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Yoga Is the New Normal for Pro Athletes

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Breath control, mindfulness, and other yoga techniques have made their way into pro sports

After winning three beach volleyball golds and a bronze at four Olympic Games, you’d think Kerri Walsh Jennings would be ready to retire. But the 38-year-old is currently training for another gold at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Achieving her level of greatness takes intense focus, and maintaining that level requires taking care of her body and mind. “If you’re just going hard and hard and hard and you’re serious all the time, that’s unsustainable,” she says. “You’re going to burn out.” For Walsh Jennings, yoga has been a vital tool that has helped her attain balance and maintain her endurance. 

But some athletes haven’t always embraced the discipline. When All-Pro NFL linebacker Keith Mitchell first walked into a yoga studio he wasn’t so sure of his decision. “I went in and it was really weird and there was incense and I was like, ‘What is this place?’” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got to get out of here!”

This was back in the early 2000s, when pro athletes thought titanium necklaces had magical healing powers, but doing yoga was a freaky novelty. Yoga was something practiced by skinny models tying their bodies into impossible knots, or what West Coast hippies did in between their bowls of granola and kale salads. Strength and conditioning coaches for pro teams scoffed at yoga, unconvinced their players would benefit and dubious of the Eastern philosophies underpinning it. Yoga wasn’t for people who hit other men as hard as they could for a living, like Mitchell. But once he found the right instructor, the linebacker was hooked. "I was blown away and it became my way of life," Mitchell says.

Just as Mitchell’s attitude changed, so has much of the country’s. From 2002 to 2012, yoga participation in America grew from 5.1 percent of the population to 9.5 percent, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. The sports world has widely adopted it as well, with athletes from Walsh Jennings to LeBron James incorporating yoga into their training regimens. NFL, NBA, and MLB teams have brought in yoga instructors to augment training staff—not because they’re responding to a fad, but because it works.

Why It Works

Pro athletes sometimes chase health fads that are unsubstantiated by science, like the Phiten necklaces and Power Balance bracelets that claim to regulate the body’s flow of energy. Yoga has significantly more evidence to support its claims. The body movements, focus on breathing, and principles of mindfulness central to the practice of yoga can increase flexibility, improve balance, prevent injuries, ease muscle tension, and heighten aerobic capacity.

Mitchell embraced yoga after suffering an on-field injury that temporarily paralyzed him. “It was a life-altering situation,” he says. “I was an All-Pro athlete one moment and helpless the next.” While still in the hospital, one of his nurses had him start a program of conscious breathing not so different from what yoga teaches. Eventually he incorporated some yoga poses as well. These breathing techniques and movements helped bring him back to health.

Soon after retiring from the league, Mitchell started teaching yoga to other pros. But he had to approach his clients in a way that didn’t scare them off. He knew that athletes are always pursuing a competitive edge, so if he played up the physical nature of yoga, he could ease them into the mental aspects of the practice.

Mitchell doesn’t have to do as much convincing these days. Pros readily admit they are open to alternative training methods. Surfer Maddie Peterson admitted recently, “I’m trying to find every little opportunity that I can get to better myself in my sport.”

There is mounting evidence indicating that yoga’s deep stretches and postures can enhance athletic performance. A study published in 2016 showed that college athletes who participated in a ten-week yoga program improved their flexibility and balance more than those who didn’t participate.

“Yoga improves muscular endurance,” says Andy Galpin a professor at the Center for Sport Performance at Cal State Fullerton. “So you start a yoga class [and] the first time you fall over at 10 seconds. But [next time] you can hold it for 40 seconds--you’ve improved muscular endurance.” That endurance can improve performance by helping athletes maintain proper biomechanics longer during competition, giving them an edge over opponents.

It also aids with injury prevention, because they’re not just doing the same old wind sprints or tackling drills. When athletes train, they tend to work the same muscle groups repeatedly. But “if they shake things up, that will reduce tread,” Galpin says. “Variation in exercise can help prevent overuse injuries.”

