The end of another AFL season sees the winners celebrating and the losers re-grouping to make an assault on the summit once again next year.
In their comparatively short careers elite athletes like AFL players face the challenges of life writ large – success, failure, injury. To simply make it to an elite team is a major achievement, often the culmination of an ambition held since childhood. Once their sought after position has been attained they then have to maintain it.
Yoga can help keep their minds steady and increase the mobility in their bodies.
American Dana Santas, who teaches yoga to professional baseballers in the US, says yoga helps athletes activate/inhibit muscles (she prefers this term to stretching, believing that athletes shouldn’t be encouraged to stretch out areas that provide joint stability), use their diaphragm and initiate their parasympathetic nervous system.
“Because many yoga positions require multi-planar movement in a controlled manner or positional hold, demanding perfect alignment in those poses forces athletes out of compensation patterns. Taking them out of these patterns activates muscles that have been dysfunctionally dormant, and inhibits the overactive compensators (effectively turning off the tension). It’s the activation and inhibition initiated in yoga—not stretching—that actually helps athletes become more mobile,” Dana says.
“When athletes are smart about why and how they add yoga to their training, they can use it to tap into another level of function, awareness and control that can help them move, breathe and focus in ways that directly translate to enhanced sports performance and decreased injury,” she says.
As Geelong Cats vice-captain Harry Taylor has found, yoga also provides the tools to deal mentally, emotionally and psychologically with the challenges of winning and losing.
BKS Iyengar was fond of cricket and worked with the Indian cricket team and the legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, as well as Australia’s Justin Langer. In his posthumously published book “Yoga for Sports, A Journey towards Health and Healing” Mr Iyengar writes:
“Before we proceed to understand the role of yoga in a sportsperson’s life, let us bear in mind that a sportsperson is first a human being. Yoga teaches us how to maintain our inner equilibrium irrespective of the external circumstances. After all, pleasure and pain; success and failure; joy and sorrow; optimism and pessimism go hand in hand. A sportsperson knows this fact better than anyone else. Yoga gives them the necessary guidance to prevent and heal injury, withstand the stress of competition, convert negative stress into positive stress and physical fatigue into exhilaration. It also provides them with the methodology to give their best to the game and enlighten their own lives.”
Harry Taylor, who has played more than 200 games, has been doing Iyengar Yoga with Tim Oddie at Geelong City Yoga once a week for the past ten years.
Harry says: “Yoga is an option as part of our recovery early in the week. I use it as a mental break in the week, a re-set button between putting the last game on the shelf and moving forward to the next game. The stretching’s great, but I’m stiff as a board, it’s more the mental side of yoga that I enjoy and get the most out of.”
Harry joined Geelong in the 2007 draft at the age of 21, the same time yoga was first offered as the result of a team re-think following the 2007 loss to The Kangaroos.
Tim Oddie says: “It’s a famous part of Geelong folklore, after Round 6 in 2007 they had a team meeting and there was an idea that they were a talented side who weren’t realising their potential. So various things were introduced, including yoga. They started to get a lot more proactive about how they did things and from that round they went on this ridiculous winning streak.”
Harry started playing in 2008 and won Geelong’s Best first-year player award. In 2009 he took the mark that secured the Premiership win for Geelong and in 2011 they won it again.
“I’ve learnt a lot about winning and losing and trying to stay as level with that as I can. It’s something I struggled with early in my career. I was on that rollercoaster of winning and losing. Fortunately we won a lot of games – you get used to winning. You don’t think it’s going to happen but you certainly expect it to. You drive really, really hard when things aren’t going the way that you want but unfortunately some circumstances you can’t control. What yoga and Tim have helped me with is staying as level as I can. Not getting overly emotional and excited when we have the big wins and staying balanced and not being too down on yourself when you lose. That part of yoga has really helped me.
“I think that balance can help your career last a lot longer than if you get thrown around by the highs and lows of AFL footy.”
