I will never call myself a “yogi” because truth be told, I don’t actually like yoga. I don’t like the smell of slightly used mats or sitting cross-legged on the floor chanting “ohms”. I don’t like having a pair of feet swimming directly in front of my nose or how it feels when someone else’s sweat flicks onto my arm when the studio is especially crowded or hot. After listing all the reasons I dislike yoga, I sometimes wonder why I go at all. But when I step out onto the field I am reminded of the huge benefits its supportive training has on my mental and physical performance.
Pro athletes are already turning to yoga as a way to strengthen and support their bodies. Back in 2003, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar swore it was what kept him in the game for so long. Most recently, the Seattle Seahawks win during the Super Bowl showed us that meditation and yoga are practices no longer solely for the flexible or “free spirited”. It’s a way to unwind, both mentally and physically, from the harsh demands on an athlete’s body, and it seems to be working.
My first encounter with yoga was at a tournament in 2009 when a former teammate told everyone to gather in a circle and follow her vinyasa after games on Saturday. I laughed along with the others, thinking how foolish I looked, awkwardly sticking my butt in the air during downward facing dog. But the following morning I felt surprisingly refreshed. My muscles were less sore and I wasn’t walking with my usual post-Saturday limp. Was this just a coincidence, or was it yoga? A few months after that season ended, I decided to go to a yoga studio with a few friends to test out my theory. Despite struggling to follow most of the poses because of how inflexible I was, I instantly felt relief. The tension and strain in my muscles melted away. “We have to do this more often!” I cried. “Two, three times a week!”
The hype didn’t last long, and after a few classes I stopped going. Even though the sequences stretched my muscles and eased my joints, I didn’t like yoga and naively believed that team practices were all I needed to commit to during a club season. I wasn’t at the point where I understood the importance of supportive and preventative care. If I got injured, I would rehab until I was back to “normal”, but my “normal” clearly wasn’t good enough if I got injured in the first place. I needed to get stronger if I wanted to play better, but unlike Kareem, I couldn’t quite understand that this type of training is “somewhat hard to quantify in terms of benefits because you see them in all the injuries you don’t get.”
It took a couple of years, some more injuries, and the drive to improve my game to realize this. I knew I couldn’t maintain my current training regimen, despite rigorous warm ups and cool downs, if my body wasn’t loose. I decided when I moved down to Tucson in January to finally commit: three times a week at 7am. Adding yoga as a supportive form of training was one of the best decisions I ever made because it helps improve my strength, balance, and flexibility, which I believe have a direct impact on the way I play in a game. It’s a great feeling when your hips and legs are relaxed and open running down the field.
After two months with a yoga mat under my feet, I noticed some other unintended benefits as well. I can focus more clearly on the disc, on an offender’s hips, or on my throwing target. I don’t get as stressed during games, and don’t make as many mental errors as before. I also found I had greater awareness of my body and could focus on specific muscles or areas during warm ups and stretching. With added focus, I can more readily control movements and balance while chasing an offender or going for a disc. Perhaps these benefits are from other aspects of my training, or maybe even just a big coincidence, but I believe yoga is playing a significant part in my mental and physical performance.
For that reason, for the remaining month of my training, I will continue to place a yoga mat under my feet, chant some “ohms”, and watch out for the flicks of sweat and smelly feet that come my way.