If you think yoga is just for lithe women in stretch pants, think again. Many of the NBA's best players—including Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and LeBron James—practice yoga to help their performance on the court and their health away from it."My business is my body," Love said. "I thought that yoga would be a great way to make my body feel better, so I've integrated it into my workouts."
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Love credits yoga with helping him get leaner and improving his game. During the off-season, he performs hour-long yoga sessions two to three times per week under the guidance of instructor Kent Katich, a former basketball player himself, at the University of South Dakota and professionally overseas.
Today Katich trains Love, Griffin and other high profile athletes at his studio in Westwood, California. And this month Katich and Love teamed up with yoga and wellness brand Gaiam to release Yoga for Flexibility, a new yoga program geared towards athletes. He says, "Yoga teaches stretching, strengthening, and breathing, and it helps you get in tune with your body. That helps in basketball—or in any sport, really."
Regular yoga practice can yield big benefits, but Katich maintains that even a few minutes can be helpful. "It's not about doing an hour of yoga every day," he says. "It's about how you feel, and what you need right now."
Here are five ways yoga can help you elevate your game, with a starting point for each if you're a beginner.
1. Yoga Can Help You Play Better D
Kevin Love in Warrior II pose
When you're trying to stay in front of a shifty opponent who's looking to drive the lane, you need to be able to change direction in a fraction of a second. Yoga can help you do this by improving mobility in your hips.
"My 'a-ha!' moment came about six months after I finished playing [professional basketball] and began doing yoga regularly," Katich says. "I was playing a pickup game with some friends who were in the NBA and CBA. There was a loose ball, and I remember I felt so comfortable and smooth going after it that I almost felt weird. I thought, 'Oh my god, I've been stiff all of these years!'"
Hip opening moves like Reclining Pigeon and Happy Baby can loosen your outer and inner hip muscles. You'll feel a big difference when you pivot, jab step, or change direction.
TRY THIS: If you want to feel more fluid in your hips, Katich recommends starting with a simple standing pose called Warrior One. Point your right foot straight in front of you and place your left foot behind you, toes pointing at a 45-degree angle away from your body. Keeping your torso facing forward, bring both arms overhead. Point your fingers toward the sky and hold. Lower your arms and perform the move on the other side.
2. Yoga Helps You Be Lighter On Your Feet
Trainer Kent Katich demonstrating the Reclining Pigeon pose
Love said that, before yoga, he used to run on court in a way that put extra pressure on his hips, knees and ankles—three common trouble spots for basketball players. "I used to be more of a plodder," he says. "You know, it was like cinderblocks hitting the floor when you're running."
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Plodding sends extra shock through an athlete's lower body and posterior chain (hips and spine). That's a recipe for injury—and it can be exacerbated with the wrong footwear.
"These guys tape up their ankles and wear heavy shoes," Katich says. "In yoga, on the other hand, you're barefoot. That helps strengthen your ankles, arches, metatarsals [the bones in your feet], and the proprioceptor muscles [small muscles that help you maintain your balance] in your legs. When you improve your strength and mobility from the ground up, it can change your running form and make you lighter on your feet."
A lighter step on the court confers two benefits: you move and react more quickly, and you put less stress on your knees and other joints.
TRY THIS: Perform a basic Runner's Lunge but focus on your alignment. Make sure your front knee is directly over your ankle and your entire foot—not just the ball—is pressing against the floor. In your rear leg, your heel should point straight up at the ceiling, not turn inward. "The difficulty is doing the technique properly," Katich says.
3. Yoga Makes You Less Susceptible to Injury
Kevin Love in Side Plank pose
Perhaps the NBA's O.G. Yogi is the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers and who once said, "There is no way I could have played as long as I did without yoga. As preventative medicine, it's unequaled."
Yoga helps your body by lengthening and strengthening your muscles. Long, supple, flexible tissues are less prone to tears and damage than tight, rigid ones. Abdul-Jabbar credits his yoga practice for keeping him healthy as a player. He declared, "Once I started practicing [yoga], I had no muscle injuries during my career. Yoga can help any athlete with their hip joints, muscles, tendons, and knees. Plus it keeps you in touch with your body."
Katich agrees that yoga increases one's body awareness, and he adds that it provides athletes with the ability to take care of their nicks and dings before they become more serious. "The message I'm trying to shout to athletes is, 'You can take care of yourself by knowing your own body and understanding how it works,'" Katich says. "Through yoga, you'll be better able to notice the little warning signs that pop up within your body and address them before they become problems."
TRY THIS: Spend a day paying close attention to the sensations within your body. When you walk, how do the soles of your feet feel as you step on and off the ground? When you do an exercise, notice any changes it creates. When you eat a meal, tune in to how your body reacts. Did you feel more energetic, or did it make you feel tired and sluggish. "Having an interest in your own body helps you take care of your body, rather than having to rely on doctors or trainers," Katich says.
4. Yoga Helps You Control Your Emotions
Kevin Love with trainer Kent Katich
"You see it all the time in games," Katich says. "A player doesn't get a call. He gets frustrated. The first thing that goes is his breath—he loses control of it. The next thing he does is foul somebody."
A major element of yoga practice is learning to control—or at least be more aware of—your breathing. Focusing on your breath not only helps you hold a difficult pose, it also increases your awareness of the task at hand when you're doing non-yogic things, like playing hoops. When you take controlled, quality breaths, your day-to-day worries, the referee's call that went against you, your shot that clanged off the rim—you're better able to put them behind you and stay in the present moment.
"I compare it to eating," Katich says. "No matter what, you're going to eat. You have to in order to live. But what you choose to eat can make a big difference. Similarly, you have to breathe. It's involuntary. But how will you choose to do it?"
TRY THIS: Take five minutes to tune in to your breath. Sit in a comfortable position—in a chair or on the floor. Close your eyes, then take a slow, controlled breath in through your nose. Feel the air enter your windpipe and fill your lungs and diaphragm. Exhale through your mouth. Repeat, noticing how the sensation of your breath changes over time.
5. Yoga Can Make You Taller
Kevin Love in Standing Tree pose
Yoga is as much about lengthening the muscles as it is about strengthening them. Many yoga poses elongate the spine, creating space between the vertebrae, strengthening your core and improving your posture. The result: a taller you. And what baller wouldn't want an extra inch or two?
"It's a little weird because it sounds magical, but it's true: I'm taller than I was," Katich asserts. "The very nature of yoga is to help you stretch and get longer. It's going to improve your posture, which will make you longer and taller."
TRY THIS: Triangle Pose. Take a wide stance and point the toes of your right foot forward. Place your left foot at a 90-degree angle to the side. Reach forward with your right hand, bend at the torso and lower your arm until your hand touches the inside of your right knee or calf. Point your left arm straight up in the air.
Katich says, "Triangle makes your legs work in opposing directions, since they are countering each other. It creates an alignment that's very effective for elongating the spine."
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