Squash players look for every edge when trying to get a leg up on their opponents, but one facet of their game that often gets overlooked is pliability. In a game involving very rapid movements that rely on the speedy firing of dozens of muscles in your body, yoga may be the key ingredient in unlocking the next step of your game. After all, every day more and more top athletes are accrediting yoga and pliability training to their sustained health and performance.
So how can yoga help your squash game? Yoga can lengthen your muscles and increase your flexibility to improve your muscle response time, hand-eye coordination, and acceleration. It helps prevent injuries on the court, not to mention allow you a mental process for dealing with the stresses and difficulties of the game.
So how, then, could simply stretching a few times a week accomplish all that? Glad you asked, my friend. To discover how becoming more adept with yoga can translate to all the aforementioned skills, we must delve deeper to uncover the secrets this ancient practice has to offer.
Does Yoga Really Work?
Years ago, I was the guy laughing at the yoga freaks out posing at the park or preaching it to me and others at parties and scoffed at how it made them feel, “grounded,” and “more energized than ever.” That is, of course, until a friend of mine (in exchange for going on a date with me) convinced me to try it.
I was horrible, of course; unbalanced, awkward, and probably the least flexible person on the planet. But I’ll be damned, it felt really good afterward. Like, really, really good. I had an unexplained warmth and looseness throughout my body, especially in my lower half. And contrary to normal, sweat-wringing workouts, I didn’t feel exhausted. In fact, I felt the opposite. I actually felt like getting a hard workout in after 30 minutes of glorified stretching! I was amazed.
This, naturally, led me to prod deeper into the answers to why yoga was making my body feel better. What I found, was shocking, and far from coincidental.
Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback who’s ever lived most would argue, was releasing a book (and an overall methodology/business empire) called The TB12 Method. In this book, Brady described how he astonishingly defies conventional athletic aging by removing his focus on strengthening the body’s muscles through traditional weightlifting routines (he describes this as “hardening” the muscles) and twisting that focus a full 180-degrees into softening or, “lengthening” the muscles. His book is filled with yoga-inspired stretching routines that he and his trainer devised to maximize muscle pliability and decrease muscle inflammation, to which he accredits his prolonged health and ability to play at elite levels even into his mid-40s.
Well, maybe this is only for Tom Brady. Maybe he’s just genetically predisposed for this to work for him and him alone. I could have been persuaded of that theory until I caught wind of another sports legend who, too, was defying previously recognized age plateaus.
That legend would be Japanese baseball superstar, Ichiro Suzuki.
One of the greatest hitters ever in the game of baseball may go about attaining his results in a very different way than his football throwing counterpart, but his overall philosophies remain the same.
Ichiro uses specialized machines created by a Japanese fitness company called Wonder Wing exclusively designed for him but the ultimate goal of these machines is to keep his muscles as loose and as flexible as possible. In fact, he sites this for his ability to make contact with any pitch at any speed, as the looseness of his muscles keeps his hand speed up to par with his eye-hand coordination, a skill that directly translates to squash.
These two icons are not alone. Brad Pitt, Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones, Jennifer Aniston, Tom Hanks, Beyonce, the celebrity super-couple of Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, David Beckham, Adam Levine, and Jessica Alba are all avid yoga enthusiasts who swear its unrivaled ability to increase your pliability and keep you feeling younger, more energized, and incredibly athletic.
How is Yoga Different from the Stretching I do Every Day?
Okay great, we’ve addressed that rich people like to stretch. Fantastic. Now how, exactly does it work?
Yoga works by putting the user in various poses and holding them for a given moment of time in order to lengthen the tendons and muscles in the body. You might be thinking this sounds like ordinary stretching, and if you stopped reading this article now, you’d be correct, however, yoga differs from your run-of-the-mill middle school gym class routine in several ways.
In yoga, there are dozens if not hundreds of different poses that focus on different muscles in the human body. The traditional stretches you might be more familiar with probably include touching your toes, bending at the waist, and pulling your arm over your head.
In yoga, different poses (with fun names like Cobra Pose, Thunder Pose, and Warrior Pose) incorporate stretches that your body is unfamiliar with, and in many cases, allow you to reach deeper into these stretches and loosen your muscles and tendons more than you could with traditional, “static” stretches.
Using Multiple Muscles Together
If you’re just bending at the waist or touching your toes, you are only stretching one ligament/muscle at a time. Because of this limitation with static stretching, the likelihood that you are missing entire muscles and ligaments all together is incredibly plausible.
Yoga poses, even the most simple, almost always require the exertion of multiple muscle groups. Take a beginning pose like Downward-Facing Dog, which has a user bending forward at the waist, palms face down on the floor while arching the backside into the air, with the entire base of both feet touching the ground, essentially taking the shape of a human pyramid.
A very easy pose to execute, yet even a pose this infantile is working numerous parts of your body. Your MCL and ACL will both be stretched by keeping your feet flat on the floor, your shoulder muscles will get work by holding up the weight of your body, your spine will lengthen, and your hips will loosen as a result of bending forward.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Once you become more proficient with the poses, you’ll be able to perform much more advanced technique which will require more of the body to be involved. This also saves you time over the traditional stretch routine as the same number of exercises can cover much more of the body’s anatomy.
Staying balanced is a key element in every single pose. For some, the idea of staying balanced is natural, while in others it is an incredible struggle.
This added element of distributing your weight evenly while stretching helps improve athleticism from the ground up. Don’t believe me? Ask any athlete ever, pro, amateur, senior, child, from any sport and they will tell you it is a crucial part of their game.
- Breath Control
Unlike traditional stretching where you simply count to ten or have another teammate/coach do it for you, yoga poses are held in measurements of breaths. While it doesn’t sound much different on paper, in actuality it makes a world of difference.
Firstly, when you have to concentrate on breathing, you realize that with every passing breath you find yourself capable and almost yearning to stretch deeper and deeper.
Secondly, focusing on your deep breaths alleviates the pain of a deep stretch and thirdly, breathing itself, especially mastering slowing down your breath can be a secret weapon for you when playing squash.
Slowing down your breathing when your heart rate is elevated can help slow the game down for you, and help you to focus clearly on your form as well as reaction.
This is where the hippie part comes in to play.
If you were watching a yoga class in session and not participating, or read a verbal transcript of one of the instructors, you’d probably start giggling (especially if you’re as cynical as I am).
That’s because you’d see a bunch of people in odd, convoluted contortions all with their eyes closed listening to an instructor relay to them messages of relief; relieving themselves of stress, relieving themselves of anger or sadness, relieving themselves of pain.
It may sound corny to you but once you have been breathing slowly and stretching for 15-30 minutes, you really do get in touch not only with your physical self but your mental state as well. You can silence your self-criticizing part of your brain for a short while and really tune in with your body, allowing it to stretch deeper.
On a squash court, where things happen quickly and the score can dominate the way you play and your emotions can get the best of your judgment, the meditation achieved through yoga is a great tool to have in your belt when it’s time to slow the game down and get your emotions under control.
How Yoga Can Positively Impact Your Athleticism
In line with the many who attest to yoga’s effectiveness, as well as those (Brady, Ichiro, etc.) who achieve flexibility in similar fashions, yoga is a key, sadly often underutilized part in retaining your athleticism.
Regardless of whether you are ten years old or a hundred years old, man or woman, in great shape or terrible shape, yoga will only help you. The science behind it is simple: have loose, pliable muscles capable of strenuous, athletic repetition, and a number of abilities will become possible for you.
Have you ever held something heavy for a while, be it a weight, a book, or a bag jammed to the brim with groceries and then picked something light up such as your phone and the phone all of a sudden feels incredibly light? Like it’s just paper in your hands?
Imagine if your racket felt that way. Or at least you could swing it as if it felt that way. For some, the logic seems simple; pick up enough heavy objects until the smaller ones feel lighter. Oh, if it were that simple!
While conventional wisdom might tell you that bigger arms would swing a faster racket I’m here to suggest otherwise. While it’s true, bigger arms can generate a more powerful swing, it does not play an impact on the speed of a swing.
There’s a reason big tanker lorries have trouble going the speed limit while sleek, slender Ferraris are passing them at incredible velocities. The goal if you’re making a fast car is to get rid of weight, not add power.
Also, the reason that motorcycles with a fraction of the engine that sports cars have can accelerate faster than them.
So let’s do a third analogy. One that involves a rubber band. If you have one next to you, pick it up and play along and if you don’t, well, strain your imagination. Stretch the rubber band so that the band itself begins to stretch and then let go. See how fast that was?
