Male Athletes Turn to Yoga For Competitive Edge

 


By Dash Wasserman '12
Photography by Jeff Pouland
 

Kalil in Yoga Class
Kareem Kalil ’13, a basketball player, at yoga class.

Hockey player Thomas Kader ’14 works out in the weight room. He pushes himself hard in daily on-ice workouts. But when the six-foot-one, 195-pound defensemen wanted more from his body, he turned to—

Yoga.

“After hockey season my body’s worn down, and I soon found out there were a lot of things I could work on,” Kader said, “Yoga opens up a whole new spectrum of what your body can do.”

Originating in ancient India as a male-only spiritual practice, yoga became popular in the United States as a form practiced mostly by women. But in recent years on Mayflower Hill, the practice has become popular with male athletes who want to supplement their work on the ice, court, or field. And some find there are both physical and mental benefits. “Most people come to it for the physical exercise and then, lo and behold, they realize there’s something more to it,” said yoga instructor Laura Meader.

Meader, an assistant director of alumni relations who teaches yoga at the athletic center and downtown, has seen more male athletes—including the entire men's squash team—in her classes. “Male athletes push themselves,” Meader said. “They’re rock strong and they just can’t let go. And if you’re tense all the time, you’re not focusing.”

Kader said he’s benefited from the mind-body connection that he has realized through yoga. “It’s about making unconscious, fluid movements to the point where it’s second nature,” he said. “Now I do yoga on my own—in my room or outside by the pond. I feel like I’m comfortable now with how I do it, that I don’t need a class anymore. When I do yoga, I’m alone. It’s my time.”

While Kader has incorporated solitude and yoga into his own personal experience, Meader talks about the benefits of communal practice, like when a whole team is involved: “Being in a group helps you in positive ways. You have shared energy—moving and flowing together—yet still are on the mat,” she said.

Among Meader’s mixed-gender classes specifically for the squash teams, she has noticed that guys tend to be more receptive to yoga. “I think stereotypes are starting to get broken down,” she said. “Male athletes aren’t held back.”

Athletes in Yoga Class
Increasingly, men at Colby, including varsity athletes, are discovering the benefits of yoga.

Squash coach Sakhi Khan said his players have been doing yoga as part of their training for three years, prompted by a suggestion from a few members of the women’s team a few years ago. “You get a good stretch in, your balance is tested, and you feel energized at the end of it,” Khan said.

He said with yoga his players are more fluid and balanced on the court. “There’s a calming effect,” Khan said, “and it may even translate to their school work.”

Like Kader, basketball guard Kareem Kalil ’13 of Southborough, Mass., became interested in yoga when a few former players on the team recommended he give it a try. “I go because I want to be better at my sport, and, through that, I’ve started to enjoy it,” said Kalil. Following a yoga session, “I always felt mobile on the court the next day—I’m a lot more able to stay low and stay mobile.”

“I’m by far the least flexible person on the team, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “It’s about being more conscious about stress levels—just being more self-aware.”

Kalil says yoga helped him learn to breathe properly, improved his muscle stability, and taught him to carry his weight in space. As Meader put it, “Structurally you’re more aligned—it helps you everywhere. You can just let yourself go and enjoy something.”

There’s just one catch for Kalil and other athletes: with training, games, and a full course-load, schedules are jam-packed. “It’s just difficult because there’s limited time [in season],” he said. Yet, with balance he learns in yoga, Kalil manages to attend yoga class once or twice a week. Kader also has found new balance in his life. “I’m doing this because it’s helping me. I’m seeing differences that I’ve never seen before,” said Kader. “My thought process started to change. School became different—I had energy in class and sound sleeping [too].”

Kareem Kalil
Kalil strikes a yoga pose.

With yoga, the ultimate discipline is to conquer oneself but players find they also come away ready to take on their opponents. “My favorite pose is the warrior because, well, the name explains it. When you’re on the ice, you want that mindset,” Kader said, “You want to be a warrior. You can’t be beat.”

 
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