For Predrag ‘Preki’ Radosavljevic, it meant five extra years of professional football and an MLS player of the season award won at the age of 40.
Across the Atlantic, it gave Gareth Barry the confidence in his body to extend a successful career into the record books with more Premier League appearances than anyone else.
When Sharon Heidaripour’s dreams of playing football for Sweden were ruined by injury, it offered salvation and a new focus.
Mohamed Salah celebrated one of his most spectacular goals by copying one of its famous poses. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and even Antonio Conte are devotees.
In an age of marginal gains, when footballers are seeking ever more ways to boost their physical edge, yoga’s place in the game is bigger than ever.
The Athletic spoke to those who practice, teach and credit yoga for changing their lives on and off the pitch.
Playing for top Swedish club Jitex BK, based just outside Gothenburg, as an energetic right winger, Sharon Heidaripour’s life was consumed by football. Since she was a little girl she had wanted to be a professional.
It meant she pushed herself harder than was wise to return from a knee injury in time for a national-team training camp when she was 19.
“I had a week of double training sessions in the build-up and I was strapping it up, but one day it just went,” she recalls. “I had to be taken straight to hospital. It was an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and it was so bad that football ended for me.
“I lost part of my identity and went into a black hole.”
Yoga offered a way back.
Heidaripour moved to London, and between time there and back home in Gothenburg, realised she aspired to work in the game she still loved. If she couldn’t play it anymore, she would use her growing passion in the ancient Indian practice to help players thrive.
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After a degree in sports therapy at London Metropolitan University and a master’s in football rehabilitation, she went on to work at Premier League clubs Chelsea and Arsenal, treating both academy youngsters and first-team stars, before leaving to start her own business combining her two interests: Football Yoga.
“At Arsenal, we were getting players back safely ahead of schedule,” says Heidaripour, who although not teaching yoga at the club had started using some of its methods in her work. “Then it was mainly about treating injuries, but I felt there was a big gap between football medicine and science and a more holistic way of helping players.”
Her private yoga practice, which attracted clients such as Arsenal trio Robert Pires, Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny, was expanding, but when she pushed for bringing more of that into her role at the Emirates, she hit a brick wall.
She left in 2015 for a year of self-funded study working with players, managers — even agents and journalists — around the world. She deepened her yoga study in Mexico and spent an eye-opening period at Costa Rican top-flight club Deportivo Saprissa, where players were returning from ACL injuries in half the nine months it tends to take in Europe.
“It was a case of mindset,” Heidaripour says. “There is so much positivity in Costa Rica. The sun is always shining and the injured players would go about things with a smile, and such a positive mindset.
“Yoga really helps that and you need to treat footballers’ bodies, minds and emotions in equal measure.”
One of the first things she addresses with players as they work through yoga poses is their breathing.
Sharon Heidaripour working with Yunus Musah of Valencia and the US national team (Photo: Sharon Heidaripour)
“Most people don’t breathe properly,” she explains, “their breath is too shallow. Footballers are no exception.
“Through yoga and mindfulness, you can train your breath. That breathing from the belly and diaphragm really helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (a network of nerves that relaxes the body after periods of stress or danger, and helps run life-sustaining processes, such as digestion, during times when you feel safe and relaxed).”
Heidaripour returned to the UK and her Premier League clients with a new level of insight as Football Yoga took off. It meant she was able to help when France international Koscielny suffered a devastating injury playing for Arsenal just weeks before the 2018 World Cup.
“He ruptured a tendon in his Achilles during a Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid,” she says. “It was in May and it meant he would miss going to Russia (host of that World Cup, which France won), so it was devastating for him and his family.
“But he is a strong, humble, hard-working athlete and after his surgery, when he could manage it, we started back with yoga after training. It was just two or three sessions a week, so as not to overload his Achilles. Breathing techniques helped him heal from within, mentally, because it’s a long and lonely process.
“He’d be going to the training ground but he couldn’t join in with his team-mates. There’s boredom and a lot of frustration but yoga helped him stay calm and have the mindset to come back stronger. How you feel emotionally during that time has a real effect on how you come back.
“Players are human beings who have lives like ours that can be affected by family sickness, bereavement and other problems. That inner calm, finding your centre, is very important.”
Four years on, Heidaripour’s ambition for spreading the healing power of yoga has not dimmed.
“I want to change the football world,” she says. “My aim is for more academies, in Europe and the US, to incorporate yoga into their players’ schedules.
“When you’re a young footballer, you can feel indestructible. You’re naturally less stiff and heal quickly. But if you get those yoga principles early, they will pay off massively. When they’re growing, young players can still have imbalances in pelvic and hip areas. If they kick more with one leg, it can create an imbalance and yoga addresses that.”
Heidaripour, who has now moved back to Sweden, employs a UK-based coach who can conduct group or one-to-one sessions and she designs Zoom sessions or videos that players can use either at the training ground or at home.
“Yoga works for injury prevention as well as rehab,” she says. “When a player is recovering from an injury they often have a physio assigned to them who they’ll work exclusively with, but when they finish and rejoin the squad, they go back to normal training and that extra work isn’t always there.
“When you come back you still need to do post-rehab for the next 18 months, ideally, to prevent it from recurring.
“The most common way players describe feeling after a session is ‘free’. My vision has always been to bring that to academies, first of all. It can become a tool for them to use as and when they need it in life — being able to find their centre and calm.
