I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I had read or been told about the benefits of yoga as an athlete.
However, I know I wasn’t alone with my dismissive response of it being ‘too feminine’ and not something I would see myself doing.
Fast forward a few years and I am sitting in a café, legs folded over one another and a mala necklace hanging from my neck about to tell you why I wish I’d started sooner.
As I said, I dismissed the idea of yoga with a macho, self-image protecting “No thank you”, before even placing my feet onto a mat. Yoga has been given the stereotype of it being a woman’s activity and that if I were to partake, I better go buy myself some tight leggings, ditch the meat, live in a tent and put flowers in my hair (ok the hair is a bad example).
As a professional athlete, you do have an inflated ego. No matter how grounded you think you are, when you’re in that environment, there is some sense of ego floating around. It’s not necessarily all a bad thing, a certain level of ego is needed within professional sport otherwise you would get trampled on in the race for success, both individually and as a team. You need it for self-belief. Without this self-belief you will struggle to perform with finesse, especially at the highest level. Even some players who I played with that I would consider extremely down to earth characters, had an element of an ego when playing. It’s what kept us all in the battles, in the ‘fight’, the ‘you or me’ attitude.
This same ego gives us our image of self, or perhaps what we want our image to be perceived as, but this also comes with our need to protect it. Consequently, leaving us to turn down or avoiding opportunities in the face of ‘looking stupid’ or uncomfortable.
The opportunity I refer to here, for me, was the chance to start yoga in attempt to protect my body from further injury and prolonging my career. There were articles of sportsmen who had taken up yoga and had realised its benefits and were enjoying prolonged careers due to it (most notably Ryan Giggs of Manchester United). I turned it down. I didn’t want to be seen to be doing this feminine activity that was going make me feel uncomfortable about how I looked.
But why was that such an obstacle? Why would I stop myself doing something that I know is going to benefit me? Ego.
And so, finally, while away on pre-season training I decided to find a yoga sequence online, buy a mat, find a quiet spot out of sight, follow the sequence, roll up the mat and scurry away as if I was never there.
I felt great after this first practice, and so I decided to do it again, and again and again. I started at 2/3 times a week until months down the line I was doing at least something every day varying from 5, 10, 20, 40 to 60 minutes.
It eventually got to the point where during away games I was taking my mat with me and practicing in my hotel room or find a conference room that had enough space.
I saw a drastic change in the amount of soft tissue injuries I sustained. I even went off our ‘high risk’ injury list and onto the ‘low risk’ list after a year of not sustaining a soft tissue injury.
Alas, my career did finish abruptly due to injury, however no amount of yoga would have stopped the fractures in my spine from occurring. This was due to factors out of my control (my Poland syndrome, biomechanics and bowling strains on the body).
Bowling in cricket is a highly unnatural technique and skill. It requires the body to turn side on, pivot at high speed while applying large forces through the body in these awkward positions.
As a professional cricketer, this is ramped up even further with the amount of bowling that you are required to do both in training and competition, and with the schedules packed combined all these physical strains I just mentioned, injuries are a regular thing. Even sport in general, we are pushing the boundaries of what the body can do with the demand for everything to be faster, stronger, bigger and better. This takes a toll on the physical body of an athlete.
As a professional athlete I was keen to try anything that would make me better, if it didn’t work then I would acknowledge it and move on. If it did, I would add it to whatever I was already doing in hope of it improving my performance and ability to do my job consistently. From performing, recovering, to just everyday life. I was less sore, more mobile, and felt better mentally (as my body didn’t ache as much).
I held off from yoga for ages, deep down knowing that it was something that could possibly help me become a better athlete and reduce injury. Yet my ego wouldn’t accept it. Once I was able to ditch that part of my ego and get on the mat, I realised how much it could help me and I saw the results. Yes, it required commitment, but anything in life worth doing involves some sort of commitment.
Having now retired and becoming a qualified yoga teacher, my continued practice has left my body feeling better than ever. I would say I am fitter than I was when I was playing! Yes, my spine won’t let me play the sport at professional level again but being able to run, cycle, swim, whatever physical activity I do now, my body feels so much better. Thanks to yoga.
I now wish to go and teach sportspeople, amateur or professional, that to not only help prevent injury but prolong their careers. So that they can continue to do the thing they love for as long as possible. To strip away the spiritual element of yoga and focus on the physical (although yoga does have other benefits to athletes besides the physical, I’ll talk about this in the future).
I wanted to make sure that I had tried everything I could to make me the best athlete possible, leaving with no regrets at the end. Yoga was one of them.
What’s stopping you from giving it a go?