When you think of a person who practices yoga, you probably imagine an individual of petite stature, most likely female, who is flexible enough to pull her legs over her head while she’s flat on the ground. Although this type of person certainly exists, as a yoga stereotype it no longer holds true.
Lately, sports teams have been pushing their players to practice yoga. The Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants have even added yoga instructors to their staffs. Giant, hulking men holding steady in "crane" pose or stretching in "downward facing dog"are now a common sight in pro football training facilities. Here are 10 athletes who might surprise you with their yoga skills.
Shaquille O'Neal, former NBA player
Now retired, the 7’1”, 315-pound behemoth turned to yoga as his career wound down to help preserve his body. Shaq’s most famous yoga moment came as a Cleveland Cavalier during the 2009-2010 season, when he strolled into Cleveland Yoga and settled in for a class. The big man wasn’t too pleased with his performance though. He told the Associated Press that he was the “worst yoga student in the history of yoga.” When you are roughly the size of a cargo ship, you might get a pass on not mastering yoga on your first try.
LeBron James, forward for the Miami Heat
No small specimen himself, LeBron also began his foray into yoga during his time in Cleveland, and he brought the practice with him when he took his talents to South Beach.
"Yoga isn't just about the body, it's also about the mind, and it's a technique that has really helped me," James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer back in 2009. “I had some lower-back problems a few years ago and once I started to do the yoga, it has helped them go away for now.”
Rarely getting more than five minutes of rest per game during his career as a basketball player, James recently credited yoga as the catalyst for his incredible stamina. “Does it work for everybody? I don’t know. But it works for me,” said the King.
Ray Lewis, linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens
For over a decade, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has roamed the middle of the football field, daring any wide receiver to come galloping across his territory. When a collision occurs, things usually don’t end in the wide receiver’s favor. Although the menacing linebacker is one of the last people you’d expect on a yoga mat, Lewis has actually been practicing yoga for a few years now. He uses it not only to prolong his career, but also to broaden his horizons.
"I do it for a lifestyle, and that's a better motivation," Lewis told ESPN in 2010. "If you're gonna be training for a lifestyle and to be a man, then you try all these different things."
It’s nice to know that Lewis has some other interests besides annihilating receivers.
Victor Cruz, wide receiver for the New York Giants
The young receiver turned heads last year with an incredible season, ending in a Super Bowl victory for his New York Giants. As the year progressed, the undrafted receiver became Eli Manning's favorite target, racking up more than 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns.
Cruz can thank yoga for at least part of his meteoric rise. The Giants have had yoga instructor Gwen Lawrence on their payroll since 2004, and Cruz regularly works with her. Positions like the hero pose with toes tucked help create flexible ankles and lessen foot pain, allowing Cruz to avoid injury and flourish into one of the game’s best wide receivers.
Mike Krzyzewski, men's basketball coach
The legendary Duke and USA national team basketball coach is an intense guy on the court. He’s coached some of the best basketball players on the planet, from Grant Hill to Kyrie Irving to Kevin Durant. As he’s gone about racking up four national championships and two gold medals, Coach K has rarely shown emotion on the sidelines. How does he stay so calm? Well, over in London this summer for the Olympics, he was caught by USA point guard Deron Williams in one of his quieter moments. Williams snapped this picture of the 65-year-old in a relaxing yoga position.
New Zealand All Blacks, rugby team
"Rugby" and "yoga" are two words that rarely appear in the same sentence. Giant men slamming into each other and leaving the playing field covered in mud are usually not the same men doing “child’s pose.” The New Zealand All Blacks team is a prime example of how far the practice of yoga is spreading. Recently, after the Blacks had failed to perform in big moments, the club hired yoga instructor Lyndsey Benn to work with the players. Benn told MSN earlier this year, “They all really loved the relaxing aspect of the yoga. Anything that grounded them and could get them laid down, relaxed and doing visualizations of the game ahead."
Evan Longoria, third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays
One of the premier young hitters in the game, Longoria has embraced yoga with open arms. He was drawn to the practice both as a way to stabilize his body at the plate and to give himself peace of mind.
Longoria told MLB.com earlier this year, “To be strong in general doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be strong from a baseball standpoint . . . When you're hitting, you want to be as stable as you can and use the three-dimensional aspect—the rotation in your core—to actually translate to power."
Kevin Garnett, forward for the Boston Celtics
On the basketball court, the Boston Celtics forward is a whirlwind of adrenaline. He bangs his head against the foam padding on the basket stanchion. He slaps the ground emphatically when he switches off his man to pick up the point guard on defense. He even barks at opponents taking the ball out of bounds. His in-game intensity can be so high, it almost seems like KG is about to bolt out of the arena and run 15 miles. Fortunately, the nine-time All Star has a secret.
Turns out KG has been doing yoga since 1995, using it to focus his breathing and center his energy.
"Yoga helps me calm down and helps me center my energy so I'm balanced instead of going out there and just spreading my energy all over the court,” Garnett is quoted as saying in the book Real Men Do Yoga. “I'm zeroed in on the game and have my mind set on what I need to do."
Vernon Davis, tight end for the San Francisco 49ers
The dreadlocked star tight end of the 49ers has come a long way since 2008, when then head coach Mike Singletary sent him to the locker room in the middle of a game because he didn’t like his attitude. Now the Maryland graduate is a focal point of the 49ers' aerial attack. Davis is built like a tank and as manly as they come. But yoga, specifically Bikram yoga, is a big part of his life. Davis told Muscle & Body that Bikram, or “hot yoga," keeps him mentally fresh during the grueling NFL season, along with meditation and prayer.
Kevin Love, forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves forward and double-double machine spends most of his time on the basketball court, banging down low and jostling for rebounds. But Love decided to add yoga to his training regimen, telling Yahoo Sports in 2011 that it has improved his strength and stamina, and saying, “There are so many aspects of yoga that can help you when you step out onto the hardwood.”
Love works with Kent Katich, who has also brought yoga into the lives of other NBA players such as Dirk Nowitzki and Baron Davis.
Want to incorporate yoga into your training? Check out STACK’s Yoga Guide for exercises to get you started.