How Hot Yoga Can Make You A Better Athlete and A Better Performer


- By Wade Helliwell, former international professional basketball player, yoga teacher and co-owner of Sweat Yoga NYC

Within the current health and wellness trend and the myriad of workout offerings available through boutique and big corporate gyms, our daily workout routines can approach those of professional athletes striving to reach their peak performance. For most athletes this means a combination
of strength, stamina, flexibility, balance and agility.

After completing a 15-year professional basketball career that saw me play in 4 out of 5 continents and square off against Team USA at the 2016 FIBA World Championships, stumbling onto the practice of Yoga was both familiar and yet enlightening. While searching for a low-impact alternative to the years of punishment that professional sports place on your body – the discovery of yoga was the discovery of a complete package that encompassed the best lessons learnt from the elite of strength and conditioning coaches, sports psychologists and experience on the world stage.


The practice of yoga pits your bodyweight against gravity, your muscle elasticity against the compressive strength of your bones and engages the very “it” word “torque strength” within your joints. Torque literally takes up all the extra slack in our joint capsules, ensuring that your joints are in the most stable positions possible. Stability transfers the most power; and more power means better athletic performance!

Put simply, the shapes that are created during a vinyasa practice place your body at the borderline of its abilities, in a dynamic way, within a controlled environment. When we are looking at gains in any area of fitness we accomplish them by playing around our limits. When lifting weights we attempt to reach ultimate failure, for stamina it’s pushing past your body’s signals of fatigue, agility and balance we put ourselves off balance and seek recovery.

Most physical practices create strength in contraction, when we flex our biceps and they shorten! In Yoga we create strength in elongation. It becomes the perfect counter to all traditional training techniques in the athletic space. Yoga opens your body up, allows you to be strong while fully extended, in the air or off balance; carrying only your body weight, simulating the positions of any dynamic activity.

…Of the Breath
At Sweat Yoga we teach a practice that links your movement to your breath; however we invite you to Find YOUR Flow by allowing you time to move at your pace. Each movement timed to your breath length; by giving you the freedom to move at your pace, you are now taking full inhales and full exhales without the restriction of keeping time with an instructor or classroom. This progression in the practice means you are never coasting or stretching beyond your limit; instead, you are increasing your lung capacity and ability for oxygen uptake, all the while enhanced by the relatively restrictive atmosphere of the hot room. You could liken it to altitude training or atmospheric training without the travel or specialty equipment cost. Before I found yoga I practiced 4-6 hours a day but never the breath, the fuel that fires the engine of our bodies. For any serious athlete I assimilate that to trying to build a Ferrari with a golf cart for an engine.

…Of the Mind
Not only does the practice of yoga activate your body, it encourages mindfulness through the linking of breath. Being present while on a yoga mat is part of the teachings and it’s exemplified by the moving mediation we create at Sweat. Who hasn’t taken a class where you’ve heard take “the yoga off the mat”. Through calmness of breath during our intense long holds, or the rapid heart rate created by our dynamic vinyasa, we find a calm mind while under duress. When it’s time to take the last second shot, kick the winning field goal or crush your marketing presentation, come back to your practice, come back to your breath, Find YOUR flow and nail it.

Within the 40 or so most commonly used asana, balance plays a major role. Not only the obvious one-legged tree pose, balancing half moon or warrior 3, but with proper engagement we are constantly working the muscles of the feet, ankles, legs and core. Creating a posture from the ground up engages all the stabilizer muscles that can bring you back to equilibrium no matter the contortion of your body; whether that be on your mat, leaping for a touchdown pass or stretching for that return of serve.

…Of the Breath
The common proverb dished out when anxiety takes hold is “Take a breath”. Pranayama or the practice of breathing is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga. Balance of the breath is the balance of the body and mind. When we find balance of breath we send signals to our body that everything is ok, we still
the evolutionary fight or flight response, our mind clams, our muscles relax, and we are able to explore a depth of flexibility and range of motion previously blocked by the chaos of constant interactions and stimuli. Through a greater range of motion and flexibility we can stave off injury and keep ourselves performing at our peaks.

…Of the Mind
Diving deeper into the teachings of yoga I liken the formalization of the traditional practice to the formation of many other belief systems that were evolving around these times. Be that Yoga, mainstream religions, Buddhism or Tao. The yoga text book or Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled sometime prior to 400 CE could be one of the most progressive writings of all time. Aiming to formalize a path to enlightenment, my take on which is true lasting happiness. It spells out that we can get there through the practice of yoga, through belief in a higher power, through the use of our own intelligence or even just be handed it by your own version of god. Viewing these ideas with a balance of mind and the agility to avoid becoming stuck in one belief or process, it’s incredible to see such a
description of modern society at large within an ancient text. In any high- pressure field, whether that’s literally a sports field, or achieving KPI’s or sales quotas, the pressures are sure to result in some ups and downs.

My own experience of championships and wooden spoons over 15 professional basketball seasons, is that when life is on a positive trajectory, when we are without worry and truly happy, that’s when we perform at our best, no matter the endeavor.

About Sweat Yoga

Sweat Yoga teaches a progressive practice in the heat with bumping music and dimly lit mood lighting. Their teachers deliver classes on a peer to peer level, inviting students to own their own practice and develop a movement by the way it feels within. They break down some of the traditionally intimidating barriers to beginning a yoga practice while not stripping the practice of its spiritual relevance, but letting you as a student decide where that may take you. Yoga the Sweat way is about community and coming together. Come rock out a flow with Sweat Yoga!

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