Swami Sri Dunkacharyas: A brief glimpse at NBA players practicing Yoga

kareem ramdev

This is the only time in my life that I’ll get to say LeBron James and Baba Ramdev in the same sentence, so I’m just going to go out and say it. LeBron James and Baba Ramdev both practice Yoga. So does Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Andre Iguodala, the majority of the Clippers, Hawks, Nuggets, and – according to NBA India’s Basketball Operations Director Troy Justice – about 30-40 percent of all the players in the NBA.

In one of the most unique and unexpected connections between India and the NBA, the ancient Indian physical and spiritual discipline has found its way through Adi Shankaracharya to Swami Vivekanand to large gatherings of spiritualists around Gurus across India to hippie new age training rooms across Europe and the North America to the NBA’s own Yoga ‘guru’, Kent Katich.

Katich, who was hired as the Clippers ‘Yoga Coach’ a few years ago, became the first of his kind in the league. But he was definitely not the first to practice Yoga in the NBA. That honour has to go to the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Kareem was/is the first with a lot of things – first in the NBA’s all time scoring list, the first-ever Naismith College Player of the Year, the first pick in the 1969 NBA draft, the first player in NBA history to play 20 seasons, the first one to have an awesome cameo in the Bruce Lee movie, the first one to have an awesome cameo in Airplane! – and he was also the first NBA player to publicly practice Yoga, back in the 70s. This photo may forever change your life.

A fantastic article in this morning’s Times of India paper looks back at how Yoga benefited Kareem, helped him recover from injuries, play till the grandfatherly age (at least in NBA circles!) of 42, and, in the process, collect six rings, six MVP awards, 19 All Star Appearances, and, of course, more points than anyone else in NBA history.

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LeBron JamesSomehow, this ancient Indian technique of breathing and body exercises that perhaps began as early as the mid 3rd millennium BC and this sport of running and jumping with a rubber ball that began in North America in 1891 seem to be made for each other.

Parakram Rautela, who wrote the TOI feature, also spoke to Troy Justice, who offered his own ideas on why yoga and basketball make so much sense together.

Yoga, said Justice, gives the players greater flexibility, body strength, and helps prevent injury.

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 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.”

Also quoted in Rautela’s article is Dr. Rajeev K. Sharma, senior orthopaedic consultant with Apollo Hospitals and an expert with sports injuries. “Yoga,” said Sharma, “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 also help with proprioception or balance. The better balanced you are, the less you will injure yourself.”

Kent Katich ClippersA few years ago, writer Kyle Stack wrote the definitive feature about Yoga in the NBA on SLAM-Online. Stack interviews Katich and several NBA players on how Yoga has helped improved the fitness of many players in the league and also helped them elongate their careers.

Yoga – it’s physical and spiritual aspects – have been passed down through thousands of years of brilliant Indian sages and gurus. But in recent years, it has made a comeback of sorts into mainstream India again. Everyone from bored aunties after their Sunday afternoon kitty-party to convicted felons in jails are practising it. These days, I think a lot of Indian youngsters do simple Yoga exercises growing up, especially now with the whole ‘Art of Living’ phenomenon/cult. Even if we ignore the whole religious/spiritual aspect of it, Yoga has a lot of benefits as a form of physical exercise and, as Justice noted, as a way to calm your mind.

Andre IguodalaIn Indian basketball, American Strength and Conditioning Coach Zak Penwell has helped to revolutionize the conditioning and training regimen of Indian players over the past few years. Penwell has been teaching expert drills, nutrition, and fitness tips on helping the players become better basketball athletes. He even wrote a book about it. But I feel that the next step for him is to also merge western regimes with India’s own ‘world-renowned’ fitness discipline.

Yoga benefits basketball. Yoga is Indian. So by my oversimplified logic, we should be using Yoga to improve the fitness of our basketball players in India. Hundreds of the best basketball players in the NBA can’t be wrong. Thousands of years of Indian wisdom can’t be wrong either.

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