If you thought that the fastest-growing sport in the world was an individual pursuit that demanded strength, flexibility, and concentration, and it entailed sweat-soaked bodies being contorted into awkward positions, you would be exactly right.
If you think we were talking about MMA, you’re dead wrong.
Yoga is experiencing the most rapid growth in participation of any physical activity in the U.S. According to research published by MRI, the number of yoga participants in 2001 was 4.5 million. By 2011 that number jumped to 14.5 million(1). At least a few of those participants are UFC fighters.
“I like it because I know I am absolutely the toughest guy in my yoga class. There is no one in my yoga class who can take me. Well, almost nobody,” laughs UFC middleweight contender Nick Ring.
Like all fighters, and most elite athletes in any type of sport, Ring must constantly balance his training with adequate recovery time. The high-impact nature of sprinting, sparring, and weight training place a massive amount of stress on the joints, muscles, and central nervous system of an athlete. A “more is better” approach will inevitably drag a fighter into a nasty spiral of overtraining and injury. So how does a fighter continue down the highway when he has to give his engine and tires a rest? This is where yoga comes in.
“Yoga can be that extra workout. It has a strength component but it doesn’t have that breakdown affect that weightlifting or speed training has on the body,” says Andy Hennebelle, NASM-CPT, CSCS, USAW, a strength coach at the UFC Gym in Corona, Calif.
“It is a way for me to work out but it is not really a workout,” says Ring, who meets Costa Philippou at UFC 154 on November 17 at the Bell Centre, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. “It doesn’t break me down. It gets me limber and it is something that is not beating the hell out of my body. After I leave a yoga class I feel rejuvenated.”
Ring practices Bikram yoga, commonly known as “hot yoga,” where participants perform a series of poses in a room that is heated to 105 degrees. For his fight against Court McGee at UFC 149, the unorthodox Ring chose to cut weight at the yoga studio instead of suffering in a sauna or sweating it out on a treadmill. He took a 75-minute yoga class and a few hours later stepped on the scale at exactly 185 pounds.
“I was going to be fighting 24 hours later so it was an excellent chance to put all the chatter out of my mind,” says Ring. “I could visualize the fight and what was going to happen. I gave myself that mental peace. That was a great way to cut weight. I know exactly what I am going to be doing in Montreal [at UFC 154] when I am cutting weight.”
Ring isn’t unique when it comes to experiencing the profound relaxation that yoga offers. Countless studies have shown that even short-term yoga practice helps diminish stress factors that contribute to a wide variety of chronic diseases. Athletes may benefit from yoga’s health-promoting powers even more than the middle-aged accountant who is looking to knock a few points off of his cholesterol numbers.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine(2) showed that subjects who incorporated yoga into their life reduced levels of circulating cortisol after just 10 days. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is like Kryptonite to fighters; it breaks down muscle, suppresses the immune system, and promotes the storage of body fat. Another study(3) showed that just one single yoga class significantly reduced the muscle soreness that results from intense exercise.
“Attendance is growing more and more in the yoga classes at UFC Gym” says Hennebelle, who often teaches the yoga class at the Corona location himself. “I work with up to 30 members a week and I drive them into those classes. That is part of their homework.”
Whether athletes appreciate the art for its peaceful zen factor or its unique blend of lengthening and strengthening muscles with no cost to their stress equity, yoga seems to be that missing piece of their regimen. After all, who couldn’t benefit from an hour of stretching tight hamstrings and clearing out some mental clutter?
“As an athlete you have to be finding different ways of moving your body and keeping yourself loose and limber. Yoga is a good avenue for that,” says Ring. “And besides that, there’s a lot of girls.”
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