It’s More Than Just Stretching

But when it comes to yoga, athletes can’t just go through the motions, so to speak. The breathing aspect is vitally important. “Some people teach the poses as a fitness practice,” says Andrew Tanner, Chief Ambassador of the nonprofit association Yoga Alliance. “If that’s all you’re doing, you’re eating pasta without the sauce. You’ve got to do the movements while focusing on the breath.” Yoga teaches the proper mechanics of breathing from the diaphragm, which allows more oxygen in and pushes more carbon dioxide out. “Proper breathing techniques will improve VO2 max,” which is the measure of aerobic capacity, a key attribute for endurance athletes.

But breathing goes beyond delivering oxygen. “Your breath is [the] only biometric you can control. You can’t control heart rate, sweat, or hormone release,” Tanner says. “But taking control of your breathing can help you regulate everything else.” That’s not some hippie nonsense; there’s science to back it up. When you’re stressed and your body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in, adrenaline flows, you sweat, your muscles tense, and your breathing gets short. You can counteract that by taking deep breaths instead of shallow ones, calming your body by reversing those other processes.

So in a yoga class, when a difficult pose puts the body under stress, proper breathing keeps muscles more relaxed, improving range of motion while calming the mind. Athletes can then use breathing techniques learned from yoga to calm themselves during competition: even a four-time Olympic gold medalist like Walsh Jennings can be overcome in the heat of battle. “At the weak moments, I kind of get taken away by all the emotion and the fear. My inner critic gets in the way when I overthink; I react instead of respond,” she says. “And usually those moments happen when I get caught up in the moment—when I’m not necessarily present. I’m just not breathing, basically, and I’m just being taken by the energy instead of creating the energy.”

Deep breathing can bring an athlete’s mind back from a state of stress into a state where they can maximize performance. Pros know this is important. Specifically for Peterson, if she doesn't get her mind right, her surfing will suffer. “If your mind is in a negative state, then your result is going to be negative,” she says. “If your mind is in a positive state, then your results are going to be positive.”

Bringing the Mind, Body, and Breath Together

Once the body is relaxed and the mind is calm, athletes can benefit from yoga's most elusive tenet: mindfulness, which Mitchell describes as “awareness of the space you’re in [and] how you perceive yourself.” If that sounds a little abstract, here’s a glimpse of how mindfulness can work in practice. When doing yoga, a player might be able to hold a certain pose longer on one side than the other. This shows them what part of their body requires more strengthening. “In a yoga class, when you stretch to your limits, your breath gets shallow and you’re not going to be able to get deeper. So you back off and you can breathe deep[ly] again,” Tanner says. “If you’re aware of what your breath is doing, it teaches you about yourself—where discomfort is. Now you’ve developed more body awareness.”

That awareness can be taken out of the yoga studio and onto the field. Even pro athletes sometimes lack optimal form or body control. “[The] whole duration of my athletic training, I knew why I was doing about 30% of [the workouts],” Mitchell says. “The rest [I did] just because they asked me to. I didn’t know the details of my body until I started connecting to it [through yoga].” For instance, when a kid starts running, it’s not really taught: They just run from point A to B as fast as they can without thinking about it. But if they become conscious of the movements of their legs and arms, they can assess whether they can be more efficient and run faster. That’s mindfulness. “It allows you to sense when something is off in your body, possibly [even] sense when an injury is coming,” Tanner says. “And that’s very valuable to people whose bodies are their livelihoods.”

Today, compared to a decade ago, Mitchell and Tanner see less and less resistance from pros to the idea of yoga, and they predict it will only get more mainstream. “I would be shocked if ten years from now every pro team didn’t have a yoga practitioner,” Tanner says. Yoga is bound to have staying power in the pros, while all those Phiten necklaces and Power Balance bracelets gather dust in a dark corner of the locker room.

Illustrations by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia.

Jeremy Repanich tweets here.