“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”
– The Bhagavad Gita
Competitive, angry, fired-up, aggressive… Only a few words that described my behavior on the soccer field. As a young professional soccer player, I constantly used the motivation of my coaches and the daily challenges of training as a sort of battle that I had to conquer each and every time I stepped foot on the field. “Hard work,” “giving it all you got,” and “no pain, no gain” were all motto’s I lived my life by. The character traits described above were the foundation of my being that presumably placed me in the elite category of a scholarship athlete and eventually earned me a professional contract! With no major consequence thus far, I was determined to keep “grinding”, “fighting”, and ultimately driving my body and mind to its ultimate limits.
Nevertheless, we all have a moment in life that humbles us and we can either travel down the same road towards destruction or we are forced to reconsider everything we thought we once knew about right living. For me, this moment came after what was said to be possibly the most successful season of my career yet! As a 25-year-old professional that just ended my 3rd full season, “grinding” had finally got the best of me.
My ankles were the size of tennis balls due to swelling, my groins were in constant pain, and walking up and down stairs caused sharp sensation under my knees due to chronic tendonitis. Not to mention, what was considered my “greatest season yet” still wasn’t good enough for me. I was already anxious about my next contract, still exercising to failure even just two days after the completion of a 10-month season, and completely depleted in every way. On the outside, my body looked healthy, strong, and full of lean muscle. On the inside I was absolutely rinsed of anything I had left. The problem was I would never allow myself to sit still long enough to even recognize the internal and external pain and suffering I was experiencing. In a time where I should have felt extreme accomplishment and happiness I was left empty inside. The bright side to this seemingly “dark” situation forced me to seek “light.” The “light” that I discovered was Yoga!
Like many, my discovery was self-serving to rep all of the physical benefits I could get. Yoga is all about flexibility right!? Yoga is about stretching and pushing the body to new limits (something I knew all about, or so I thought). My girlfriend at the time (now wife) happened to be finishing up her Yoga Teacher Training course and now I was at the mercy of her teaching… I was determined to stay on the surface level and stretch the crap out of my body until all my pain would go away! Boy was I wrong.
We started our first session together and right away I found myself sitting in something called “easy pose” but quickly realized it was not so “easy” for me. With my knees creeping almost all the way to my ears because of the tension existing in my hips it became clear that this experience would be like nothing I had ever experienced before! We began class by setting an intention for our practice. From there I was asked to move my focus to the breath and slowly begin internally scanning my body. It only took a few moments for me to notice I had pain and tension everywhere! Attempting to sit with my legs crossed was unbearable for my hips and I remember feeling embarrassed by that! As we began the practice I realized that every single pose caused some sort of burning or intense sensation in at least one part of my body. My shoulders were burning, my legs were wobbling and my mind was everywhere except on my intention. Finally, what was considered to be the most “relaxing” part of practice, savasana, was the hardest! I was given instruction to lay on my back, close my eyes, release myself of tension, and let go. In that 5-10 minutes I noticed the constant chatter of my mind. Thinking about things like what I had done the day before all the way to anxiously considering my future and where my next contract would be coming from. Finally, I was brought out of this “savasana” and I can still picture my thoughts in that moment. As an athlete, I was instantly defeated by what I considered to be an awful “performance” and all the while intrigued. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of a 5-year journey that I am still currently exploring to this day.
To keep on the storyline, my offseason comprised of 2-3 yoga sessions a week. With the discipline I had for sports, I noticed the consistency of practice paid off in massive dividends. Returning to pre-season camp to start my next season was one of the most memorable experiences to date, as my body was almost completely rid of pain, my mind was free of clutter, and I was able to “let go” of mental and emotional feelings that were not serving me on the soccer pitch! These were all firsts for me that set me apart from many of the other players.
As yoga enters its thousands of years in existence, it is only fitting that elite level athletes begin to look deeper into why this ancient practice has stood the test of time. You don’t have to look far within professional sports to see Yoga’s widespread popularity. In soccer alone, players like Brad Friedel and Ryan Giggs played at the highest level into their 40’s and credit much of their longevity to Yoga.
To put the benefits a little more visibly, here are some key points that make yoga suitable for not just soccer players, but everyone:
- Improves posture
- Increases body awareness
- Increases flexibility
- Increases balance
- Increases proprioception of the joints
To separate some overlooked benefits beyond the physical realm:
- Increased focus
- Increased mental clarity
- Ability to detach from negative feelings/emotions
- Brings intention, purpose, and motivation to life
Experiencing first-hand the magnitude of complementary benefits that yoga had on my life as a professional player, I carried these physical, mental, and emotional lessons with me to my next chapter in life. As the Strength Coach and Head Athletic Trainer of a Professional soccer team, you can only guess that I recommended each player practice yoga. Furthermore, I would use many of the same poses I learned in yoga for team warm-ups and cool downs.
Examples of our go-to poses:
- Low lunge (Hip Flexor group)
- Pigeon (Glutes/abductors)
- Cat/Cow (Back)
- Downward Dog (Hamstrings/Calves/Achilles tendon)
With the growing popularity of yoga in Western culture, you do not have to go far to find a yoga studio that will offer a myriad of classes that will fit the mold of where you are at within your training regimen. Beyond that, you are able to take your practice outside of yoga studios and simply focus on the breathing techniques and physical poses that complement you best.
As we enter a world where technology is at its greatest heights with all types of gadgets, gizmos, and “groundbreaking” training methods, you can simply look towards one of the oldest practices known to man for a great complement to your team sport or life! Not only will you find the immediate benefits from a single session, you will also have the lasting mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits that go along with being a “yogi” as they call it.
Fast-forward a few more years and my journey has continued beyond the world of Professional Soccer! Practicing Yoga has awoken me to the limitless potential for one to live their purpose in life! The teachings/practice alone has inspired me to share yoga to the community in the creation of Axis Yoga + Studio. In partnering with two incredibly humble and passionate individuals at Axis Fitness + Training (Mike Barnhart & Britt DeLoreto), Axis Yoga + Studio is offering a perfect physical/mental/spiritual health complement to their Strength training. Furthermore, we are able to live out our mission: “To inspire, through the practice of yoga, an awakening of the limitless potential in each of us to Love Unconditionally.” May your yoga practice bring you as much joy, clarity, and peace as it has for me and may we continue to…
Troy Cole- ATC, PES, CSCS, After 8 seasons of Professional Soccer, Troy went on to become the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach/Head Athletic Trainer for the Wilmington Hammerheads of USL Pro. He is currently owner of Axis Yoga + Studio, a strength coach at Axis Fitness + Training, and attaining his RYT200 under the YUJI Yoga Academy founded by his wife and teacher, Macy Cole.