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Pro athletes adding yoga to fitness routine

By Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA -- Atlanta Hawks center Zaza Pachulia slips out of his sneakers, kneels on a yoga mat and exhales.

Sitting on the back of his heels, Pachulia lowers his upper body onto his thighs. He stretches his arms out in front of him. With his body folded, only his long arms hint at his towering height of 6 feet 11 inches. Clad in baggy gray sweatpants, Pachulia smoothly glides from one yoga pose to the next -- downward-facing dog, warrior pose and the tree pose.

It's a bit of an unexpected behind-the-scenes moment for an athlete known for playing a very physical game, not afraid to mix it up on the court.

Yet, this player best remembered by Hawks fans for his altercation with Celtics star Kevin Garnett in the 2008 playoffs credits yoga with helping his flexibility and balance and making his body feel good -- before and after games.

Pachulia also noticed something else.

"Guess what happened," Pachulia said with a big smile. "My jump shot got better."

Three seasons ago, the Hawks hired yoga instructor Michelle Young to incorporate yoga into their training regimen.

It's part of a growing trend of professional athletes turning to this ancient discipline to stay on the cutting edge to help players stave off injuries and keep playing.

The Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers have also reportedly hired yoga instructors.

Walt Thompson, associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Education at Georgia State University, said while weaving yoga into a training program is not a particularly new idea, he believes it's a "wise" investment. Thompson said several studies suggest yoga can improve flexibility and reduce injuries, especially muscle strains and joint sprains that can keep athletes out of action.

With the demands of travel and a schedule of 80-plus games, Hawks strength and conditioning coach Jeff Watkinson said players are constantly battling muscle tightness and joint stiffness, especially through their ankles, hips, groin, hamstrings and low back. And yoga, he said, can help. (His favorite poses: pigeon pose for hips, triangle pose for hamstrings, groin and hips, and child pose for lower back and ankles.)

"When I first started, I heard, 'We are doing what?' and 'Why?'" Young said. "It was hard to wrap their heads around something traditionally out of the norm of what an athlete would do ... but now I hear, 'I am glad you are here,' and 'This is just what I need.' ... When I can take their game to the next level, anything I can do to give them an edge, that feels great."

Traditionally, yoga is known for grace and ease and flexibility, but Young's focus is on easing the tension and tightness and soreness. Success to her is not watching a player arch his back or touch his toes -- it's preventing a strained ankle or other physical woe.

The yoga sessions, taking place in a room that was once used as a dressing room of sorts, is tailored to each player and also modified, with props that are sometimes needed. An NBA player nearly 7 feet tall may need a block to help touch the floor. Other times, she's in awe of the strength of these super-athletes, watching the players really hold a pose.

Young describes the poses instead of using the traditional Sanskrit names.

"They don't care if I name the pose. The traditional name of one pose is Adho Mukha Svanasana, and I just say downward-facing dog. ... If they were to come in and express an interest in meditation, I would be all over that, but given I have 30 minutes or an hour, my focus is not 'Let's make sure we are doing things to open our heart,' it's more 'Let's open our chest. We don't want to tear a pectoral muscle.'"

Pachulia, who does about one yoga session a week during the season, said he has more time during the off-season to devote to yoga. Still, he said he tries to do 15 minutes of yoga before every game. His favorite poses include the child pose and the triangular pose. Once the game starts, though, pliant poses give way to banging against heft and size underneath the basket. Tranquility has to wait until the next yoga session.

Yoga poses for athletes

Here are some of Young's favorites:

Downward-facing dog: You are supporting yourself with your arms and core, and, at the same time, you are getting a deep stretch you can feel throughout the legs. This pose is a full-body stretch and strengthening pose.

Cobra: Lying on your stomach and lifting up into a back bend, this strengthens and stretches your core and back.

Corpse: This resting pose completes the practice, and even though you are simply lying on the floor, Young said this pose is important in helping you be mindful of how your body is feeling.

For step-by-step instructions on these yoga poses, go to the Yoga Journal at www.yogajournal.com.


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