By: Abbey Morris, Registered Yoga and Meditation Teacher & Brock University Cheerleading Alumni
It wasn’t until toward the end of my university cheerleading career that I really got serious about my yoga practice and until after graduating university that I became a yoga instructor. Frankly, I find my self wishing I was back on the practice mat every time I practice yoga… why? Because through yoga I have developed an exceptional amount of body awareness. I understand more deeply then I ever have how to hug my muscles into my bones, or in other words, firm my muscles to my body in order to protect my joints and strengthen my muscles rather than injuring myself. If BECAUSE you are a cheerleader you think you have enough body awareness to need yoga, drop your pride, I felt the exact same way. Further, body awareness is only one of the many benefits of yoga along with centering the mind, developing a confident sense of self and learning to breathe through uncomfortable sensations in the body.
Throughout my nine years of elite cheerleading, I suffered from chronic low back pain that I probably could have helped by consistently hugging in my core to prevent arch in my low back while bearing weight over my head as a base and third under stunts and pyramids. Sound like you? Keep reading!
Although there are several yoga practices and postures that can be beneficial to cheerleaders and cheerleading type sports such as dance and gymnastics, I have selected a few fundamental poses that I find extremely beneficial to any cheerleader’s training regimen.
Disclaimer: When you step on your yoga mat, separate this space in your mind from the space of your practice and competition floor where shapes and movements have a desired appearance and outcome. Yoga is a practice and not a performance. Drop the attitude that there is a right or wrong way to do a pose and focus on how it feels in your body. It is when we are able to see and adopt this attitude that we build trust in our bodies and strengthen the mind body connection that will later benefit us in our sport more than one could ever imagine.
1. Chair Pose (Ukatasana)
Standing with the feet together or slightly apart sit the hips down and back, bending at the knees. Shift your weight back into your heels and press down as you use your arms to lift up to the sky. With the arms reaching up, think about engaging the shoulder blades together on the back to help lift the chest. Pull the navel in and up toward the spine to engage the core and think about sending your tailbone down toward the earth, creating a “hugging in” feeling of the low belly and back. Hold for five breaths.
This pose is helpful in strengthening the legs while finding the engagement in the core that will protect the lower backs of bases and thirds while stunting and bearing weight overhead. For flyers, this pose is helpful to find a lifted chest with bent knees for coming up and off nice and straight while loading, dismounting, and popping off of stunts and pyramids.
2. Goddess Pose - Utkata Konasana
Spread the feet about the width of your mat and turn your toes out slightly so that the toes are slightly pointing out to the corners of the space and your heels slightly in toward one another. Sit the hips down and bend the knees to stack over the ankles. Think about tucking your tailbone down and in as you continue resisting the caving in of the inner knees by pressing the outer knees out. Lift the arms to the sky reaching through the fingers. Zip up through the core by bringing your navel to your spine.
This pose strengthens the legs and hips, it also teaches us to tuck our tailbone down to reduce the arch in the low back while lifting the arms up and overhead in a squatted position, particularly useful for finding postural alignment and power in stunting positions. This pose also stretches the hips, beneficial for flyer’s air positions, tucking the tailbone down and in to lift the legs in toe touch baskets and for jumps across the board.
3. Warrior Two- Virabhadrasana II
Taking a large step back with one foot, allow your back foot to land parallel to the short, back-edge of your mat, while the toes of your front foot point forwards to the front of your mat. Bend deeply into your front knee, stacking the knee over the ankle. Allow the arm of the same side of your front leg to reach forwards and your opposite arm to reach backwards away from one another, with the palms facing down. Gaze over your front hand and think about tucking your tailbone down and toward the earth as you think about tucking the front ribs down and in, engaging the core. Allow the shoulders to pull down and away from the ears as the arms reach from side to side.
It is not realistic to assume stunting only occurs with the hips neutral and either legs in the same position. Stunt sequences are often dynamic, constantly moving and changing shapes. Learning to stand your ground and maintain the engagement in the core with the hips performing differently will help you maximize your power and prevent bases from falling or getting bumped out of a stunt. Think of the power in the front leg of your warrior as your anchor when you step in towards your stunt group. This pose also works to stretch the hips and strengthen the quads.
4. Eagle Pose- Garudasana
Start with your arms out wide. Cross one arm up and over the other, intertwining at the forearms and connecting at the palms if possible. Lift the elbows up and in line with the shoulders. Pressing right and left sides into one another press the forearms forward. Sit the hips down and back into a chair pose. Take the leg of the same side of the arm that is on top, and cross it up and over the other, squeeze the lights and shins together, perhaps working toward wrapping the foot of the lifted leg behind the shin of the grounded leg. Continue holding the elbows up in line with the shoulders and pull the pit of the belly in and up toward the spine to engage the core.
The arms in this posture allow for a nice stretch across the upper-back and the back of the shoulders, a common area of tightness for cheerleaders, especially those with heavy stunting and tumbling positions. This pose is especially helpful for flyers as pressing right and left sides together and hugging everything onto the center encourages an awareness of one’s center and center of balance. It teaches us to hug into our core when we feel as though our body is being pulled in multiple directions.
5. Warrior Three -Virabhadrasana III
Start standing and reach the arms up and over-head. Keeping your reach up, place your weight into one foot and begin to hinge forward with your upper body as you send your opposite leg straight back behind you, flexing the toes down to the earth and using the glute to lift the heel. Think about reaching out with your fingers as your kick back and through your heel, keeping the fronts of the hips square to the ground.
Benefits: This pose is extremely helpful in strengthening the back body and the glute muscles. As strong glutes are required to generate power from the legs in tosses and stunts for both flyers and bases, this pose is excellent for strengthening our key powerhouse muscles.
6. Caturangua Dandasana- four limbed staff pose
Start in high plank position. Press your hands down, engage your core, and use your toes to push your upper body forwards through your arms so that the crown of the head is passed your hands. Glue the elbows into the side body and bend the arms back, hugging them into the body with the elbows stacked over the wrists. Think about engaging your shoulders on your back and making your body straight like a board.
Benefits: This pose is key to strengthening the shoulders and backs of the arms, particularily useful when popping off dismounts and sending movement vertically (or setting up with your arms) in basket tosses and tumbling skills. This is another great pose for developing a strong core.
7. Thread the Needle
Start in a table top position on hands and knees. Lift one arm up to the sky while pressing down through your grounded hand and aim to engage the shoulder blades together on the back. Allow the lifted arm to then come down and sweep underneath the armpit of your grounded arm sliding it through until you can come onto the back of the shoulder. Allow the back of your palm and arm to rest on the ground. You may press your grounded hand into the ground with your elbow raised for support or to help you advance your twist if desired.
Continuous repetitions of tumbling and stunting skills often result in tightness in the shoulders. This stretch is essentially like flossing out your shoulder blades and wonderful to incorporate before or after a practice to release tension across the shoulders and upper back.
8. Childs Pose - Balasana
Starting on your hands and knees in a table top position, bring your toes towards touching at the back of your mat and your knees wide. Sit your hips back and down and back and stretch your arms long and in font of you. Allow the center of your forehead to rest on the mat. Think about breathing into your back body, feeling the back ribs expand and contract.
Benefits: This pose is your lower back’s best friend. Not to mention it is also very grounding. When you take a hard hit in practice, land a wonky tumbling pass, or literally just need a minute to calm down, this pose is beautiful for re-centering. As this pose allows for a release of tension in the lower spine and a gentle stretch in the hip, it makes a wonderful addition to any warm up or cool down routine.