I started taking yoga when I was around 23 years old and in the middle of my professional lacrosse career. At the time, I was pretty beat up from playing (getting hit with lacrosse balls repetitively can start to wear on your body) and very inflexible from all the weight lifting and running that I had been doing throughout my entire college and high school career. I was big and strong at 5'11" and 208 pounds, but I was tight and could barely even touch my toes! My body was a mess and I needed help!
One day as I was living in Denver, a girlfriend of mine called me up and asked me if I wanted to go to yoga with her. Luckily, she was cute so I would have said yes to anything, even yoga! I felt extremely awkward and nervous going to my first class. It did not help that my friend took me to an advanced level class with a tough teacher for my first time around, so I was amazed that I even made it through the entire hour! I was sweating and breathing so heavily that I thought I was going to pass out. After class though, I felt loose and my muscles felt relaxed, which was a minor miracle for me. It was amazing for someone who was as inflexible as I was to feel that way! It also just felt great to do an exercise that did not feel like it pounded my body as much as running and lifting did. I was hooked.
To this day, about ten years later, I still go to yoga at least a couple times a week. After a decade of practice, I have found that yoga can be beneficial to athletes (and anyone for that matter) in a myriad of different ways. I highly recommend to any athletes out there that are reading this to try yoga out for the following reasons and many more :
1. Surprisingly, yoga gets you in great cardiovascular shape!
I don't EVER run. I rarely do cardio for that matter. But, like I said before, I get to yoga at least a couple times a week, sometimes up to four times. A couple weeks ago, I decided to try and run a timed mile with our University of Denver team after practice. We have the guys run a six minute mile every Monday to keep them in great shape throughout the season. I had not run that hard in years but was curious to see how I could keep up with a bunch of college kids. Most of them definitely beat me, but I still was able to run a six minute mile. I was pretty impressed…not with myself, but with yoga! People think that yoga is just standing around and stretching, but it is a great overall workout. It even keeps you in great cardiovascular shape!
2. Yoga strengthens your muscles in a different way from lifting.
I always thought that the only way to get strong was through lifting weights. Lifting is definitely a great way to get stronger and put on muscle mass, but yoga can strengthen your muscles in a different way. I remember when I first started doing yoga I could barely hold my arms up or stay in certain poses, as all these tiny women around me were having no problem! That is because there is a different type of strength through lengthening the muscles that you can develop through yoga. This type of strength helps you athletically and helps to keep you from getting injured.
3. Yoga makes you more flexible, which makes you a better athlete.
When I was growing up as an athlete, the only time we stretched was for five to ten minutes before practice, and that was it! I absolutely hated stretching because I was so inflexible and it hurt so much! I had terrible lower back problems in high school in college because my hamstrings were so tight. Once I started doing yoga, that all started to go away. The gradual progression in a yoga class allowed me to enjoy stretching and loosen up all my tight areas. I no longer felt pain in my lower back, which was a miracle to me after so many years! What was even cooler to me though, was that I felt faster as I had a longer stride. I never knew how great flexibility was, until I gained some through yoga!
4. Yoga helps you to focus better and stay in the present moment when competing.
One of the most important aspects of yoga is your breathing. Yoga actually means "to yolk" or "union", and the greatest way to learn how to unite is through connecting to your breath. When I first started yoga, I was gasping for air and I had no idea what "connecting to my breath" even meant! But, as I kept practicing, I was able to slow my breath down, no matter how hard the pose and stay focused on each and every inhale and exhale. That allowed me to stay focused on each and every shot that I faced in lacrosse games! It also helped me to stay present in my every day life, which is a tremendous gift.
5. Yoga can help you learn to handle heat.
Since lacrosse is a spring and summer sport, there are a lot of times that we end up playing on really hot days. The MLL is played throughout the summer and the hot days and evenings completely wore me down in my first couple seasons. However, after I started taking yoga classes every day in rooms that were heated and humidified, the games on the turf felt like child's play! It's just like anything else, the more you practice being in a heated environment, the more comfortable you become in one. You do not necessarily have to take yoga in a heated classroom, but it can be an extra benefit as a lacrosse player.
6. You can meet lots of cute and sweet girls at yoga!
Okay, I had to put this one in for you guys who think yoga is lame and it's not for dudes. Almost every athlete I ever talk to thinks yoga is for girls, which is not true. Yoga was actually started by men in India and women were not allowed to practice yoga for a long time (boy, were those guys dumb)! Lots of women now practice now in our culture and men are starting to follow suit. For you college guys, I have a suggestion. Instead of thinking you are going to meet the girl of your dreams at some crowded, disgusting bar, try a yoga studio. It's filled with healthy, in-shape, down to earth girls in yoga pants. Go now! Thank me later. Full disclosure : my girlfriend is a yoga teacher!
So, these are just a few of the countless reasons why every athlete should take yoga. The bottom line is that it will help you become a better athlete and you will learn a lot about yourself off the field in the process. On top of all that, it is usually an enjoyable experience that you will look forward to! So, go sign up at your local yoga studio and take a class. There are all different types of yoga, but a few that are great for athletes include Power yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Bikram yoga, Ashtanga yoga and Forrest yoga. Just try some different styles and teachers and find one that fits well for you. You will probably love it and you will become a better athlete from it. So, stop making excuses and go to yoga!