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You’re Not A Real Athlete Unless You Practice Yoga

Paul Wachter
Paul Wachter
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Photo by , cover: Getty Images

Keith Mitchell, a seventh-year all-pro linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars played one of the most violent positions in a violent game. He hit people for a living. But until he faced off against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 14, 2003, he’d never had a serious injury.

On that day, “after the type of tackle I’d made probably a million times,” he says, he fell to the ground and couldn’t move. He was carried off the field and diagnosed with a “spinal contusion.”

For six months, he was paralyzed. But his therapist told him to focus on the one physical thing he could control — his breathing. Mitchell began to meditate, and within a year of the injury he began to walk.

But his career was over. Since middle school, Mitchell had worked his body into football shape — lifting weights, sprinting, and hitting — but now, as he rehabilitated his body, he turned to yoga.

“It helped me heal physically and understand my body in ways I never thought about playing football,” Mitchell says.

Today, Mitchell is a nationally recognized yoga teacher based in Los Angeles. As he reflects on his football career, he can’t help but think today’s players could benefit from the practice.

At a certain level, much of what separates athletes from one another is mental.

“When I was in the game, I never thought about yoga as something that could help me,” he says. “My generation of athletes wasn’t brought up with yoga. I think it could help players stay healthy, understand their bodies, and extend their career.”

Today’s athletes are different, however. And while it’s difficult to picture hard-partying man’s man Rob Gronkowski, tight end for the New England Patriots, in Balancing Butterfly pose, the fact is that professional athletes across a wide range of sports are turning to yoga as part of their physical (and mental) training. (Even Gronk has been known to plank in his hotel room.)

“Whether you’re a pitcher who’s looking to get some more shoulder and hip flexibility to get some more miles per hour on your fastball or a runner who’s worried about tight hamstrings, yoga is really well-suited to improve athletic performance and health,” says Rosabeth Dorfhuber, a Santa Barbara–based instructor who trains college and professional athletes.

From Tennis to Football to MMA

Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world, has said he practices yoga to “help me align myself and find the inner peace" and also to work on breathing through movements "that can improve my flexibility and better movement of the joints.”

Watch him move around the court, stretching for balls, and it’s inarguable that the Serbian player is able to contort and control his body in ways that a John McEnroe or Björn Borg never could.

There’s a good chance that when you watch the NFL on Sundays, you're watching quite a few players who've spent hours on yoga mats.

And it’s only natural that with Djokovic’s dominance of the game over the past two years, other players will emulate his methods. For instance, the world’s No. 3 ranked tennis player, Andy Murray, practices Bikram yoga.

“It’s definitely becoming more popular on the tour,” says Jason Jung, a recent University of Michigan graduate who cracked into the top 200 of the professional rankings earlier this year.

For his off-court workouts Jung mainly turns to reform Pilates. “It’s very good for the core, which is where you get your power in tennis,” he says. But he also practices yoga. “I don’t go to classes too often. But I perform a lot of the poses on my own to help me stretch and my body recover,” he says. “And I also like yoga for its psychological aspect. It helps my mind, both to relax and to focus.”

In less urbane circles, tennis may still be considered an effete sport, so it might not surprise Joe Sixpack that its professionals practice yoga.

But there’s a good chance that when he watches the NFL on Sundays, he’s watching quite a few players who also have spent hours on yoga mats. Among them is Miami Dolphins All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, and Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.

In August, Titans veteran linebacker Wesley Woodyard told the New York Times about his reliance upon yoga and the Dharma Yoga Wheel to “open up my back and heart area.”

In words that echo Keith Mitchell, who played the same position, Woodyard said, “When you play linebacker and your job is to do nothing but tackle, you tend to have a few misaligned bones in your back and rib area, which can cause back pain.”

Mixed martial arts fighters, arguably the toughest athletes in the world, also incorporate yoga into their training. “You need to be flexible in our sport,” says Cody Gibson, a 28-year-old MMA fighter, who has competed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s most prestigious organization, “whether it’s kicking high, or getting down low and spreading your legs for a sprawl takedown offense.”

Gibson, like many MMA fighters, has a collegiate background in wrestling. “In wrestling practice, we’d stretch for a few minutes and then go into the wrestling and that was it,” he says. “We wouldn’t stretch afterward.”

But not long ago, his MMA training academy hired a yoga instructor to work with the fighters. “We did it for a few months, and I learned a lot,” he says. “Now, I just incorporate a lot of the poses into my training on my own.”

When elite athletes like Gibson turn to yoga, it’s unlikely they’re taking the same ashtanga and hatha classes as the average yoga enthusiast. “There’s certainly a benefit to general yoga, but when I’m hired to work with athletes it’s usually to tailor a yoga program in a sports-specific way,” says Dorfhuber.

