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How Yoga Prolongs Sportsmen and Women’s Careers

by Asha Chello

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At the age of 33 years old, the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James, is mocking Father Time, by soaring higher, sprinting faster, and playing better in his 15th season. The way James is playing, it is safe to surmise that the man known as The King will be ballin’ at an unbelievably high level for at least three more years and may even stay productive until he turns 40. By then, the 4-time MVP would likely be standing on top of the league’s all-time scoring ladder, supplanting the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar along the way.

James and Abdul-Jabbar, of course, are connected not only by basketball and their extraordinary ability to put points on the board but also by their devotion to yoga. Yes, two of the greatest basketball players in the world are yogis, and yoga has helped extend the career of one already (Abdul-Jabbar) and is now helping prolong the career of the other (James).


Extending Careers

basketball yoga

Abdul-Jabbar has long credited yoga for extending his pro career, which began in 1969 with the Milwaukee Bucks when he was 20 and ended in 1989 when he was 42 years young.

"Basketball is an endurance sport, and you have to learn to control your breath; that's the essence of yoga, too,” Abdul-Jabbar once said about the Hindu discipline. “So, I consciously began using yoga techniques in my practice and playing. I think yoga helped reduce the number and severity of injuries I suffered. As preventative [sic] medicine, it's unequaled." 

But does yoga really reduce “the number and severity of injuries” as Abdul-Jabbar claims? 

The answer is yes. For one, yoga makes you more conscious of your body, explains long-time yoga trainer Kent Katich. “Yoga is about body awareness, body mindfulness. It’s about knowing your limitations and knowing your strengths. It’s getting [players] acquainted with details [of] what their restrictions are. Being put through these positions in a systematic way, they’re able to pay attention, so they don’t just go through the motions until something goes wrong.” 

In other words, doing yoga lets you take complete ownership of your body, which means you will be able to know right away if something is off or if anything is not working the way it should. By identifying whatever is amiss, you can then take the necessary measures to make sure that nothing worsens. Take, for instance, the case of James, whose pregame routine now involves him standing on a pair of Waff Mini Elites. This is a training tool that was originally marketed to hardcore yogis. The King had rolled his ankle in the preseason, so his trainer, Mike Mancias, started incorporating the bubble pad practice before every game to check the strength and integrity of James’s left ankle. If weak, the ankle will shake and gyrate on the bubble, and it means, most likely, that part of the joint is not as strong as it should be. 


Plenty of More Benefits of Yoga for Athletes

hope solo yoga

As Hope Solo will surely attest, doing yoga has a lot of benefits, many of which are helpful to athletes like her. Indeed, there are many Olympic athletes who have incorporated yoga into their workout routine. Solo is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion and is still playing at a high level at the age of 36. The long-time goalkeeper for the U.S. women's national soccer team, like James and Abdul-Jabbar, credits much of her staying power—not to mention her speed, agility, and quick reflexes—on the pitch to her practice of dynamic yoga. 

Among the benefits of yoga, aside from better body awareness it also improves your speed, agility, reflexes, and flexibility. Yoga can accommodate the desired joint angles necessary for athletic performance without putting an undue dress on the tissues around the joints. Think of goalkeepers contorting their hips to make a spectacular save, or attackers torquing their legs to gather as much force as possible to kick the ball with power. Without flexibility, and therefore with a limited range of motion, those movements will likely result in an injury such as a pulled muscle or a strained tendon. 


The Perfect Practice for Veteran Players

gareth barry yoga

Gareth McAuley and Gareth Barry—38 and 37, respectively—are still playing professional soccer, in part because their club, West Bromwich Albion, includes yoga in its training schedule. Albion, unsurprisingly, is one of the healthiest teams in the English Premier League, where the competition is in a word, cutthroat, with games often lasting over 96 minutes. That is 96 minutes of intense soccer, and only those in tip-top shape can play this level of soccer into their late 30s.

Both Barry and McAuley, despite their age, are no token throw-ins, with both playing rather admirably for Albion. Barry has, in fact, passed Ryan Giggs as the all-time leader in games played in the Premier League. Talking of Giggs, he’s a long-time advocate of yoga and played pro soccer at one of the best clubs in the world until the age of 40. 

Yoga, for sure, is also helping these grizzled veterans keep their muscles nice and loose. Tight muscles will make it difficult to move for any athlete, not to mention perform at a high level. They also make you vulnerable to injuries. Blake Griffin, another NBA player who practices yoga, knows this all too well and it is one of the reasons why he has continued to make yoga part of his training. Griffin’s decision has paid off, as yoga has helped keep the 6’10 highlight reel’s muscles—his calves, quads, and hip flexors, in particular—all loose, warm, and ready to go. 

Some 30 years ago, only a handful of athletes practiced yoga, with Abdul-Jabbar being the most prominent. But now, this ancient Hindu discipline has become quite ubiquitous in the world of sports as athletes of every sport at every level are embracing yoga, not only as a way to improve performance, but also to extend their playing years. 

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