Harry also has a young family and says the pranayama techniques he’s learnt in yoga help him to relax at home if he’s had a few bad sleeps in a row.
“If the kids are causing me a few headaches I try to bring in what I’ve learnt in yoga – concentrating on the breath, feeling the breath move into parts of my body, relaxing the joints and muscles.”
He also uses those techniques at half-time if the game’s not going the way he would like it to.
“When I started I had no idea what yoga was about but after 10 years I have a much better understanding of why it’s really important.”
He’s learnt a lot about the breath and has realised the exhalation is just as important as the inhalation.
“Our game is very physical and very demanding. There are times when you’re really looking for that next breath, you’re searching for more energy and ways to get oxygen into your body. Through yoga I’ve learnt to control that a bit more. When I’m really labouring for breath, whether in a game or training session, I use some of the subtle pranayama techniques to slow myself down – particularly in a tense moment in the game – to get in the oxygen I need and be more balanced. It really helps.”
Tim Oddie thinks yoga is helping the team perform under pressure, although he says it’s not down to just yoga – it’s about the professionalism with which the players approach their careers and yoga’s been part of that.
“Yoga buys you time – you can process more things at once so time slows down. If you can stay calm and keep your peripheral vision rather than narrow down, as happens when you get anxious, then you can see more and read the play better,” says Tim.
Situation training and preparation are a big part of Harry’s game and contribute to the presence of mind he displays on the field.
“When I’m closing my eyes at night trying to relax, doing the breathing techniques, I might put myself into a game-like situation and imagine myself taking a game saving mark or making a really important spoil. I’ll imagine what I’d do if the game was close and we needed to score.”
He also uses yoga to help him deal with the bouquets and brickbats cast on social media.
“People can be nice when you’re playing well but when you’re not they can be very critical. It’s good to be able to focus on yourself, stay centred, focus on your breath and block out the external noise.”
Tim has a lot of respect for Harry and the other players and enjoys teaching them.
“Every play they engage in there’s the possibility of getting an injury that puts them out for the season or ends their career. Yet they’re expected to go out there and be fearless – to go into every contest almost without regard for safety. I have a lot of respect for that.
“They take instruction very well, they’re very intelligent in their bodies. They’re very disciplined and focused. We have to devise ways for them to do things because from a yoga perspective they’re quite limited and they often come in with corkys and injuries. They struggle to hold their arms at shoulder height because of their muscle bulk. If I strained Harry’s hamstring in my class I think the town would lynch me!”
AFL players these days are running machines – typically covering 10-12 kms in a game. They work to a hip flexion of 45 degrees. Tim says if they can increase that to 50 degrees the chance of injury is less. It’s a fine balancing act though as the joints need to retain their stability.
“Their body is their armour. When they take a mark and land they’re protecting the ball, not their body. They take a lot of impact – the body’s getting hammered. When you go to a game and sit on the sidelines the sound of bodies hitting each other is incredible.
“When they lie in savasana their bodies twitch and thrash as they let go and the energy discharges.”
In classes Tim refers to the story of Arjuna and Krishna on the battlefield from the Bhagavad Gita.
“How do you go forward and do your duty without being unsettled? Sometimes I even touch on Krishna as the god of love and how does that fit into the equation? Brett Kirk, the incredibly courageous ex-captain of the Sydney Swans was a devout Buddhist. Someone asked him how he aligned being such a fierce tackler with being a Buddhist. He said “I just tackle them with love”. How can yoga help us to be fearless, to trust and let go of controlling?”
Yoga, especially styes like Iyengar that focus on alignment, clearly have a lot to offer sportspeople in terms of mobility, injury prevention and mental attitude. Hopefully Harry’s example will encourage more men, not just sportspeople, to try yoga and access everything it has to offer them.
(Parts of this article originally appeared in “Yoga giving athletes the edge”, Australian Yoga Life magazine Issue 53 Dec-Feb 2017)