When she worked with Dylan Axelrod, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, Dorfhuber emphasized various poses that helped his hip and shoulder flexibility. “For different sports you focus on different things,” she says. “I’ve worked with women’s volleyball players, I focus a lot on shoulders and lower back.

For football players, who do a lot of short sprints, I’ll concentrate on hamstring flexibility. But while different athletes may have different needs, there’s no doubt in my mind that someone playing any sport can improve with the help of yoga.”

The Science

There may be a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest yoga’s benefits for athletes, but the science is lacking. However, there have been several studies on stretching — by no means a perfect parallel to yoga, but the closest we have.

In fact, the 2013 published results of two separate studies on stretching suggest that it actually can impair athletes’ ability to summon power from their bodies. One study found that people who stretched before squatting with dumbbells could lift less weight than when they went into the exercises cold.

The participants also complained that after stretching they felt wobbly when doing the squats. The other study tracked previous experiments in which volunteers performed various drills — running, jumping, lifting — with and without stretching, crunched the data, and found a 5.5 percent reduction in power in those who had stretched.

"Mentally, yoga helped me recover from the NFL. On just about every play, there’s some type of violence that in any other setting would be defined as trauma.”

Media organizations trumpeted the stretching findings, but other experts dismiss the studies as having little to do with real-world sports. “These studies looked at the impact of static stretching — people showed up cold, did some stretches, and then went straight into their activity,” says Jay Hertel, professor of sports medicine at the University of Virginia.

“That’s not how athletes at any level approach competition. Sure, there may be some static stretching. But there’s also some cardiovascular warm-up, usually some dynamic drills — there’s a whole lot of variables that studies like these don’t touch.”

There’s little definitive evidence for either the boons or pitfalls of stretching and yoga, Hertel says. “One area that I think there’s shown to be a preponderance of evidence is that static stretching programs don’t in fact reduce an athlete’s chances of getting injured,” he says.

“But that’s okay, because there are other benefits. It’s clear that stretching can improve range of motion and increase flexibility, which is useful in a lot of sports.”

There’s also the mental side of sports, previously the realm of sports psychologists, self-help gurus, and myriad quacks. A recent study on stress, first with Marines as the subject and later on elite BMX racers, demonstrated that mindfulness training helped them to meet stressful situations without the panic they had experienced prior to the training.

The study didn’t focus on yoga, but many athletes praise yoga’s meditative benefits. “Mentally, yoga helped me recover from the NFL,” says Mitchell, the retired linebacker. “On just about every play, there’s some type of violence that in any other setting would be defined as trauma.”

“At a certain level, much of what separates athletes from one another is mental,” Dorfhuber says. “Something that sounds as simple as concentrating on your breathing or focusing on the moment can make a difference.”

A New Generation of Athlete

For now, most professional athletes who practice yoga do so of their own accord — few teams institutionalize the practice. “In professional soccer, you may see a few players — like Ryan Giggs, who played in the Premier League and now is an assistant coach at Manchester United — who do yoga, but it’s not something the big clubs have mandated,” says British native Lloyd Biggs, the director of One Soccer Schools, which hosts youth soccer camps throughout the United States.

Yoga may soon become a common component of youth training.

(Curiously, the only NBA team that has hired a full-time yoga instructor was the Los Angeles Clippers, whose since-deposed owner, Donald Sterling, was a skinflint and retrograde in almost every other aspect of managing the team.)

In other sports, too, many older pros have retained more traditional training regimens. Wayne Bryan, father of doubles specialists Bob and Mike Bryan, says that his sons “stretch and do weights and [use] the core ball and all kinds of things, but do not do yoga.”

But the Bryan twins are 37 years old, closer in age to retired 45-year-old Andre Agassi — who famously eschewed stretching altogether — than 28-year-old Djokovic, who’s the trailblazer for yoga in men’s tennis.

Those involved with youth sports believe yoga will soon become a common component of youth training. “The kids really embrace it after a long day of training,” Biggs says. “Our camps only last for ten days. So we don’t expect tons of progress when it comes to introducing the players to yoga in that time. But what we’ve seen is that they like it and often continue it when they return home.” And many full-time youth sports academies already schedule time for yoga.

“We have hardly any scientific data to go on in terms of yoga and sports,” Hertel says. But, he allows, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence — as well as common sense. “With yoga, you have sustained muscular contraction, and you’re building strength through that range of motion and adding function.”

No one’s advocating taking an hour-long Vinyasa class immediately before a marathon. “But as part of a training regimen for recreational or elite athletes,” Hertel says, “if you look at what yoga does for the body, I can’t think of a sport where it wouldn’t be helpful.”

Paul Wachter author page.
Paul Wachter

Paul Wachter has written about sports and other subjects for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The Atlantic. He lives in California.