Think this form of excersize is only for
"Chrystal-Hugging Hippies"? Tell it to Kareem...
Men's Health Magazine
is no way I could have played as long as I did without yoga," says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not retired after an extraordinary 20 years in pro basketball. Many consider
Abdul-Jabbar to be the greatest center, maybe the greatest player, in basketball history.
"My friends and teammates think I made a deal with the devil. But it was yoga that made my training complete," he says.
discovered yoga in 191 when he was a nearly 7foot tall 14-year old high school student
named Lew Alcindor. He came across a book on the subject and immediately saw how this
Eastern discipline's emphasis on suppleness, concentration and breathing rather than sheer
physical strength could benefit him. Particularly the breathing: "Basketball is an
endurance sport, and you have to learn to control your breath," he says. "That's
the essence of yoga, too. So I consciously began to use yoga techniques in my
practice and playing."
When he got to UCLA,
Abdul-Jabbar read more books as his interest in yoga grew. By 1978 he was routinely
employing yoga exercises as part of his training program. Since 1984 he's studied with
Bikram Choudhury--the "Yogi to the Stars" and a former amateur world
weight-lifting champion--at the Yoga College of Beverly Hills.
Abdul-Jabbar is unequivocal
about the contributions yoga made to his longevity. "As preventative medicine, it's
unequaled," he says. "Once I started practicing it, I had no muscle injuries
during my career. Yoga can help any athlete with hip joints, muscles, tendons, and knees.
Plus it keeps you in touch with your body."
Yoga is a 6,000 year old
Eastern discipline that's part philosophy (it holds that mind, body, and spirit are
inseparable) and part physical fitness. The exercises take the form of asanas or
poses that anyone can execute. The benefits include flexibility, relaxation, and increased
With Kareem such a
prominent advocate, you might expect it would be easy to find other top-notch athletes who
have incorporated yoga into their fitness routines, and to get insights from them. But
it's hard to pin some of them down.
Consider this conversation
with Roger Craig, formerly a star running back with the San Francisco 49ers and now with
the Los Angeles Raiders. Two independent sources had described him as having practiced
MEN's HEALTH: We want
to talk with you about your interest in yoga and how it relates to your football career.
CRAIG: Well, I've never studied yoga. I do stretching exercises and that sort of
thing, but no, I've never studied yoga. The only guy I know who does is Kareem.
In cases like this it may
just be a matter of semantic confusion. "Trainers have long recognized the importance
of stretching, and much of what they do is derived from yoga," says Pam Field,
director of the Yoga Center of Santa Rosa, California, and formerly a stretching and yoga
consultant to professional basketball's Portland Trailblazers.
"A lot of people think
I'm nuts when I talk about the energy you can generate with yoga," says wrestler
Chris Campbell, a competitor to watch at the coming summer Olympics in Barcelona.
"But that's okay. I know I feel something."
Campbell, 37, was a
two-time NCAA champion at Iowa in the 1970s and a member of the 1980 Olympic team that was
not allowed to compete in Moscow. After retiring in 1984 because of knee surgery for torn
cartilage, Campbell launched a comeback that saw him take a silver medal in the 1991 Pan
Abdul-Jabbar, Campbell has no doubt that yoga has kept him healthier
longer: "Training on a world-class level is tremendously stressful.
Yoga allows me to heal myself on a daily basis, and continue to train
on a high level."
Campbell also feels yoga
gives him a little something extra in competition. "Given equal technical skills,
yoga allows me to perform at a higher level and be the superior wrestler."
It is understandable that
some Western athletes are a little slow to grasp the principles of yoga. Most of us grew
up learning that sports are competitive and that the whole point of exercise is to build
strength. In that context, yoga principles can seem alien, especially when some
practitioners talk like characters out of Star Trek. ("I am like a blacksmith,"
one instructor told us, ostensibly describing the importance of warming up before
exercise. "My pupils are like steel. You cannot pound cold steel. You have to put it
in the fire and then you can shape it into anything you want.")
Brent Rich, M.D., a Fellow
of Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, suggests you look past the odd
language and spiritual overtones of yoga's devotees and take when you need out of the
discipline: "I'm not sure if spirituality is the important part of yoga for an
Indeed many yoga
instructors freely admit that you can dispense with the philosophy if you like and still
reap the benefits. It may help to think of yoga principles in Western terms: The
controlled breathing is a proven stress-relieving technique; the stretching limbers up
muscles and prepares them for sport; and the exercises tone and strengthen your whole
body. Dr. Rich adds that the meditation used in some yoga is really nothing more
than a means of eliminating all other forms of distraction so you can concentrate better.
"You can think of something spiritual or you can just close your eyes," he says.
stretching can benefit any athlete, but it is most valuable for
preventing injuries in sports that require explosive activity,
according to Tony Mahon, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Ball State
Human Performance Lab, in Muncie, Indiana. These include racket sports,
power lifting, sprinting, basketball, volleyball, baseball, and any
activity where a great deal of force is suddenly exerted by the
muscles. Yoga and stretching is less essential prior to endurance
activities like swimming, cycling or running, since athletes can begin
these sports slowly, giving their muscles a chance to warm up before
they really begin to push. "However," adds Mahon, "stretching after a long workout can speed
recovery and help get the athlete ready for the next session."
Yoga also helps athletes
get back on track after an injury. Physical therapists now routinely prescribe it for
chronic back and muscular pain. "Yoga allows you to change old injurious posture
habits," says Mary Schatz, M.D., of the Centennial Medical Center in Nashville.
"And by learning breathing and meditative techniques, you can begin to feel each
muscle, recognize the early sensations of pain, and take action to reduce the stress on
"I guarantee that 10
years from now, yoga will be much more mainstream in the athletic world," adds Joel
Fish, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia.
Abdul-Jabbar isn't quite so
sure. Athletes spend so much time building up layers of rigid muscle, he believes, it can
be difficult for them to learn how to use yoga to break that muscle down and recondition
it into a more sinewy, flexible form. "You have to be very humble to start from
scratch," he says.
But once the initial
resistance is overcome, an athlete often sees the real benefits that he can't get through
other forms of training. Clyde Lee, a 6-foot-10, 240 pound former power forward with the
Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers, turned to yoga about a year ago to alleviate
severe back pain brought on by "years of pounding on the court."
Now free of pain, he
asserts, "The back troubles I was experiencing certainly helped end my basketball
career. I'm sure yoga would have given me greater longevity."
The point is this: Yoga
works. It's also easy to do and simple to incorporate into any kind of workout. Don't be
put off by the space-cadet image. Real men do yoga. Some of them even admit it.