Athletic recovery specialist Jason Papalio explains how he coaches players in yoga and meditation to help them on and off the court. He notes a trend of players at all sports levels reaping benefits from the ancient discipline.
Players in the NHL, NBA, and NCAA basketball conferences race up and down the ice or court at dizzying speeds. But while these professionals have mastered the craft of blocking the frenzied offense of their opponents, many have limited success after the game in blocking out distractions from their minds and their environments.
Athletes trying to sleep after a grueling professional competition often learn quickly that using alcohol or eating late dinners is not conducive to a good night’s rest. Whether due to practices, games, travel, or rehabilitation, athletes sometimes find it difficult to “leave the game back at the arena” and sleep, even when they acknowledge that inadequate rest can set them up for poor play or even injury. For these reasons, more and more athletes are adding yoga to their training schedules as a way to improve their game and their sleep.
Yoga has been practiced for around 5,000 years, according to the International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health.1 A national survey found that over 55% of yoga participants reported improved sleep and over 85% reported reduced stress.2 These results, coupled with better flexibility and improved immune systems, are important to athletes and are a reason several teams consider a yoga or recovery specialist an important member of their coaching team.
I had the pleasure to speak with Jason Papalio, one such yoga and recovery instructor. Papalio is a coach with many different teams. He has worked with several Division 1 college teams as well as with professional athletes such as the New York Cosmos soccer club. He has received high praise from several coaches who saw vast improvements, including reduced stress and relaxation management (which leads to better sleep), in their players.
I spoke with Papalio on the same day that I spoke to the Lutheran High (LUHI) School basketball team in Long Island, NY, (a team Papalio works with) about the importance of sleep. The LUHI squad is nationally ranked, and recovery coaches such as Coach Papalio may be one reason for its success. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Brendan Duffy (BD): How can yoga improve sleep for athletes?
Jason Papalio: Yoga calms the mind and relieves tension in the body. Because athletes are used to being fast-paced/go, go, go/Type A—it is often difficult for them to slow down. Yoga also helps an athlete’s rest, recovery, rejuvenation, and regeneration. With just a few relaxing poses—Child’s Pose or Legs-Up-the-Wall—before bed, yoga can lead to a good night’s sleep. All it takes is a few minutes.
Sleep is important to all human beings, and especially to athletes. Athletes who are not able to get enough sleep will experience a number of negative effects including injuries, reduced immune defense, weight gain, mood disturbance, increased anxiety/depression, inability to maintain focus/concentration, and decreased motor control.
BD: What is “mindfulness”?
Papalio: Mindfulness is defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”3 A mindful athlete is able to remain totally present in the moment, which can be linked to enhanced performance. To be able to divorce yourself from what just happened (a referee’s bad call or an issue that goes on internally or against your opponent) is a huge competitive advantage.
BD: I imagine that mindfulness would then be a major help in trying to calm your mind before sleeping?
Papalio: Yes definitely—freeing up the many outside thoughts and learning to focus in the moment and on your breathing make it an easier task to drift off to sleep.
BD: Is mindfulness the same as meditation?
Papalio: Mindfulness is one form of meditation. It is actually just being aware and mindful of things, such as concentrating on one’s breathing (or in other words, conscious breathing). Mindfulness and meditation work hand in hand. Meditation helps you to become more mindful and think clearly as you work through the clutter of your mind. Athletes who consistently practice meditation can help their bodies to recover quicker from training, racing, and even injury. Recovery time from many common sports injuries can be reduced. In addition, meditation boosts the immune system, preventing illness that can hinder training and/or performance. Those who practice meditation experience fewer acute respiratory infections, as well as shortened duration and severity of symptoms from the common cold. Therefore, meditation aids in improving the quality/length of sleep and the immune system.
BD: What do you find to be the biggest obstacles to players getting a good night’s sleep?
