Yoga has increasingly become a part of training for college and high school athletes. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love has been a proponent of yoga and has integrated yoga into his lifestyle and training regimen. You can watch a video of Love above.
Every morning Eastern Kentucky forward Eric Stutz puts on a Pandora yoga station, sits cross-legged, meditates and breathes his way into poses for the next hour. He repeats the routine at the end of the day.
Perhaps a 6-8, 225-pound college basketball player is not who first comes to mind when someone says yoga lover. But that’s exactly who Stutz is, thanks to the benefits he has gained after a year of steady yoga practice.
“I wanted my body to feel that way all the time,” Stutz said. “I became looser, and I only missed one game due to injury. It helped me remain injury-free, and helped my agility and athleticism.”
Jordan Burgess, a sophomore guard at VCU, said the Rams did yoga and stretching every Friday in the offseason last year. He agreed yoga is helpful to student athletes. “Some people might say it’s corny, or a female thing, but I’d say to try it,” he said.
“It helps your body recover from the season,” he added. “It helped with balance, and I became a lot more flexible.”
Stutz, who aims for a basketball career overseas and to get certified teaching yoga, recommends kids try it well before college. “If I would’ve started earlier, I would’ve been more athletic. I wouldn’t have taken this long to reach full potential. I’d recommend it to high schoolers and not just in athletics.”
“You do see physical results,” said Jonathan Salazer, an associate director of training at Penn State, which has practiced it for years with different types of instruction. “We find it increases flexibility, particularly in big men like basketball players.” He said it helps create and generate power, increasing core strength, stability and balance.
It’s challenging, but that’s the point. “We’re trying to get the guys to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said. “Breathing through it to be comfortable. It’s training them to get through adversity as part of their practice. What you think is too uncomfortable, you can overcome.”
Athletes are not just finding flexibility and injury prevention, but also respiratory and cardiac benefits, said Judi Bar, yoga program manager for Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Breath oxygenates your system. Yogic breathing can help to expand your efficient use of oxygen, which can help with stamina.
“Yoga gives [athletes] longevity for their sport. They will be able to play and practice longer,” said Bar, who has taught more than 200 athletes, including Olympic-bound skaters.
Wali Hepburn, a senior guard for Lock Haven University, has noticed the increased endurance. Even though his roommates teased him, he did yoga three times a week despite daily basketball practice and games. “It just helps in being able to perform a high level without soreness,” he said.
Bar, who has practiced yoga for 30 years and has been a professional ballet dancer, cautioned athletes to find the right style, techniques and teachers. “You have to meet athletes where they are,” she said. “How will they hear it and assimilate it?”
A certified yoga therapist, athletes have approached her as they’ve recovered from injury, as many physical therapy exercises are derived from yoga poses. “Sometimes they come in and say, ‘Hey, I heard LeBron does it, I want to try.’ But basically it’s about the body [why they are asking for yoga]. They want to stretch more or they want to prevent an injury.”
Although players focus on the physical benefits, mindfulness is key, too.
“It’s being in the moment,” Bar said of the union between body, mind and breath. And that’s easily applied to the court, at the foul line, for example.
“So, being able to tune out, if they’re not at home, all those opposing fans,” Bar said. “And being able to tune in to their home-team supporting fans, to let it fuel them. To choose what they’re responding to.”
She said another benefit is controlling temper: “We just get a longer fuse. This is good for [preventing] penalties. My fuse is longer. It takes more for me [to get angry], and I can recover quicker.”
Stutz noticed the mental toughness.
“It’s especially true on the road,” he said. “I have long hair and may get more from the crowd, but yoga helped me stay open-minded and positive. I stayed focused and have tuned it out, or have fun with it. I use it to my advantage to play better.”
In the OVC conference tournament, he didn’t think about the pressure, because yoga brought him “back down to earth.” “It brought me into the moment of the game,” he said. “You focus on the present, forget what happened in the past. Being in the moment translates well to your game.”
Penn State’s Salazer knows yoga also improves focus. “You have kids who are 18 to 22 years old, and we’re teaching them to get focused. There’s a lot of meaningless distraction. They have iPhones, iPads, Twitter, Snap[chat], it’s all distractions. It’s part of their culture. If we can retrain them to block it out and ‘focus on your mat.’”
High school stand-out Brenna Wise, a senior forward from Vincentian Academy in North Hills, Pa., has taken that advice to heart: “Mentally, it relaxed me, helped me stay more attentive on the court and off the court. It’s a nice way of alleviating pressure.”
Wise is an advocate of the physical benefits, too. She believes she was injury-free because of yoga, stretching her body into difficult positions. “I’ve never seen such an improvement in my game, the difference it makes,” she said. “I’m quicker, more nimble. Instead of being tighter, I’m more relaxed, more comfortable.”