Screaming fans, blowing whistles, loud music and bodies being hit up against the boards are sounds and visuals that come to mind when you think of the game of hockey. It is no wonder then when you put the word yoga in the same sentence as hockey, people begin to get a little confused, or worse, very opinionated about putting these two activities together. Hockey is a highly competitive sport of fast action and high intensity which may seem like a far cry from the world of yoga where there is this misconception that it only involves long periods of stretching, chanting and lying in complete stillness at the end, known as savasana. Although the last part is true of every single yoga class, the stretching and chanting are only parts of certain types of yoga. They are each beneficial in their own right, but they are not the only aspects to a balanced yoga practice. If you want to learn more about the benefits of a regular yoga practice, just go back and read many of my past articles on the subject. This piece is geared specifically about the positive benefits of yoga for hockey players. Why am I focusing on hockey players? Well for one, my son plays hockey so that, in and of itself, makes it important to me, but also because I see a lot of hockey players out there, whether it be on television or at the arenas while watching my son and other teenagers playing the sport and I see and I hear about the injuries, the limitations, the mental impact that this sport has on our young athletes and I want to do my part in spreading awareness and making a difference.
I had the honour of sitting with former NHL player, Kellan Lain, who played for the Vancouver Canucks during the 2013-14 NHL season, to discuss the benefits of yoga as a hockey player. I met Kellan at a yoga studio in Burlington a few months back when he came to do one of my hot yoga classes. He had been to a few classes of mine before we started talking, and I learned that he is a hockey player. One conversation turned into another and I finally decided it was time to sit down for an interview so that he could share his story about his experience with hockey and yoga.
LP: How old were you when you started playing hockey?
KL: About 5 years old. I was a bit of a slow learner at first. You can tell by the home videos. I played house league the first couple of years and then I ended up with the little Blades in Oakville. I played rep in Oakville until I was 10 and then I went to the GTHL and played in Mississauga until I was 15 and then came back to Oakville.
LP: When were you first introduced to yoga?
KL: During university hockey, some kids on my team went to yoga but I was against it. I had really bad hips and an injured wrist and thought that any extra strain on my body would be too much. I struggled with my wrist for a very long time. There wasn’t a lot of strength in it and it would get tired really quickly so I didn’t want to practice hockey for 2 hours and then go do yoga. (Kellan suffered an upper body injury at 19 years old when a hockey blade sliced through his left wrist and cut through arteries which left permanent damage to his wrist and hand). I guess it started after my first year of pro. My sister introduced it to me and I was still hesitant because I had also suffered a hip injury during my first year of professional hockey for which I was receiving cortisol injections as well as a season ending wrist surgery on the right wrist during my second year pro, and wasn’t sure yoga was going to help but I decided to give it a shot.
LP: Describe your 1st yoga experience.
KL: It was hot yoga at a Moksha studio. It was so hot but I loved it. I came out of it feeling refreshed. My wrist was sore from doing all that stuff but I enjoyed it so much I thought that maybe it would be good for it and help strengthen it. So I did it again and kept doing it and slowly and slowly it got better and stronger and I was able to go further back (at this point Kellan is showing me the great range of motion in his left wrist which he did not have after his injury and prior to practicing yoga). My wrist was pretty stiff at first so that was kind of my first gain from yoga. It also gave me additional mobility in my hips that I would not get from my regular hockey training. Eventually I started substituting some of my workouts for yoga and started doing both just because the classes were strength based, kinda like yours :), so doing the strength with that type of mobility was good.
LP: How has yoga helped you?
KL: I wasn’t aware of what yoga really was. I thought I wasn’t going to get stronger by doing yoga and after the first class I was like holy that was hard. That was really hard. My legs were shaking the whole time. My shoulders were burning. I didn’t realize it would provide me strength so that is why I continued to do it. At first I was focused on the physical aspect of it, for my wrists and hips and my strength and then as I went more and more it became more mental. It was like the one hour a day I wasn’t thinking about hockey. I was doing something for me that was going to benefit in hockey but I wasn’t thinking about that. When I am in the gym and working out I am still thinking about hockey but when you are in yoga, you are so focused on doing that pose, or holding that pose that you don’t really think of anything else and I really wanted that because I needed that release from hockey. I really enjoyed the stress release from yoga while gaining all the other benefits from it.
LP: What’s your favourite yoga pose?
