Three seasons ago, the Atlanta Hawks hired Michelle Young, a yoga instructor, to incorporate yoga into their training regimen.
It’s part of a growing trend of professional athletes turning to this ancient discipline to stay on the cutting edge to help players stave off injuries and keep playing.
The Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers have also reportedly hired yoga instructors.
Walt Thompson, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Education at Georgia State University, said that while weaving yoga into a training program is not a particularly new idea, he thinks it’s a “wise” investment. Thompson said several studies suggest yoga can improve flexibility and reduce injuries, especially muscle strains and joint sprains that can keep athletes out of action.
With the demands of travel and an 80-plus-game schedule, Jeff Watkinson, strength and conditioning coach for the Hawks, said players are constantly battling muscle tightness and joint stiffness, especially through their ankles, hips, groin, hamstrings and low back. And yoga, he said, can help. (His favorite poses: Pigeon Pose for hips, Triangle Pose for hamstrings, groin and hips, and Child Pose for lower back and ankles.)
“When I first started, I heard, ‘We are doing what and why?’ ” Young said. “It was hard to wrap their heads around something traditionally out of the norm of what an athlete would do … but now I hear, ‘I am glad you are here,’ and ‘This is just what I need.’ … When I can take their game to the next level, anything I can do to give them an edge, that feels great.”
Traditionally, yoga is known for grace, ease and flexibility, but her focus is on easing the tension, tightness and soreness. Success to her is not watching a player arch his back or touch his toes — it’s preventing a strained ankle or other physical woe.
The yoga sessions, taking place in a room once used as a dressing room of sorts, are tailored to each player and also modified, with props that are sometimes needed. An NBA player nearly 7 feet tall may need a block to help touch the floor. Other times, she’s in awe of the strength of these super-athletes, watching the players really hold a pose.
Young describes the poses instead of using the traditional Sanskrit names.
“They don’t care if I name the pose. The traditional name of one pose is Adho Mukha Svanasana and I just say Downward-Facing Dog. … If they were to come in and express an interest in meditation, I would be all over that, but given I have 30 minutes or an hour, my focus is not ‘Let’s make sure we are doing things to open our heart,’ it’s more ‘Let’s open our chest. We don’t want to tear a pectoral muscle.’ ”