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February 24, 2016

What I Wish I Had Known about Yoga When I Was a College Athlete.

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Editor’s Note: This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to, provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional about health care changes before trying out new home therapies.

As a kid growing up in Sibenik, Croatia, the home of Drazen Petrovic, there was only one thing I wanted to be: a famous WNBA player.

To achieve my dream, I spent countless hours practicing and playing hoops around my neighborhood. Thanks to the support of my family and the guidance of great coaching staff, I was getting good at it and I received the opportunity to play college basketball at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I was ecstatic! I thought I was on my way to WNBA.

A year later, I tore my ACL. I was crushed.

My recovery was long and painful. I spent a year in physical therapy and another year getting back in shape. I did not know about yoga at that time, but had I known about it, I believe that my recovery process would have been less painful and probably much shorter.

The main focus of my physical therapy was to strengthen my quadriceps to stabilize and protect my knee in the future. In the midst of leg lifts, curls, and presses, I had plenty of time to think: I knew that there was something more I needed to learn from this experience.

I finished my college basketball career in 2006. I did not become a famous WNBA player, but I met some of the most important people in my life during those years. I also received my college degree. After my basketball career ended, I started attending fitness classes to keep myself in shape. One of the classes on the schedule at the gym was yoga. I’d never tried yoga before and all I knew was that yoga was good for stretching and flexibility. Because my knee desperately needed consistent and quality stretching, I decided to enroll in yoga class twice a week.

The first few classes felt a bit slow probably because I was used to constant movement and physical challenge. But there was something soothing and calming about yoga that kept me coming back. Most importantly, my knee needed it.

After a few weeks, I noticed that it wasn’t only my knee that needed care. In fact, for the first time in my life, I started paying attention to my body. This was quite the revelation to me. Even though my whole life revolved around using my body to play basketball, I never gave body awareness much thought.

I started observing how each muscle in my body felt as I moved through yoga poses. I fell in love with Pigeon Pose, which finally opened my tight hips. There was a lot that I sheltered in those hips: all the pain I fought during my knee recovery. And it wasn’t just the physical pain. I finally noticed when my shoulders were tight, when my knee was extra sore, or my back needed a deeper stretch. I even noticed if I was upset or happy.

Wow! What was happening? Had I been observer of my body before, could I have avoided my knee injury?

All of the sudden, I had lots of questions. I felt cheated for not knowing about yoga before.

After several years of practicing yoga, I decided to enroll in yoga teacher training. I felt like I needed to know more about this practice that prompted so many questions in my own life. Several days into the training, I started learning about proper breathing techniques and Pranayama exercises for clearing one’s mind, energizing the body and focusing. What? There is a proper way to breathe?

I was mesmerized by all of this information. I wanted to soak it all up as fast as possible. I thought back to my basketball days and how useful this information would have been for me and my athlete friends. These are powerful methods that go way beyond the simple visualization exercises that I learned about as an athlete.

Yoga offers physical benefits such as improved strength, balance, flexibility (to name just a few), and these can greatly enhance every athlete’s performance.

It wasn’t until years after my injury that I finally found meaning in tearing my ACL. In fact, it was my knee injury that brought me to yoga. Perhaps my injury could have been prevented had I known more about these powerful yoga teachings and techniques. While some research has been done on this topic, the jury is still out on this one. Regardless, I know for sure that I would have been more aware of my body, breath and how I felt, and I would perhaps have recognized some of the warning signs. But it wasn’t meant to happen that way for me.

Although I wish yoga crossed my path earlier in life, the bad experience disguised as a knee injury opened doors to the powerful knowledge that I can now share with others.

Because of this injury, today I am an avid practitioner of paying attention to every moment and movement. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “What seem to us bitter trials are often blessings in disguise. This seems to me a blessing of an extremely obvious kind. ”

~

Author: Matea Pender

Editor: Caitlin Oriel

Photos: Author’s Own

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Matea Pender