Yoga is no longer an ancient art practiced exclusively by spiritual yogis wanting to get in touch with their "om."
With more than 18 million people practicing yoga in the United States, it has entered the mainstream as a hip and trendy way to get in shape, sculpt lean muscles and improve overall athletic performance and mental focus.
"Yoga is a perfect complement to any sport if practiced on a consistent basis of two to five times weekly for 45 minutes to an hour and a half," said Jessica Moore, owner of Old Town Yoga, 237 Jefferson St., and yoga instructor at the Student Recreation Center.
Yoga integrates physical poses and breathing techniques to stretch the body, breath and mind to improve endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.
"It is a known fact that your flexibility will improve, enabling the athlete to glean a better knowledge of how to control the body movements in an agile and graceful manner so as to not waste much-needed energy," Moore said.
Improving flexibility and range of motion are imperative to the athlete's ability to stretch the connective tissues, thereby making the body more adaptable to coping with stress and reducing major injuries or repetitive strain injuries.
The physical poses, or asana, are essential to any practice of yoga, focusing on strengthening exercises.
The hamstrings and quadriceps are primary locations that various lunge and tree poses improve. This can mean longer strides for runners, higher kicks in martial arts and more versatility in rock climbing.
"By engaging the side quad muscles and stabilizing the knee, you can prevent an ACL tear that any type of contact sport puts you at risk for. Yoga slowly builds up these muscles better than regular lunge or squat movements," said Gina Ord, yoga instructor and physical trainer at the recreation center and an occupational therapy student
Balance and core strength are essential to any athletic event.
"Yoga gives you a tremendous sense of balance and equilibrium by focusing on alignment and correcting asymmetry in the body," Moore said.
Many poses put the body in positions in which normally it wouldn't be, training the proprioceptors in muscles and tendons to be more reactive. The muscle fibers located around the joints sense and accommodate for weight shifts. With any sport, having a greater awareness of body in space and the ability to compensate for instability allows an athlete to be more efficient with his or her movement.
The breathing control used in yoga "helps improve lung capacity, thereby allowing an athlete to improve their cardiovascular condition," said Tamar Cline, strength and fitness director at the recreation center.
Ord said humans only use 10 to 20 percent of their breathing capacity normally.
Pranayama, or "breath control" works on pushing out the "dead" air, to set a slower breathing rate that mimics peak condition in endurance sports, allowing the body to become more efficient in its oxygen uptake and performance.
"(This will) reduce the "fight or flight" response of the adrenals and give you a better sense of calm," Moore said.
Yoga's holistic approach that often encompasses aspects of meditation allows athletes to develop will power that can improve their mental focus and thus performance. One can learn to control mind, body and their breathing, relax under pressure, and possess the ability to focus on the present.
"With consistent practice one can learn to monotask. Yoga allows the brain to function and focus on the task at hand. This is important to transfer to athletic performance," Cline said.
By focusing on one point to still the thoughts of the mind that may normally cause anxiety, yoga helps an athlete become better equipped at dealing with the mental and physical challenges that athletics requires through training and competing.
"So many things in our lives tend to pull us out of what yogis commonly refer to as our 'center' and it is important to have a clear mind when in competition so that all of your energy is directed towards your goal," Moore said.
Moore began her practice of yoga seven years ago beginning with the most commonly known form in the West, called Hatha, which is commonly thought of as a gentler form of yoga for all ages and body types.
Classes of this form focus on mild stretching that will open up joints stressed by running and skiing and open up tight hip flexors and hamstrings.
Bikram yoga is practiced in 100-degree temperatures with 60 percent humidity. This encourages the muscles to open up for a deeper stretch, improve strength, reorganize fat for muscle structure, as well as encourage a speedier recovery after hard training.
After becoming injured with an Achilles tendonitis training for the Chicago Marathon in 2002, Moore's body and life literally changed when she was forced to practice yoga daily for some form of exercise.
In time, yoga performed mindfully can connect the thoughts or awareness to subtle and not-so-subtle movements of the body.
"It's simply a process of 'know thyself,' as Socrates so simplistically put it," Moore said.
Yoga classes are offered at the recreation center on a weekly basis. Classes range from beginning and intermediate yoga to Power and Sport Yoga.
Bikram yoga is offered at several studios around town including Bikram Yoga Old Town, 159 W. Mountain Ave., and Bikram's Yoga of Fort Collins, 4021 College Ave. Other classes are offered at Yoga on Mason at 214 Mason St. and most Pulse Aerobic Centers.