“Considering how so many players struggle when they’re released by clubs it would really help.”
For Preki, the former Everton and Portsmouth midfielder, yoga came late — but still led him to a career twilight he could not have predicted when he was considering retirement aged 38.
The Serbian was playing in MLS then for Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City), where he had already won a league MVP (Most Valuable Player) award in 1997 but felt his body was winding down as he neared the end of the 2001 season.
“One day I came home from training and told my wife, ‘I’m done’,” he recalls. “It was taking me two days to recover from a hard training session. This was September and the season was finishing in October. She suggested I try yoga and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’. I looked at her funny but I decided to try it and see where it takes me.
“The first time I went, I wanted to cry after 20 minutes. I was the only guy there with all these ladies who could do amazing things with their bodies and I’m there shaking in the corner.
“I wanted to leave but I’m stubborn and after the session, I showered and just felt lighter. I started going three times a week and the impact on me was magnificent.
“By the time the next pre-season came, I was training twice a day and I felt 22 again.”
A 40-year-old Preki, right, during the 2003 MLS All-Star game with actor/comedian Drew Carey (Photo: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Preki would go on to play another four years in MLS and was named the league’s MVP again in 2003.
“Football is about what you do off the pitch,” he says. “I wish I’d started when I was younger. When you have that flexibility you feel like you can do anything.
“People couldn’t get over the change in me. I’d play on a Saturday, rest Sunday, do a hard yoga session Monday then another on Wednesday. Yoga is tough, though. Some of my team-mates tried it and just gave up.
“After a 90-minute class, you’re sweating twice as much as you do in training. You are holding poses for 45 seconds and as men we can be stiff in the hips, so it hurts.”
Preki, now 59 and an assistant coach in MLS at Seattle Sounders, says traditional football training shortens and develops muscles, while yoga lengthens and elasticates them: “I think the game will get even quicker in the future if young players adopt yoga in their routine.”
Gareth Barry enjoyed similar longevity in the Premier League.
The 53-cap England international midfielder began yoga while at Aston Villa and continued while winning the 2011-12 Premier League title at Manchester City and in spells with Everton and West Bromwich Albion.
“My career started at a transition period for sports science,” Barry tells The Athletic. “The choice was, ‘Stick to what you’ve always done or try new things along the way’, and I would give anything a go.
Gareth Barry, left, vies with Paul Pogba in his Everton days (Photo credit: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)
“It certainly helped towards the end of my career, but I was doing it from my late 20s (Barry retired aged 39 in 2020 after a record 653 Premier League appearances).
“At the end, at West Brom, I was still doing it once or twice a week and they tried to use me as an example to get the young lads involved. Some would try and like it, others would trickle out, but that’s often the way.
“Footballers are superstitious and if you try a session and have a good game after you’ll stick with it, or vice versa.”
Considered an immaculate professional, Barry would start stretching with yoga poses at home on a matchday before linking up with the squad.
“It educates you on your body and what you can get out of it,” he says. “I’d do my own bits and incorporate it into my routine before kick-off. Then classes in the week would let you have that calm moment at the end when you breathe and get your head space right.”
Nedum Onuoha is another former Manchester City player who bought into the value of yoga — and the similar but more intense pilates, too.
“It was Ryan Giggs (who played to age 40 in the Premier League for Manchester United) that put it into the mainstream for me,” Onuoha says. “How it prolonged his career was remarkable and it was the start of a new level of preparation for players.
“Instead of turning up for 10am training at 9:55 and leaving at 12pm, players began to do the extras, like yoga and pilates.
“It makes you more robust and flexible. I started at City and then carried on at Sunderland; you were encouraged to do it.
Nedum Onuoha of Sunderland shields the ball from Everton’s Steven Pienaar (Photo: Graham Stuart/AFP via Getty Images)
“Hopefully because of that, players now will be leaving the game in better physical shape than they have in the past. Think about Masters Football — it used to be players who are 35 involved and by that standard, players who do yoga, like Cristiano Ronaldo, would be in his fourth season on the circuit.
“Doing things like that used to get you called ‘busy’, but it’s gone from being busy to being professional. It’s come a long way from the early days when you’d have one player doing yoga stretches but trying to make sure nobody saw them.”
Sheila McVitty is a yoga teacher who has worked at a string of clubs in the north west of England, including Everton, Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers and the Manchester United women’s side. For her, the quiet yoga revolution shows no sign of abating.
“I’m seeing that younger players at academies are already doing yoga at school, even before they encounter it at football, now,” McVitty says. “That’s brilliant, because they understand the benefits early and appreciate how it helps their well-being.
“If you are a footballer, you are usually training a lot in a linear way — running et cetera. It means their hamstrings can be very tight, their quadriceps (thigh muscles) may become dominant and that can cause issues, so you are trying to help that.
“It’s about easing restrictions that come with the sport. I work with ballet dancers too and although it’s very different, they’re often hyper-flexible, you’re essentially still helping work on their restrictions. With dancers, in a way you’re trying to rein them in and improve stability so they’re not over-flexible and their joints are destabilised. Footballers sometimes need to find more flexibility.”
Like Preki, she is familiar with a common sentiment when it comes to players getting on the yoga mat.
“If I had a pound for every coach or ex-player who says they wish they had done it more during their careers, I’d be rich.”
(Main graphic designed by Eamonn Dalton)
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