Enlightened Warrior

According to a 2008 market study done by Yoga Journal, the majority of the estimated 18 million yoga practitioners in North America are women. That’s nothing that would make heads turn, unless you’re checking out fit girls in their lululemon pants at the gym. It’s also well-established that the most prevalent ideas that permeate yoga culture are the notions of peace, love and other hippie thoughts. With this in mind, a decision to incorporate yoga into an MMA fighter’s routine may seem like a long shot. Yet even from the very beginning of mixed martial arts competition, there has been a dedicated segment comprising some of the most recognizable names—among them Rickson Gracie, Murilo Bustamante, Vitor Belfort, Diego Sanchez, all of whom are practitioners of yoga.

There are physical benefi ts to be found in yoga that can help almost any athlete improve his game. If employed properly, the hidden power is there to be harnessed. However, there is still a lot that must be explained for fighters to understand how they can adapt yoga to their training to make specific gains.

I remember sitting around with my college roommates back in 2005, watching that pivotal fi rst season of The Ultimate Fighter. One memory from that period transcended time. Even now, years later, I can still smell the fear that my roommates would emit at the sight of Diego “The Nightmare” Sanchez on television. Partially frozen, partially in awe, they could not fathom the mentality and mind-set that allowed Diego to beat every opponent he faced and emerge as the show’s champion.

Early in Diego’s career, when he was 3-0, he saw the Rickson Gracie documentary Choke, a fi lm that heavily influenced him and opened his eyes to the potential that lied within him: “That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, I can do it. I can go undefeated. I can be the champ.’ And I just took that and said, ‘This guy could do it, [so] I can do it.’ ” He went on a run by telling himself, “You must believe in order to achieve,” racking up consecutive victory after victory.

There was, however, a steady attrition visited on his body from the daily rigors of training. Sanchez had conditioned his body to deliver his weapons on target, but he suffered from chronic pain and persistent injuries that would impede his ability to give his best. “I couldn’t run because I had very deep pain in my hip and my left whole hip was tightened up into a ball,” he explains of his physical condition. “It was throwing my lower back out of whack. It was throwing my shoulders out of whack.”

Indirectly, Rickson Gracie’s influence helped lead Sanchez to an answer. “I actually saw a picture of him doing a yoga pose—and it said, ‘Yoga enthusiast: Rickson Gracie.’ ” The idea so inspired Diego that he branched out from his normal MMA training and began to take daily yoga classes at his gym.

Sandy LeBlanc has begun to open up those training in MMA to the benefits of yoga at Xtreme Couture Toronto, where she teaches. “I like to be optimistic and think that this can be the next secret advantage that MMA fighters could incorporate into their training,” she says. Any kind of stretching can help prevent injuries, but yoga provides additional pluses in terms of increasing flexibility, core strength, endurance and breath control.

“When you’re deep in an asana or a pose—say it’s a lunge pose, and you can just be hanging out there and getting a huge benefit from the stretch, you start to think of contracting the muscles—the opposite muscles of your legs. You’re getting a great strengthening effect as well, which is in effect a resistance stretch,” Sandy explains. Trying to relate improved core flexibility to fighting also sparks Sandy’s interest. “It’s not just how much you can stretch a muscle—but how much you can stretch and have elasticity to come back. So think about how that translates to reflex and speed that they need in their punches and kicks.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson that can be learned from yoga is the concept of Pranayama, which is Sanskrit for “breathing control.” The conscious effort to regulate breathing is what truly distinguishes yoga from other stretching activities. Without it, your practice is simple gymnastics.

“We try to do every movement with an even inhale and an even exhale, with control,” Sandy says. “What I’ve seen in five months of watching UFC champions fight, and watching these guys work out here, is that they get really tired. And I think any fighter would say they don’t want to deal with fatigue until they’re done with round 5.”

Orlando Cani, the man who taught Rickson Gracie yoga, was also quick to stress the improved cardio that can be developed from practicing breathing techniques. In a 2001 interview with Japanese MMA magazine Gong Kakutougi Plus, he describes his goal: “I try to balance the emotion[s] of the fighter, breathing correctly to balance his physical and emotional energy, concentrating him only in the fight.”

According to the article, Rickson trained with Orlando from 1986 until 1988, learning yoga and developing his breathing, concentration and what Cani called his “Corporal Consciousness”: “When you fight a great opponent you make mistakes, and you get some damage, too. Rickson has a prompt ability to recover when he fails.”

Sandy freely admits that the potential of yoga for fighters is merely theoretical. Orlando backs this viewpoint by explaining that it really comes down to the individual. When Marco Ruas came to him for instruction, he learned from Cani. “He was prepared. But he never used what I taught in his fights,” he says. Orlando also maintains that Rickson was “special” among his students.

Wallid Ismail, who studied with Cani, credits yoga for helping him defeat Royce Gracie in a 1998 jiu-jitsu match. “I was relaxed doing yoga, and this gave me the equilibrium to fight well,” he says. The type of yoga practiced by brothers Xande and Saulo Ribeiro—two of the most highly decorated and best-known jiu-jitsu champions in the world—is called Ginastica Natural, which is taught by Alvaro Romano (though Orlando Cani would dispute who actually created it). It involves jiu-jitsu movements, breathing techniques, and, most importantly, poses from Hatha yoga.

Yoga has helped the best of the best at the highest levels of MMA and jiu-jitsu competitions. But will it become more widespread among MMA training routines designed for those who just want to participate rather than blaze a path to titles and championships? From speaking with the various boxing, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu instructors at Xtreme Couture, Sandy sees its potential. “Intellectually, they get it. And they’ve been to my class, and they like it, and they see the opportunity.” Benefi ts aside, the reception to implementing yoga as a part of regular MMA classes seems lukewarm.

Bridging the gap between theory and practice becomes even harder due to the commitment required by MMA training. Students have a hard time dealing with 3-to-4-hour training sessions. Will they really tack on an extra hour of yoga into their schedules when another hour spent rolling or hitting the pads would have a much more direct impact on their MMA skills?

The other hurdle that stands in the way is the perception of yoga. It isn’t viewed as a very difficult activity—a point that anyone who completes an Ashtanga class will readily dispute. Our society has also misconstrued the values of yoga to fit the market-driven agenda in North America; it has become more and more about dollar signs rather than the search for the true self.

Diego takes no mind to any distractions, and believes that while doing yoga might have been off-limits five years ago, it isn’t taboo anymore: “It’s not rocket science. If you’re tight, you’re not going to be able to do a move, you know? You can if you’re flexible,” he says. Can guys find incentive by meeting girls in yoga? When asked if he’s ever met any women though yoga, Diego quickly dumps on this marketing angle. “No. I got a girlfriend, and she does the yoga with me.”

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