KL: Warrior poses. I feel like I am benefitting most when I am doing warrior. I can feel my legs getting stronger and can feel my groin. I just feel like my whole lower half is getting stronger and to me that translates to me getting faster and getting more mobile. It’s not like my most enjoyable pose but it’s the pose I am getting the most benefit from.
LP: How often do you practice yoga?
KL: I try to practice 2 sometimes 3 times a week in combination with my other physical training.
LP: What advice do you have for young hockey players and their approach to yoga?
KL: I would tell them to go into it with an open mind and be willing to learn. It is important to trust the process. You will realize how beneficial it can be.
While all sports can be very taxing on the physical body, hockey in particular, can create muscular imbalances, especially in the hips. Most people have musculoskeletal imbalances in their bodies as a result of habitual patterns of movement and if left unchecked, these imbalances can create structural inefficiencies, forcing parts of the body to work harder than they need to in order to compensate. Not only does this waste critical energy that can be better used in athletic performance, it also increases the risk of injury, either because the overworked parts of the body break down under strain or because the underused parts of the body fail to show up when they are called upon for duty. A regular yoga practice can help optimize structural efficiency, reducing the opportunity for injury while accelerating recovery after a hard practice or game. Players who practice yoga will notice improved endurance, speed, balance and accuracy in their skating. There are many ways yoga will improve a player’s performance on the ice:
1. Flexibility- the most obvious benefit of yoga is the stretching of the muscles which improve range and flexibility in an athlete’s limbs. The more mobile a player is, the better the performance will be on the ice.
2. Balance- standing postures in yoga will lend to better balance and a strengthened centre of gravity. This translates on to the ice not only for skating ability but when giving or receiving a body check. A better centre of gravity will help keep a player on their feet and less likely to become unsteady or shaken after a hit. Skaters already have to have a good sense of balance in order to stay up on thin blades of steel while holding a stick and moving a puck around the ice.
3. Strength- every skill a hockey player performs starts from the core. Almost every single yoga pose engages the core, which helps to continuously strengthen the centre of the body while also focusing on other muscles of the body. A typical vinyasa class can have anywhere from 10 to 50 planks in a 60-minute practice. Some maybe even more and this is only one of the many poses that would affect the core. Thinking that yoga is only good for stretching muscles is a gross misconception about any type of yoga out there.
4. Focus- a lot happens when the puck drops. The ability to stay clear minded, conscious of your body and aware of your physical surroundings will help any player stay on play and react quickly to changing plays. The spiritual aspect of yoga where the mind and body feel truly connected is the same sense that athletes feel when they are “in the zone”. If you have a practice that allows you to continually visit that place, it will come back easier on the ice. In your yoga practice, you have to be present- just like you have to be in a game setting situation. It helps you let go of the negative thoughts, and for example, if you’re still thinking about a past goal you’re going to get scored on again. You need to learn the art of letting go and focusing on the present moment. Yoga helps do this.
5. Injury Prevention and Recovery- It goes without saying that when a muscle becomes more flexible and joints become more mobile, there is less chance for injury to occur. The body becomes more agile and is able to perform at a higher level. Yoga also helps athletes get back on track after injury. Physical therapists and some doctors are now beginning to routinely prescribe yoga for chronic back and muscular pain. Players learn to be more aware of their body and can recognize the initial sensations of pain so that early action can be taken to reduce stress on the body. Let’s face it…an injured player ends up spending more time off the ice than on the ice and for any hockey player or coach, this is not a viable option for a successful season.
Dedication is probably one of the most valuable side effects of yoga. Dedication is the sum of determination and discipline. Just committing to a non-traditional training method such as yoga requires a degree of dedication. Improved flexibility, balance, strength and focus are elements which are maximized through dedication. This dedication is essential to yoga when it comes to holding poses, trying something new, and (my personal favourite) sticking with something even when it gets tough. These are all characteristics required of a successful hockey player, and, in my opinion, of a well-rounded and stable human being.
If you’re interested in yoga sessions for your hockey player, or hockey team, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. For group yoga classes, please visit my website at www.lisapisano.com under Teaching Schedule.
Until next time,
I would like to thank Kellan Lain for taking the time to answer all of my questions about yoga and hockey and giving me some insight into the NHL. I also appreciate the advice regarding my son and his hockey career ;). I look forward to seeing you in one of my classes real soon!!!