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.)