November 8, 2010

Yoga for Bloodsport.

photo courtesy of UFC

When I first started practicing yoga I gushed to practically anyone who would listen about how “amazing” it was. I could hardly put into words the feeling I had as I floated out of the studio: strong, flexible, and calm, but also somehow taller, smarter, and better able to handle the slings and arrows of everyday life.

As I continued to practice, I became more aware of the medical studies documenting the healing benefits of yoga.  In fact, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health website, as of this writing, there are currently 112 studies in the works studying the effects of practicing yoga on various physical and psychological conditions ranging from HIV to smoking cessation to headaches to the effects of laughter yoga on people suffering from cancer.

But lately, I’ve been noticing an interesting trend: news stories about professional athletes (most of them male) touting the benefits of yoga as a tool to improve their sports performance.

In an interview with Sporting News in 2009, Shaquille O’Neal confessed to trying yoga. He proclaimed himself to be the “the worst yoga student in the history of yoga,” but he reportedly got himself a special-order 100-inch yoga mat to accommodate his 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pound frame. And apparently, he kept at it. He recently told The Boston Globe that he still practices yoga to help him keep fit in the off-season, as well as to give himself an extra edge while he’s playing.

In a recent interview, Bikram Choudhury, in his typical name-dropping fashion, rattled a list of names of professional athletes including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Serena and Venus Williams, and Kobe Bryant, who practice yoga so they, too, can be (in his words (God love him), not mine) “bullet proof, waterproof, wind proof, money proof, sex proof, emotion proof, stress proof, strength proof”—and, of course, to prolong their professional sports careers.

These athletes aren’t just practicing during the off-season to keep fit. Rather, yoga seems to have become part of the protocol in their pre-season training camps. For instance, A.C. Milan—the professional soccer team in Milan, Italy—has devoted an incredible sum of money to MilanLab, a medical and training facility dedicated to extending the career-span of professional soccer players. In a profile by Australian FourFourTwo, MilanLab is “the most advanced medical facility in world football, and is widely credited as a place that can extend a player’s career by five years or more.” Part of the regimen used at MilanLab?  Yoga.

It has even become part of the training regimen for what some believe to be one of the most violent sports on the planet: mixed martial arts. In fact, many fighters in the UFC have revealed they practice yoga, including Randy Couture, Georges St. Pierre, B.J. Penn, and Diego Sanchez. In mixed martial arts, the benefits of utilizing yoga’s physical aspects to enhance performance in the ring/octagon/etc., seem obvious – mixed martial arts requires incredible flexibility. However, the philosophical, meditative, and spiritual aspects of yoga seem diametrically opposed to mixed martial arts.

Allow me to illustrate.  Here’s a photo of fighter, Diego “The Nightmare” Sanchez warming up with a little sun salutation:

And here’s a photo of a bloodied Clay Guida as his knees buckle during a failed attempt to quell a holy fury of fists and kicks from the same Diego Sanchez during a lightweight bout in June 20, 2009:

This particular fight was so gruesome that it was, in part, what prompted a noted sports columnist, after attending his first UFC event, to write a column criticizing the sport for its brutality. Videos of this same fight are too brutal to post, but you can find them online.

With all of the recent talk about yoga being at odds with Christianity, couldn’t it also be said that there is an inherent conflict between yoga and competitive sports? After all, yoga cultivates inward focus and non-competitiveness, while sports generally tends to encourage dominating an opponent – or even, as in the case of Sanchez et al, knocking the opponent’s head off.

According to famed American mixed martial artist (and now actor), Randy Couture, there is no conflict.  In an interview with “The American Yogi” posted on YouTube, Couture explains that yoga gives him the tools he needs to keep from losing his temper in the ring, which is the worst thing a professional fighter can do. What Couture seems to be saying is that yoga gives him the calm, the control, and the focus to violently submit his opponent.

Another mixed martial artist, Rickson Gracie, who many people believe to be one of the finest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters in the world, is an avid yoga practitioner. In a now infamous scene from the 1999 documentary “Choke”, Rickson is seen using a handful of yogic asana, breathwork and kriyas in his daily workout:


On my personal blog, I recently wrote about professional bull rider, Austin Meier, who uses yoga to benefit his performance in another sort of violent sport.  In an October 2010 interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Meier said that yoga helps him both physically and mentally.

photo courtesy of Las Vegas Review-Journal

He said, “a lot of guys think this is a tough-man sport, and some of the dudes are like, ‘What are you doing messing with yoga?’ … One of the things (yoga) does for me is it helps you with where your center of gravity is when you’re in an awkward position. Riding bulls, our bodies are always in an awkward position.” He also said that the breath work used in yoga helps him focus: “I’m here to ride the rankest bulls they run under me. This helps calm you to have a clear, focused mind.”

These stories raise a lot of questions for me, and I’d love to hear some answers from readers.

Has your yoga practice provided positive benefits in any competitive sports, or in other unexpected ways?  Do you think yoga is a natural complement to competitive sports (especially violent sports like mixed martial arts), or do you think they’re incompatible philosophically? Finally, given the obvious benefits of yoga in terms of flexibility, strength, and endurance, what do you think it says about the public perception of yoga that it’s still seen as newsworthy when some macho male athlete “admits” he practices yoga?


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