Yoga in the NBA
Teams add to their strength and conditioning programs.
Young, the Hawks’ yoga instructor, has worked with the team since the preseason. Athletic trainer Wally Blase brought her in to help solidify players’ injury prevention, part of which required them to gain flexibility. She employs power yoga, which takes advantage of players’ superior physical condition by challenging their strength and endurance.
“Some of them do it because they have to,” Young said. “Some do it because they love it.”
Although the sessions are sporadic given that she doesn’t travel with the team, Young said the players have made significant progress in their ability to hold poses. Their progress includes what Marion said was a physical incapability: touching their toes. They couldn’t do it when she arrived in September.
“That wasn’t even an option,” Young said. “Now, you can see they’re getting down closer to their toes.” Some players had such stiff knees that they couldn’t balance on one leg. Yoga has helped loosen their hips, knees and ankles. And it was easier for the players to loosen up once Young convinced them to perform their sessions barefoot — the players would normally come in with their ankles taped, ready for the team practice that would take place after yoga.
Katich noted that players are often more flexible than they give themselves credit for. But he did find their breathing patterns were not in sync with their body movements. One reason for it is they’ve learned how to breathe when playing basketball and when lifting weights, but not for the movements necessary in yoga.
Neilsen runs the Nuggets through Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga. It’s practiced in rooms that are set from 100 to 105 degrees. Their classes will last 45 to 60 minutes, and Nielsen will develop individual programs for players, upon request.
Katich gets to the Clippers’ practice facility an hour and a half before practice; he typically has 5-20 minutes available for yoga and for stretching. He’s in the locker room 2 1/2 hours before games helping players get stretched out and mentally prepared. That particular part of his job is why he thinks it’s so much easier for men to be yoga instructors in the NBA.
He explained that as a man, he can be with the players in the locker room, travel with them, or hang out with them before games and practice, and it isn’t awkward. That wouldn’t be the case if it were a woman in his role.
Katich noted that there are times when a woman will enter into a male-dominated environment and “try to soften them and open their hearts, using language they’re not ready for.”
When women have called him for advice on teaching yoga to men — not necessarily NBA-related — Katich has recommended wearing sweats, not tights. “They have to camouflage their bodies,” Katich said.
Young admitted her first session with the Hawks was “totally intimidating.” She said she would get a sly, off-color comment at times, but that it’s become a non-issue as they’ve progressed with the classes. Still, it’s not something that should be unexpected.
“They’re 25-year-old guys,” Young said. “What do you expect?”
While that dynamic won’t change in time — young men are always liable to create an awkward situation for females, at least initially — yoga certainly has a bright future in the League.
Knicks center Ronny Turiaf claimed Katich has helped him improve his flexibility and gain a better understanding of how his body works. Turiaf began working with Katich several years ago with friends Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
“It’s something that really helped me,” Turiaf said before noting he doesn’t work with Katich now, although he’d welcome the opportunity to do so. Turiaf did admit that some players could struggle in their acceptance of yoga.
“When you try to bring new ideas and new concepts into people’s lives, sometimes it takes people a while to react to it.”
Young thinks it will take at least a couple years for more players to warm up to it. While stars like Nowitzki, Love and even LeBron James have used it for years, conventional strength and conditioning is still the preferred option for most teams.
Hess was frank about his responsibility to the players. “I think the most important thing to understand is we’re researching what’s best for the team,” Hess said. “As strength and conditioning individuals, we have to be careful not to get our egos too much involved. We have to think of what’s best for the players, not what’s best for us. Sometimes we’re limited in bringing different things to the players because it’s not in the realm of what we necessarily do.”
Katich was adamant in his assessment that players have accepted yoga. “The guys are cool with it,” he said. “We’ve moved past it. Yoga’s yoga. They see it in commercials. It’s acceptable at this point.”