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Yoga for Athletes

Letting Life Come to You

An athlete learns through yoga to let the life you're supposed to live find you, instead of trying to control the course of your dreams.

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As a high-school basketball player growing up in Iowa, I dreamed of going to UCLA, the mecca for college basketball where championship banners hang in the rafters and (unlike Iowa) the temperature is always 72 degrees. But UCLA wasn’t calling, so after graduation, I loaded my little car with clothes and a popcorn popper and drove four hours to the school that wanted me, repeatedly asking myself, “What am I doing?”

Two years later, I found the courage to go after my dream—but it didn’t go quite as planned. First, I sliced my (shooting) hand on a glass, which required surgery to repair the nerves and tendons. Unable to play basketball for the time being, I went to Hawaii to “find myself,” only to get hit by a car while riding my bike. I finally landed in LA, but soon after nearly drown after getting stuck in a rip current. I was floundering, and it seemed that every move I made took me further and further from my goal, leaving me mired in questions about my future.

A chance invitation from a former college basketball teammate led me to Sweden on a basketball tour. But when I arrived, something else caught my attention: my friend doing yoga poses.

He was in the best shape I’d ever seen an athlete, and his positive energy and confidence were infectious. I distinctly remember him saying “Try this yoga,” as if he were Wilford Brimley from the movie “Cocoon” who had found the fountain of youth. He proceeded to do headstands effortlessly.

I prided myself on being an athlete, so I figured I had this. Not a chance. I soon realized I had no understanding of my body, nor the strength, flexibility, or grace necessary to execute any of this yoga stuff.

I began to wonder if this lack of understanding was what had made the difference between my becoming an athlete roaming the campus of UCLA, and what had instead been my reality, a student who nearly froze his butt off shuffling to and from the gym in a Midwest university, and then experienced mishap after mishap looking for something that I didn’t know how to get.

I left Sweden with one purpose: Learn what yoga was. I went to whatever yoga class I could find in whatever strange place it took me. I was open-minded but self-conscious. Some classes were essentially aerobics disguised as yoga, others found me in a basement sitting in Lotus Pose and chanting. I sat through scripture readings in a circle, talking philosophy that I didn’t subscribe to.

Then one day, I found it. It was me and 25 attractive women in a warm room doing hatha yoga to R&B music. I’d never experienced that type of physical liberation. I was humbled and motivated. As an athlete, I could see the profoundly positive benefits yoga had for my body, my mind, and my abilities. I couldn’t believe everyone wasn’t doing this, particularly men and especially athletes. My brain went into overdrive and a purpose was born: I would marry the two things I loved most, yoga and basketball.

The years that followed found me praising yoga’s benefits and coaching athletes who would become walking/stretching testimonials to the power of yoga practice, and I eventually achieved the dream that was born long ago, first with my childhood goal of going to LA to work with world-class athletes, and then reawakened with that first (failed) headstand. I became the first full time yoga coach in sports history, for the Los Angeles Clippers. I travel with the team, working players on the court, in locker rooms and hotel rooms, and on tarmacs in 28 NBA cities.

Without the detours I’ve taken and the lessons I gained (as well as the good friends I made), I would not be where I am today. I had to go through those experiences to get here. When fear, anxiety, anger or disappointment surface, I try to remember this. With perspective, I now know there’s is gold in every experience, even if we can’t see it. The hard part is to stop fighting your circumstances, and take in the lesson and gifts that are there.

Now, whether I’m in Athens, Greece, with the German Olympic basketball team or the locker room of Madison Square Garden with the Clippers, I take my yoga practice with me. It’s a trusted companion that has shown me roads I would never have found on my own, because I was too busy looking for where I thought I was supposed to be.

Kent Katich is owner of the Yoga Court in Los Angeles and All Sport Yoga, and is the yoga coach for the Los Angeles Clippers NBA basketball team.