Yoga is a peaceful practice that cultivates health and well-being through challenging postures, movements, and breathing exercises. But did you know yoga can make you a better boxer?
In today's post, the sweet science meets sports science. Join us as we review 8 empirically proven benefits of yoga for boxing, and see whether this practice is right for you.
1. Control breathing with Pranayama to improve your stamina
Pranayama and other breath control techniques can improve your fight stamina and recovery between rounds. If you've spent any time doing aerobic roadwork, you know how important proper breathing is for endurance. Yoga practice will put you more in tune with your breathing, and help you control it while exerting yourself under stress.
2. Create length with yoga stretching to extend your reach
Long reach isn't required for boxing success, but it certainly helps. Unfortunately, countless hours of impact work on pads, bags, and sparring partners means training boxing can shorten and bulk the muscle fibers.
A study by DiBenedetto et al. (2005) found that regular yoga practice improved hip extension, stride length, and gait (p. 1831). Though not explicitly confirmed in a boxing-centric study, these findings suggest that yoga's lengthening stretches could also be used to extend your reach in a fight.
Shawn Porter talks on the mental and physical benefits of yoga for boxing.
3. Improve balance for better offense, defense, and movement
Yoga has a long tradition of being used outside the ring to improve balance for post-stroke victims, seniors, and multi-sport athletes (Schmid et al., 2012; Krishnamurthy & Telles, 2007; Polsgorve et al., 2016).
Though yoga won't teach you how to box, better balance can improve your performance in sparring or on fight night. According to Polsgrove et al. (2016), yoga "may enhance athletic performances that require balance characteristics" (p. 27).
As we know, balance is crucial in boxing; some say it's everything. Balanced boxers can punch, move, or defend from any position at any moment. On the other hand, off-balanced boxers have weak punches, slower reactions, and a higher likelihood of being knocked down.
Boxing Fitness Factory discusses the importance of balance and posture in the ring.
4. Prevent injury for faster boxing development
Yoga combines mobility work, balance training, and static/dynamic stretching to significantly reduce the risk of injury for boxers (Gura, 2001, p. 4). This injury-preventing effect is a godsend during tough training camps, and will maximize your potential over the long term by keeping you learning rather than recovering. The Polsgrove study (2016) credited yoga practice for improvements in shoulder flexibility, sit-reach, and joint mobility, all of which are vital for keeping boxers healthy.
Best of all, you won't need to tax your body to get yoga's injury protection benefits. The yoga program used in the aforementioned study was designed "without the possibility of further stressing an already stressed out body" (Gura, 2001, p. 4). Similarly, DiBenedetto et al. (2005) recommended a "gentle" program, while Polsgrove et al. (2016) prescribed no more than 2 easy sessions per week. So, while there are plenty of gut-checking practices out there, yoga sessions for boxers should be approached with the goal of "body repair" rather than "body breakdown."
5. Repair boxing-related pain and stiffness
Boxing training involves spending a lot of time in unnatural positions. Moreover, most people favour orthodox or southpaw, which can lead to some pretty nasty muscle imbalances. Fortunately, yoga can repair all of these boxing-specific issues:
- Stop neck/shoulder pain from holding tight guards. Keeping your hands up in a tight guard can cause some stiffness other time. Gura (2001) found that yoga relieved chronic pain resulting from excessive contraction of the neck and shoulder muscles.
- Relieve hand and wrist soreness from high-volume punching. Yoga has been a staple for treating carpal tunnel syndrome and many other forms of repetitive hand strains for decades (Gura, 2001, p. 3). In addition to pain reduction, certain practices can also improve grip strength to help you keep a tighter fist and offset any additional injuries (Garfinkel et al., 1998, p. 1601).
- Reduce back pain from sharp torso/head movement and heavy inside fighting. Drilling lots of head movement and head slot changes can take its toll on the low back, much like physical inside fight training. Cramer et al. (2013) conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of yoga for chronic back pain. Their study showed that yoga provided short-term pain relief, alleviated back-specific mobility issues, and improved long-term back injury outcomes (p. 450).
6. Reduce fight-related stress for better sleep, recovery, and performance
Staying calm in the ring is critical. Excess anxiety will disrupt your training, sap you of energy on fight night, and make it almost impossible to stick to a game-plan.
Studying yoga's potential as a stress-mitigating tool in the workplace, Gura (2001) found that regular practice helped overworked employees manage fatigue, anxiety, stress, and ennui, all of which appear in a grueling boxing training camp (p. 3). By regularly practicing yoga's breathing and postural techniques, study participants were able to "quietly and unobstrusively cope with crises," decreasing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety at will (p. 4-5). In a similar study, Subramanya and Telles (2009) confirmed yoga's anxiety-fighting power using the Spielberger's State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) (p. 8).
With this in mind, yoga's usefulness in coping with fight-related stress should not be overlooked. Including a brief yoga practice as part of your warm-up before competition or heavy sparring days is an excellent way to fight fear and prepare your body for the upcoming effort.
