Five years ago yoga instructor Paula Kout was watching her beloved Chicago Bulls on television when she asked her husband Jim, "Can't you just see them all in a Headstand?" Although he couldn't visualize it, he suggested she send coach Phil Jackson a letter.
Kout, director of White Iris Yoga in Evanston, Illinois, enclosed an article about NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's yoga practice with a note to Jackson, who is renowned for alternative coaching methods like devoting entire practices to meditation and requiring players to read books he individually selects for them. Two years later, in 1997, her phone rang. It was Jackson asking her to educate his Bulls in the ways of Downward-Facing Dog. "He wanted to add some yin to his yang," says Kout.
Jackson, a Zen Buddhist, personally knew the physical benefits of regular practice; he began practicing yoga while with the New York Knicks in the 1970s after he damaged some discs in his back. It was clear he knew yoga's mental benefits, too; in his 1995 book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (Hyperion, 1996), the second chapter is entitled "A Journey of a Thousand Miles Starts with One Breath."
Kout taught 12 sessions during the Bulls' 1997-98 preseason training camp, which were scheduled every day after practice. "The idea was to lay a foundation and inspire them to practice while they were on the road," says Kout. She admits that probably few players struck a pose in their hotel rooms, despite the basic, instructional tapes she made for them (though Michael Jordan's wife apparently loved the tapes). Kout led them through six more sessions during the season, but when March approached, "all they could do was think about the playoffs," she says.
Fortunately, their lack of regular yoga practice didn't interfere with capturing their third-straight NBA Championship in 1998, and perhaps the occasional sessions even contributed to their victories. Case in point: After losing the first game of the championship series to the Utah Jazz, Jordan was seemingly unconcerned. When asked about his demeanor by a reporter, he replied, "I just decided to use a little bit of Zen Buddhism and relax; instead of being frustrated, I just smiled, channeled my thoughts, and let [the game] flow."
Says Kout: "Just to turn them on to peaceful experiences in the middle of their gladiator mind-set was powerful."
Basketball is a total body and mind sport that requires you to be both physically and mentally quick. Successful players not only need to know how to dribble, pass, catch, and shoot while galloping up and down the court, but also how to keep constant track of four other teammates. All this while five opponents try to steal the ball. Even a basic act like shooting can be complicated: Different motions are required for a lay-up, free throw, and jump shot. (Did we mention playing defense when you don't have the ball?)
Despite their flash and athleticism, though, many NBA players are not the most versatile athletes. "The Bulls' range of motion was very limited," says Kout. "They train in a very narrow corridor with small, repetitive movements." Simple actions like standing on all four corners of their feet in Tadasana were difficult to execute because players are constantly perched on the balls of their feet in a ready position. "Their ankles were so tight and contracted, just being in Child's Pose was extremely painful for them," says Kout. "They actually refused to do it."
From the Ground Up
Yet, open-minded players are well served by asanas like Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) and Virasana (Hero Pose), both of which open the ankles and help prevent injuries caused by sudden stops and quick cuts. "Ankles are an integral part of your base," says Kout. "If they're inflexible, you're vulnerable to injury."
Pounding the court for 60 minutes—not to mention squatting serious poundage—had turned many of the Bulls' quads into rock. The downside, though, was constant leg tension, a common problem for both the professional and weekend warrior. For this, Jackson wanted Kout to teach them Headstand. "I told him I didn't have enough insurance to do that," says Kout with a laugh.
She does, however, believe strongly in the healing powers of inverted asanas, and recommends beginners rest their legs against a wall and work up to Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). The shoulder is another joint that rarely rests on the court. When it's not being used to launch a jump shot, it's throwing or catching the ball, or engaged in defense. (Name a basketball player who doesn't remember his or her high school coach constantly screaming, "Arms up! Arms up!") Most of this shoulder work is of the forward-motion variety, so in addition to leading the Bulls through simple arm circles (one at a time, slowly), she walked them through poses like Prasarita Padottanasana (Widespread Standing Forward Bend) and Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose), which open and stretch the upper body.
Although Kout's stint with the Bulls is over (as are their glory days), Jackson has taken his New Age philosophy to the Los Angeles Lakers and in June led the team to their first championship in 12 years. Again, the Lakers' occasional yoga practice is just one piece of a comprehensive program, but it had an immediate effect on at least one player.
"We've been doing yoga so I'll be straight," Shaquille O'Neal told the Los Angeles Times in reference to a bad ankle that was quickly healing. "I'm kind of tight—not really used to stretching. But our yoga instructor is nice looking, so I'm very enthusiastic about it."
Dimity McDowell is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer.