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Beyond Downward Dog: The Rise of Yoga in the NBA and Other Pro Sports

Photo: Kent Katich

Yoga instructor Kent Katich goes through a workout with NBA star Kevin Love.

Joe Johnson is a seven-time NBA All-Star, arguably the best player right now on the Brooklyn Nets, and the fourth highest-paid athlete in the league last season. So it’s a tipoff that things are changing in the game when the 32-year-old shooting guard says the most crucial workout he does is not lifting, sprinting, or shooting, but yoga. “It’s better than weight training or anything of that sort,” says Johnson, who averaged 39.2 minutes and 21.2 points in the playoffs this season. “It’s therapy for my muscles, and my muscles need that more than anything.”

Johnson is not alone in his appreciation and practice of the ancient Hindu discipline. Over the past decade, more and more NBA players—and pro athletes from all sports—have taken up yoga and, more tellingly, discussed openly how important the practice is to their game. Most notable among NBA yogis is LeBron James, who recently credited an early-morning class for his ability to beat cramps in Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Spurs. The league’s all-time minutes leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is also outspoken about his zeal for yoga, saying it was a big reason he was able to play as long and successfully as he did. In addition, Kevin Love, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, and Kevin Garnett are all open about their yoga practice and have frequently spoken about its benefits for basketball.

Photo: Kent Katich

Kent Katich leads a class of athletes in a yoga session, including Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki (left).

“It is a workout, no matter what people say,” asserts Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers’ 6-foot-10, 250-pound power forward. “For me, the mental part is just as big as the physical part. It kind of lets my mind be at ease and takes my mind off of whatever is going on.”

Griffin, who, at 25, is one of the league’s younger disciples, says he has been practicing yoga ever since signing with the Clippers in 2009, when he was drafted the No. 1 overall pick. Once he got to L.A., Griffin says, he met Kent Katich, the Clippers’ full-time yoga instructor—the only one in the league. “When I got to L.A., I started working with Kent,” Griffin says. “I had always taken a lot of interest in stretching, but I immediately realized how beneficial yoga was [with Katich].”

Today, Griffin says he practices yoga three days a week with Katich to help keep his muscles flexible and to aid in injury prevention.  “My biggest problem is being tight—I have tight quads, tight calves, hip flexors, all that,” Griffin says. “Once things start to get tight, that’s when things lock down, and my back starts to hurt, my knee starts to hurt. So keeping everything loose helps me function at my highest level.”

“Yoga is about body awareness, body mindfulness,” says Katich, who is known throughout the NBA as the “yoga guy.” “It’s about knowing your limitations and knowing your strengths. It’s getting [players] acquainted with details [of] what their restrictions are. Being put through these positions in a systematic way, they’re able to pay attention, so they don’t just go through the motions until something goes wrong.”

Photo: Kent Katich

Katich works individually with players throughout the league, including Andre Iguodala.

Over the past eight years, Katich says, he’s seen a significant shift in the league’s attitude toward yoga, which he has been teaching for 20 years. “It’s huge—off the charts from when I started,” says Katich, estimating  that he has now worked with one-third of all NBA players. “Athletes are much more open to anything that will prolong or help their careers … And trainers and training staff are much more open to the benefits of [yoga] now. And then the fact that someone like Lebron publicly comes out—that makes it a big deal.”

Perhaps the biggest indicator of yoga’s increasing popularity is that young draft prospects such as Jabari Parker, who works with Katich, are regularly practicing the pursuit. “I think it’s huge for guys to start young and realize the benefits,” says Griffin. “When you take care of your body through yoga, it extends years on your career. I do think [yoga] will become more and more the norm in the NBA.”

It’s also becoming more of the norm in the NFL, where teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks now practice yoga on a regular basis. Yoga is also a required workout for all rookies and players rehabbing injuries on the New York Giants, which contracts instructor Gwen Lawrence twice a week in season and throughout the off-season to work with athletes.  “When I first started, every year I had to reprove myself to my players,” says Lawrence, who has been with the Giants for 14 seasons. “But now, more and more players are coming into the league having done [yoga] in college. A lot of them now ask me for stuff to do when they’re off-season, and they want to make sure I will be there in season.”

Photo: Kent Katich

Kent Katich leading a group yoga class of professional basketball players.

Lawrence, whose most dedicated players have included Justin Pugh, Chris Snee, and Shaun O’Hara, holds yoga class for Giants players every Monday in season to help guys recover from games. “My philosophy is not to make the football player into a yogi—I inject myself into their world,” she says. “Depending on their position, duties on the field, common injuries, and where they are in their training schedule, I design a specific yoga workout for them. Eli Manning would be doing something very different than a lineman.”

Regardless of position, every player stands to gain something from practicing yoga regularly, Lawrence says. “It’s more than just flexibility work—yoga also helps balance the body. Because if there’s an imbalance in the body and [players are] working out really hard and training and lifting and running, they’re just going to be training that imbalance. So it’s really important I help them get balanced. And it’s really important for them to get in touch with their bodies, because it’s amazing how many of these guys aren’t in touch with their bodies.”

For Johnson, who has played pro ball for 12 years, yoga is his time to commune with both his body and his mind. “It’s meditation and therapy for my muscles,” he says. “Because the better you treat your body, the more longevity you’ll have.”

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