Happy Opening Day! After a year like no other, we can all take a deep breath and begin to enjoy what might be a normal season of baseball. To honor the beginning of the new season, I wanted to share an update on some research and highlight a new case study with an MLB player I’ve been working with this Spring Training.
2020 was full of challenges, with yoga teachers moving their entire businesses online. Ironically, teaching yoga through Zoom opened up an entirely new way for my students to gather biomechanics data on their poses and body’s range-of-motion. This past year, my students participated in remote group yoga classes that consisted of a pre and post class mobility exam. Both their recorded yoga-pose and mobility tests were tracked with marker-less motion capture software (TensorFlow’s Posenet, and more recently with ProPlayAI). You can read more about the tracking in my previous blog post here.
At Yoga42, our mission is to teach yoga specifically for athletes. To offer the best individualized yoga sessions for athletes, I make it a priority to research the biomechanical needs of each position in each sport I work with. Beyond understanding sport specific needs, it’s critical to understand the chronic and acute adaptations of an athlete’s mobility to help guide their session content long term. Thanks to the data collected in the past year during my Zoom sessions, I’ve been able to study these questions more objectively.
In our latest study, we tracked a group of my yoga students with weekly yoga classes and mobility assessments for a month. You can read the full white paper here. We found that range-of-motion is very dynamic in individuals. Some weeks, the students showed up a bit tighter before class than in weeks past, and sometimes they even get a bit tighter after going through class. But with using statistics, we quantified the trend in the group as a whole. Overall, student’s hip range-of-motion stayed about the same over the course of the month, as did trunk extension and trunk flexion. However, shoulder external rotation and trunk lateral tilt improved significantly over the course of this study for the group.
This is likely due to the pose selection in my classes. These classes focused on poses that encourage a higher degree of active shoulder range-of-motion, that over the course of the study, had a lasting impact on overall shoulder mobility. Poses such as Eagle, High Lunge, Sun Salutations, and even Downward Facing Dog, take the shoulder through repetitive range of motion near safe end ranges of the joint’s capacity.
The most significant improvement in the study (trunk lateral tilt), is likely explained from additional yoga poses that encourage larger degrees of combined spine rotation and spine lateral tilt. Poses such as half moon, reverse warrior, or triangle, demand greater range of motion of the spine to accomplish. What's more, most of these movements of the spine are not part of everyday activity and this mobility plane often goes unused.
Actively doing yoga on a regular basis really seems to allow the shoulders and spine to become more mobile, and not just right after class (it does that too). What we saw in this study was a long term chronic adaptation of the shoulders and spine becoming more mobile. In elite sports, this is very important. Athletes are always chasing ways to become more mobile. Their mobility always declines after large spikes in workload (see our 2019 study here), and their mobility declines over a season from chronic fatigue (Camp et al). Spending the time to recover and gain that mobility back is paramount to an athlete’s ability to stay healthy—and that’s what the best do.
I began teaching yoga to the San Diego Padres outfielder, Tommy Pham in 2020 at the beginning of MLB’s Spring Training in Arizona before the COVID shut down. We resumed sessions in February 2021 when Tommy returned to Arizona prior to position players reporting to camp. Tommy is whole-heartedly dedicated to his craft and physical training, and recovery through yoga has become part of that regimen. He and his agent approached me, looking for a yoga instructor with baseball player experience to lead outfielder-specific yoga classes several times per week after games. Our classes generally consist of a 60-minute routine that slowly build up active range of motion of the shoulders and spine. We focus on poses like Warrior I, II, Lizard, Low Lunge Twist, Triangle, Revolved Triangle, Prasarita Padottanasana, and more.
Tommy also goes through pre and post class mobility scans like all of the students in my study. Also like these students, Tommy gainEd a significant amount of mobility after each class. But equally as important, he gained mobility long term during the course of Spring Training. We won’t share all of his data, but Tommy was awesome and allowed us to share a little snippet. Tommy’s right throwing shoulder external rotation increased by 27 degrees over six weeks of yoga practice. After each class, he improves his shoulder ER by 8 degrees on average. As an outfielder who needs to maintain good arm health and strength, this is a great trend for Tommy.
Tommy has also made gains in his spine’s lateral tilt mobility. He has gained 10 degrees of lateral tilt towards both the left and right and 21 degrees of total trunk tilt arc over the course of his yoga practice. As an elite hitter, this is also a great trend for Tommy. In his swing, he needs every bit of this particular biomechanics pattern to reach the outside corner of the strikezone. Seen below (and thanks to the R&D Team at ProPlayAI), Tommy needs to achieve a lot of trunk side tilt at ball contact to reach the ball with his barrel.
For positional players in the sport, yoga can help with the chronic fatigue that ensues with a long (hopefully) 162-game season. But more than that, it can give you the range-of-motion needed to reach pitches and perform at your peak. Swing styles aren’t one-size-fits-all of course, and for the players who prefer extra tightness and use that tightness as a strength, regimented yoga may not be right for you.
However, tight or loose players will always need some amount of recovery, and I bet you’d be surprised at how many of your performance coaches already incorporate some yoga poses into your regimen without you realizing.
Stay mobile my friends!