleanse” is not good for anybody!
  3. Yoga has become marketed as “the everything” workout- just like Pilates, Zumba or other gimmicky exercise regimens. This does a great injustice to an ancient form of exercise and discipline. Yoga does not make “lean long muscles”, and most Yoga classes do not create a large calorie deficit. Madonna is lean not from Yoga, but from eating celery and air for 10 years. Yoga is not a substitution for strength training, as it only builds strength with bodyweight and isometrics- clearly not enough for most of us who golf, play sports or do physical work.

And Finally, THE UGLY…..

Yoga has become popular enough that a large segment of our population is trying it out. Unfortunately, most Yoga students are not educated enough to know what they should and should not do in class. Some students may need mobility work while others need stability work. Unfortunately, Yoga classes often focus on hypermobility, which new students may think is proper and necessary!

Other uglies:

  1. Many Yoga classes do absolutely no warm up or movement prep. Imagine starting an exercise routine with a sustained forward bend? This is very common is many forms of Yoga. Proper movement prep and some static stretching are absolutely necessary before any faster more arduous poses are attempted.
  2. There are many poses which, frankly, I feel are downright bad for everybody. Headstands/shoulder stands are really dangerous. Very few people have the scapular stability and neck strength to bear all their weight onto their head. I tried it once – competitive and compelled – and had severe neck pain for a week. Lesson learned! Other really nasty poses which can injure:

Reclining Hero, Plow, The Wheel, Camel, Cobra (if not done properly), extreme backbends in general, free standing handstands (wall supported handstands are doable and fun!) and all forms of lumbar flexion and twisting.

Like all physical practices, Yoga has its goods and bads. If we can learn to eliminate risky poses, and always include poses that address weaknesses and build strength, Yoga can be for every body. Yoga is a transformative practice. It connects the body and mind and teaches patience, contentment and body awareness- all things we hope our clients and athletes attain.

In the next article, I’ll outline specific Yoga poses to enhance your golf swing and reduce your risk of injury and soreness.