7. Increase attention span and learning ability to up your fight IQ
Perhaps the most understated benefit of yoga for boxing is it's powerful effect on learning. Though it's not a Limitless drug, yoga can give your boxing brain a serious boost.
Yoga has been shown to increase mental energy and attention span (Gura, 2001, p. 4). In fact, it's so effective that it's become a mainstay in therapy and treatment for mental illnesses and learning disabilities (Subramanya & Tellers, 2009). This makes it an excellent "primer" before your trip to the boxing gym or film study session.
Yoga is especially effective for teaching boxers reaction punching. Subramana & Telles (2009) credit yoga for major improvements in associate learning, one form of which is classical conditioning. As mentioned in our beginner focus mitt article, reaction punching is really just a combat application of classic conditioning, which gives yoga's associate learning benefits tremendous carry-over.
8. Stay "in the zone" longer, increasing flow-state time in your fight
The most successful boxers often describe their greatest moments in strange ways: rather than taking the credit for every move they make, they'll talk about being "in the zone," "on autopilot," or "out of body." In some Eastern martial arts, this is referred to as Mushin or "empty mind," where the ego is sacrificed for the sake of peak performance.
Modern sports science defines this phenomenon as "flow state." Kaufman et al. (2009) expand this definition to include: "fusion of body and mind, a heightened sense of skill mastery, deep concentration, emotional buoyancy, increased self-confidence, a focus on the present, low self-consciousness, perceptions of effortlessness, feelings of relaxation, self-transcendence, and automaticity of performance" (p. 334). Whether they realize it or not, all great boxers have tremendous "flow state ability," which simply means they can maintain this mindset of peak performance for longer than the average person.
While different definitions exist, one thing studies agree on is that you can train for longer flow states with yoga. In their study, Kaufman et al. (2009) identified yoga as an ideal form of "Mindful Sport Performance-Enhancement" (MSPE) that can "enhance flow, mindfulness, and aspects of sport confidence" (p. 336). And while that won't directly improve your boxing skills, these traits can help make you a killer in the ring!
Wrap Up on the Benefits of Yoga for Boxing
I know it doesn't go over well with "tough guys," but I cannot recommend yoga enough.
Basic, independent yoga practice has had a shocking impact on my boxing training. I feel more balanced, supple, calm, conditioned, and flexible than ever. I've rehabilitated a nagging shoulder injury that kept me out of competition for almost 2 years. I'm stronger and hit harder than I did before I started, and have found my southpaw game to be developing much faster now.
Best of all, my practice hasn't cost me a penny; I just find a 20-40 minute YouTube instructional that suits my specific goals that day, and go to work on the back deck or in the living room.
Though I have no affiliation with their brand, I highly recommend Fightmaster Yoga's YouTube Channel, and not just because they have a cool last name. Lesley's videos are abundant, high-quality, and beginner-friendly - some are even tailored to martial artists:
Give a free yoga program a try. You've got nothing to lose and plenty to gain.
If you have any other questions about the benefits of yoga for boxing, or want to see my specific routine, feel free to send me a message on Instagram (mac_rea), Twitter (@macrea), or Facebook.
Cramer, H., Lauche, R., Haller, H., & Dobos, G. (2013). A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga for low back pain. The Clinical journal of pain, 29(5), 450-460.
DiBenedetto, M., Innes, K. E., Taylor, A. G., Rodeheaver, P. F., Boxer, J. A., Wright, H. J., & Kerrigan, D. C. (2005). Effect of a gentle Iyengar yoga program on gait in the elderly: an exploratory study. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 86(9), 1830-1837.
Garfinkel, M. S., Singhal, A., Katz, W. A., Allan, D. A., Reshetar, R., & Schumacher Jr, H. R. (1998). Yoga-based intervention for carpal tunnel syndrome: a randomized trial. Jama, 280(18), 1601-1603.
Gura, S. T. (2001). Yoga for stress reduction and injury prevention at work. Work, 19(1), 3-7.
Kaufman, K. A., Glass, C. R., & Arnkoff, D. B. (2009). Evaluation of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE): A new approach to promote flow in athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 3(4), 334-356.
Krishnamurthy, M., & Telles, S. (2007). Effects of Yoga and an Ayurveda preparation on gait, balance and mobility in older persons. Medical Science Monitor, 13(12), LET19-LET20.
Nagendra, H. R. (2013). Integrated yoga therapy for mental illness. Indian journal of psychiatry, 55(Suppl 3), S337.
Polsgrove, M. J., Eggleston, B. M., & Lockyer, R. J. (2016). Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes. International journal of yoga, 9(1), 27.
Schmid, A. A., Van Puymbroeck, M., Altenburger, P. A., Schalk, N. L., Dierks, T. A., Miller, K. K., ... & Williams, L. S. (2012). Poststroke balance improves with yoga. Stroke, 43(9), 2402-2407.
Subramanya, P., & Telles, S. (2009). Effect of two yoga-based relaxation techniques on memory scores and state anxiety. BioPsychoSocial Medicine, 3(1), 8.