The goal for your swing in squash should be to get faster, rather than stronger. You can turn your arms and elbows into that proverbial rubber band by practicing yoga. Consistent yoga 3-4 times a week will get your muscles as loose as that rubber band was, allowing you to strike the ball harder, and even react to the ball quicker, giving you more time to judge the play.
It’s All In The Legs
The very first time you experience a yoga session, you’ll probably feel the way I, and most other first timers felt. You’ll feel like you just had a good workout, but suddenly you get a second wind and feel incredibly energized!
That euphoric feeling starts in your legs, as often this is the tightest part of our bodies and yoga really likes to attack them. You’ll feel an incredible, warm, loosening sensation that occurs when your ligaments and muscles are lengthened to their most optimal state.
When I first encountered this jubilant tingling in my legs, I was overcome with the inclination to get into a sprinter’s stance and take off, the feeling was that liberating.
Now imagine your on the court and you’re sweating heavily, you’ve been playing for quite some time and you can see your opponent’s legs are giving out yet you feel like you could continue going on for hours! This increase in stamina will prove to be invaluable for outlasting your adversaries and even help you get in an extra game or two.
Squash, of course, consists of rapid bursts driven by explosive movements from the quadriceps and hamstrings so treat them right! Get them as stretched out as possible. You’ll be able to play longer, with more energy, and reduce your risk of injuring one of those bad boys.
Part of being a good athlete is actually being able to play, right?
As we age, our bodies lose their natural pliability. This is due, in part to the growth of our tendons and ligaments, which we can not prevent, but this is primarily a result of lack of use.
Children are almost like little acrobats. Incredibly flexible, wildly mobile, and undoubtedly resilient.
For a visual, imagine a six-year-old falling and scuffing his knee. He may notice it, depending on the tenacity of the kid, but he probably disregards it after a brief moment and continues playing.
Now imagine the same scenario, but this time the falling victim is a 55-year-old. There’s paramedics, crying family members, phone calls to loved ones and it becomes a whole bloody production.
What’s the difference?
You guessed it, muscle pliability. Children have very soft, loose muscles that allow them to fall and bounce right back up. That’s why when you watch the Olympics the gymnasts are very young. Once we graduate puberty, however, our muscles have become hardened and rigid.
With these super tight, hard muscles, the explosive movements we put our bodies through sometimes can lead to overexertion and we’re on the sidelines until we heal up.
You’ve never seen an eight-year-old pull a hamstring, have you? The good news is that yoga serves to defy age. At least, in a pliability sense. The looser your muscles, the less likely you are to pull one.
Going back to our rubber band analogy, imagine if you pulled the rubber band to its limits? Keep going and it would snap, right? Now, if it were nice and loose, there’s no way it could break. Treat your muscles like loose rubber bands.
- How do I get into yoga if I’ve never done it before?
If you’ve never attempted yoga before, fret not, getting started is very simple.
You can research some basic beginner poses (you will most likely encounter the fundamental yoga poses) online, purchase a book on yoga, buy an online internet plan, download a yoga app that has online classes (some are free but most will cost you a one-time fee or a membership. Still typically cheaper than actual in-person classes.)
Or, probably the most effective form of learning yoga, is to go to a studio and get actual teaching from a real-life yoga instructor. He or she will be able to coach you as you are doing the exercises to make sure you’re getting the most out of the poses. While an online yoga class might be more convenient or a cheaper option, you should at least begin at a studio to make sure your form is correct.
Finding a yoga studio near you is easy. Just punch “yoga studio near me” into Google and a ton of hits will appear. From there, select one based on its reviews or its proximity to you, or whatever you deem most important to you.
- Should I do a yoga routine before or after a game of squash?
In short, both. Once you’re comfortable with the basic yoga poses and can do them on your own, it would be wise to incorporate them into your squash routine.
30 minutes or so before the game, take some time to go over about 5-10 poses, being sure to target all the muscle groups, tendons, and ligaments in your body, so that you are as limber and loose as possible for your game.
Afterward, be sure to do a smaller, 5-pose set to hit the major sections of your body. This is important to aiding recovery and making sure the muscles stay long and loose, and do not tighten up with the lactic acid (stuff that makes your muscles feel sore) that has built up while you were playing. Other than that, so long as you are getting in a routine in two or three more times a week, your body will stay loose and your game will thank you for it.