More people who don't look much like yogis (you know, tall, thin, and bendy) are enjoying the benefits of regular yoga practice—including a growing number of NFL players. Some NFL teams have even brought in full-time yoga coaches to help their athletes. Before their championships season, the Seattle Seahawks, winners of Super Bowl XLVIII, made yoga workouts mandatory. And with good reason: Yoga can calm the mind, strengthen the body, and aid in recovery from the bruising practices and games that players endure every week.
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One of the earliest adopters of yoga in the NFL was All-Pro running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, who took up the practice after joining the Tennessee Oilers (now the Titans) in 1996. He quickly realized that yoga offered enormous benefits for himself and his teammates.
"As football players, we're taught to works our muscles in one way, and that's very linear," George says, referring to the standard straight-ahead lifts, like the Squat and the Bench Press, the players predominantly perform. Those moves are helpful, but George adds, "Very rarely are we taught to address the total body, which is what yoga does."
George knows that yoga helped him—and believes it can help other football players—in three key ways.
1. Yoga Improves Flexibilty So You Can Move Anywhere, Any Time
In the lead up to any NFL draft, scouts and other prognosticators comment on whether a player is "fluid through the hips." Basically this refers to the player's ability to move in any direction at any time—a critical skill in a sport that's so unpredictable and that requires so many changes in direction. The hips play a key role in countless football movements: receivers use them to get out of their breaks when running routes; linemen use them to get low and fire out of their stances; and linebackers use them to change direction when trying to cover a speedy back going out for a pass. Yet despite this, tight, weak and rigid hips are quite common among football players. George says the improved strength and mobility in his hips he experienced after yoga showed up on Sundays in the form of better pad level (lower pads means better leverage, which means you're harder to tackle) and increased agility, which made his cuts and jukes harder to predict. "[Yoga] really helped me amp up my game," George says.
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2. Yoga Helps You Bounce Back for the Next Game
During his 9-year NFL career, George never missed a game due to injury, which he says would not have been possible without yoga. His twice-per-week yoga sessions helped him release muscle knots and recover faster week-to-week. And the lessons he learned doing vinyasas helped him stay out of trouble during games, too. He says, "When I found myself in compromising positions on the field, I was able to go with the flow rather than resist it. My body was used to being in those types of positions from [yoga] practice, so I'd be okay."
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3. Yoga Makes it Easier to Get Your Mind Right
You can't win every game, and during games, not every play goes your way. For eight straight years, George carried the ball more than 300 times per season; and although most of his rushes were for positive yardage, on a few he went backward—or worse. But after setbacks, George found that the mental aspect of yoga practice really kicked in for him. "It's not just physical," he says. "When things weren't going well or I had a fumble, I could breathe and get back to my center and just let that moment go. Yoga taught me how to move on instead of having a downward spiral."
A 6-Move Yoga Routine for Football Players
George and yoga instructor Kent Katich recently documented some of their most powerful yoga routines in a series of online videos. Helpful for anyone who wants to start practicing yoga, the videos include sequences geared to a variety of goals, including improving recovery, building power and developing endurance. This six-move routine focuses on building athleticism by increasing hip and core flexibility.
RELATED: See George's and Katich's Complete Routine Here
Downward Facing Dog
Pull your hips toward the ceiling
Begin in plank positionon the mat. Keeping your hands and feet planted, pull your hips back and up toward the ceiling. As you move, tuck your head in. Katich says, "This is a whole-body pose that works your hands, shoulders, calves, lower back, feet—everything, really."
Keep your front thigh parallel to the floor
From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot up inside your right hand. Bend your right knee over your ankle so your thigh is parallel to the floor. Align your fingertips with your toes, roll your shoulder blades back and look straight ahead. "This targets your hip flexors, which are key for running and taking pressure off your lower back," Katich says.
Lengthen through your shoulders while keeping your core activated
From Runner's Lunge, raise your hips and press your feet into the mat. As you inhale, pull your chest up. Move onto the ball of your left foot and raise your hands above your head with your palms facing each other. Pull your left knee and quad toward the ceiling. Focus on lengthening your shoulders.
Keep your feet firmly planted on the mat
Moving from Crescent Lunge to Warrior 1 requires just a subtle change with the back foot. Press into your right leg, lift your left leg off the mat and turn your left foot out at a 45-degree angle. Maintain a 90-degree bend in your front knee and press the outer edge of your left foot into the mat. Continue to hold your arms overhead, pointing your fingers toward the sky with your palms facing in. Hold for 30 to 40 seconds. "[After the Lunge], we can rotate that hip because it's opened up, and you're activating your lumbar and lower back," Katich says.
Keep your eyes focused just above your middle finger
From Warrior 1, rotate your left foot to a 90-degree angle. This turns your hips toward the side of the mat. Lower your arms until they are extended at shoulder level. Pinch your shoulder blades and broaden your chest. Finally, bend your right knee toward your middle toe, keeping both feet flat on the ground. "This will tone your arms if you focus on keeping them up at shoulder-height. They will feel heavy after doing those other poses," Katich says.
Pull your left leg back to open your hips
You might need a block for this one. If you don't have a block, you use any object with similar dimensions. From Warrior 2, reach your right hand down to the block for support. Move your back leg toward the front of your mat until your weight is centered over your front foot. When you feel stable, raise your back leg into the air. Straighten both legs and both arms. Hold the pose. Repeat the sequence on the other side.
RELATED: Watch George Demonstrate More than an Hour's Worth of Yoga Workouts