The Tree of Knowledge

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The yoga bug has bitten NBA players who are practising the Indian exercise form to stay fitter, sharper, and play longer


Yoga’s relentless march through America — hotels, airports and even prisons are offering it — has landed it yet another devotee in that country: the National Basketball Association, better known as the NBA.

Some teams in the American league – the Atlanta Hawks, the Denver Nuggets, and the LA Clippers, for exam­ple – have begun to hire yoga trainers and include the regimen in their training regimens. Troy Justice, who is senior director of basketball operations for the NBA in India, said as many as 30 to 40 per cent of basketball players in the American league use yoga to improve their game.

Two-time MVP (most valuable player) Steve Nash of the Los Angeles Lakers, two-time NBA Champion Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, and NBA All-Star Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers are just some of the big-name players who have taken to the mat. Yoga, said Justice, gives the players greater flexibility, body strength, and helps prevent injury. Justice points to the “two or three players who sit on the bench during every NBA game in their suits, not their uniforms. They’re there because of injury.” The fast-paced game – there are (82) games played every season – takes a toll on their bodies. By reducing injuries, yoga increases the longevity of a bas­ketballer’s playing career, which is very important for a professional sportsperson who has only so many years to make his mark and his money.

Dr Rajeev K Sharma, senior orthopedic consultant with Apollo Hospitals and an expert on sports injuries, says Justice is not talking through his hat. “Yoga,” he says, “is a combination of stretching and then holding that pose. As one stretches, one gets more flexible. And as one holds, the muscles get stronger.”

The exercises, he adds, also help with balance. “The better balanced you are, the less you will injure yourself.” Couldn’t another set of exercises provide the same benefits? Not quite, says Sharma. The important breathe-in, breathe-out component of yoga helps equalise oxygen saturation in the blood. This means the body continuously gets the correct amount of oxygen that it needs.

Back in the 1970s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the only NBA player doing yoga. His teammates thought he was a little weird, flapping his hands about and bending over backwards. But his regimen helped the 7ft 2in-tall player retire from the LA Lakers as the league’s highest scorer of all time.

Jabbar has been quoted as-saying yoga got rid of his lower back pain and helped him play longer without injur­ing himself. Jabbar played professional basketball with the Milwaukee Bucks and later the LA Lakers for 20 years, from 1969 to 1989. That, say experts, is amazing for somebody who was as tall as he was, and therefore more prone to picking up injuries.
There is one other, just as important, benefit that yoga gives a professional basketballer – peace of mind. According to Justice, players play sometimes up to five games a week, many of them on the road, and then there’s media scrutiny and fans desperate for a win. The constant pressure to perform at the highest levels puts strain on a player, making it hard to make that big shot in front of a 15,000-strong audience. Yoga, in that case, says Justice, becomes the exact op­posite of the sound and fury surrounding every game. “A time for silence, concentration, and reflection. A time to be alone.”

According to Mani Chaitanya, director of the Sivananda Yoga Centre in Delhi, the more advanced levels of yoga teach you that the mind too is an organ like any other. That it can be controlled, rather than the other way around. This helps drown out life’s unnecessary noise and distractions.

Dwyane Wade seems to agree: “Yoga not only helps me physically by keeping me in shape but it also helps me with the mental aspects of basketball. It is a great way for me to relieve stress so I can be calm and effective when I am out on the court.”

He’s not talking through his hat either: He should know.

He’s won the league twice with the Miami Heat.

Parakram Rautela – TNN

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