Yoga for Injury Prevention and Recovery

Our last article for the week may be a long one, but we feel that we saved the best for last. One of our training foundation is injury prevention and recovery. All-Pro NFL linebacker Keith Mitchell started practicing yoga and meditation as an injury recovery program after a life changing football injury left Keith partially paralyzed.

However, he utilized Yoga and Meditation to fully recover and he now shares his inspirational transformation with others as a highly sought after spiritual lifestyle and wellness coach, motivational speaker and through various charity endeavors. but it wasn't always so..... The first time Keith walked into a yoga studio he wasn’t so sure of his decision. “I went in and it was really weird and there was incense and I was like, ‘What is this place?’” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got to get out of here!”

This was back in the early 2000s, when pro athletes thought titanium necklaces had magical healing powers, but doing yoga was a freaky novelty. Strength and conditioning coaches for pro teams scoffed at yoga, unconvinced their players would benefit and dubious of the Eastern philosophies underpinning it. Yoga wasn’t for people who hit other men as hard as they could for a living, like Mitchell. But once he found the right instructor, the linebacker was hooked. "I was blown away and it became my way of life," Mitchell says. The body movements, focus on breathing, and principles of mindfulness central to the practice of yoga can increase flexibility, improve balance, prevent injuries, ease muscle tension, and heighten aerobic capacity.

Mitchell embraced yoga after suffering an on-field injury that temporarily paralyzed him. “It was a life-altering situation,” he says. “I was an All-Pro athlete one moment and helpless the next.” While still in the hospital, one of his nurses had him start a program of conscious breathing not so different from what yoga teaches. Eventually he incorporated some yoga poses as well. These breathing techniques and movements helped bring him back to health.

“Yoga improves muscular endurance,” says Andy Galpin a professor at the Center for Sport Performance at Cal State Fullerton. “So you start a yoga class [and] the first time you fall over at 10 seconds. But [next time] you can hold it for 40 seconds--you’ve improved muscular endurance.” That endurance can improve performance by helping athletes maintain proper biomechanics longer during competition, giving them an edge over opponents.

It also aids with injury prevention, because they’re not just doing the same old wind sprints or tackling drills. When athletes train, they tend to work the same muscle groups repeatedly. But “if they shake things up, that will reduce tread,” Galpin says. “Variation in exercise can help prevent overuse injuries."

But when it comes to yoga, athletes can’t just go through the motions, so to speak. The breathing aspect is vitally important. “Some people teach the poses as a fitness practice,” says Andrew Tanner, Chief Ambassador of the nonprofit association Yoga Alliance. “If that’s all you’re doing, you’re eating pasta without the sauce. You’ve got to do the movements while focusing on the breath.” Yoga teaches the proper mechanics of breathing from the diaphragm, which allows more oxygen in and pushes more carbon dioxide out. “Proper breathing techniques will improve VO2 max,” which is the measure of aerobic capacity, a key attribute for endurance athletes.

The Body Awareness developed in yoga can be taken out of the yoga studio and onto the field as well. Even pro athletes sometimes lack optimal form or body control. “[The] whole duration of my athletic training, I knew why I was doing about 30% of [the workouts],” Mitchell says. “The rest [I did] just because they asked me to. I didn’t know the details of my body until I started connecting to it [through yoga].” For instance, when a kid starts running, it’s not really taught: They just run from point A to B as fast as they can without thinking about it. But if they become conscious of the movements of their legs and arms, they can assess whether they can be more efficient and run faster. That’s mindfulness. “It allows you to sense when something is off in your body, possibly [even] sense when an injury is coming,” Tanner says. “And that’s very valuable to people whose bodies are their livelihoods.”

Today, compared to a decade ago, Mitchell and Tanner see less and less resistance from pros to the idea of yoga, and they predict it will only get more mainstream. “I would be shocked if ten years from now every pro team didn’t have a yoga practitioner,” Tanner says. Yoga is bound to have staying power in the pros, while all those Phiten necklaces and Power Balance bracelets gather dust in a dark corner of the locker room.


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