Papalio: Awareness. Athletes do not always understand the benefit of a good night’s sleep. An elite athlete knows that physical conditioning and good nutrition are critical in reaching peak athletic performance; however, sleep, while often overlooked, plays an equally important role. Athletes are on a different daily schedule than you and me: later nights up, travel, homework/study/game planning, traveling across time zones, etc. Also, they are usually up early in the morning for practices. Long days at the training center gym (10 or 12 hours or more), coupled with going to bed later, lead to less sleep per night. Sleep is often the forgotten component to enhanced/high performance. Sleep deprivation leads to fatigue, which can cause a decrease in both academic and athletic performances.
BD: Are players at first apprehensive about trying your program of yoga, meditation, etc?
Papalio: At first yes, as it does not involve a sports ball or physical weight training/strength and conditioning training. Athletes are more apt to focus on strength and performance, before recovery, mental preparation, and yoga. The latter is slower paced and focuses on conscious breathing. They do not always see the benefits. As in strength and conditioning training, you might be fatigued, sore, and tired afterwards. The benefits are enormous for athletic recovery and enhanced performance.
BD: I noticed the Los Angeles Kings hockey team as well as LeBron James (of the Cleveland Cavaliers) and several other pro athletes and teams have said they are big believers in recovery training. Is it a growing trend for pro players to utilize and retain recovery coaches such as yourself to help with recovery and sleep issues?
Papalio: Yes, more and more teams—high school, college, and pro level—are focusing on athletic recovery/recovery coaches. A 1-hour recovery session can bring your body back to its peak output, max heart rates, and max lactate concentrates. Recovery is cumulative just as sleep is, allowing you to recover from a combination of prior workouts, not just your last one.
BD: What are some good tools out there such as apps and websites?
Papalio: Off the top of my head, a few apps would be: Lucid; Whil; Calm; Brain Wave; Headspace; and Stop, Breathe & Think. I also have uploaded a variety of different yoga poses videos that are free to view on my YouTube Channel (“Jason Papalio”): www.youtube.com/channel/UCPjSeDMvelxhkThdt4HQqaQ/videos.
BD: How can these techniques assist an athlete who is in pain acquire sound sleep?
Papalio: During our recovery sessions, attention and awareness is conveyed to all parts of your body. This helps to ease the “holding in” of muscles of a chronically stiff area. Meditation in sport not only is helpful for performance but also can aid athletes who experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health illnesses. The practice can help athletes work through injuries as well as overcome mental challenges such as the transition back into sport or even out of a sport (for example, retirement).
When trying to fall asleep, for some athletes there are no distractions except for their pain, and their perception of that pain can actually increase. The longer falling asleep is delayed, the more stressful the situation becomes. This is a situation where a few calming yoga poses before bed can aid in promoting a quicker ability to fall asleep.
BD: Are there different yoga and meditation exercises for calming the mind to get ready for sleep versus getting ready to perform as an athlete?
Papalio: Yes, by practicing meditation that utilizes visualizations, athletic endurance can be enhanced. Athletes who visualize accomplishing specific objectives/goals, combined with the regular practice of breathing exercises, can train the body to work harder and for a longer period of time in training and competition.
The following exercises are great for sleep: Three-Part Breath; Arms Up (inhale)-Arms Down (exhale); Cat-Cow; Child’s Pose; and Legs-Up-the-Wall.
For performance, a few good exercises would include one-leg balance poses, such as Tree, Airplane, Warrior I, Warrior II, Warrior III, etc.
While video examples of most of these poses can be found online, it is important to make sure you practice them correctly and with proper form, balance, and alignment.
BD: Anything else you want to add?
Papalio: When you slow down and stay in a pose, you can feel different areas of your body that are tense and still holding on from your day. You can gradually relax and let that stress go as you sit and breathe through the pose.
Add in a bedtime routine of about three to five poses for about 10 minutes. By incorporating a few key yoga poses into your sleep ritual, you can catch some serious zzz’s. Yoga’s meditative elements can help you tune out everyday stresses, calm the mind, and create awareness to the breath—all of which help you fall asleep faster and sleep well throughout the night.
Brendan Duffy, RPSGT, is center coordinator at St. Charles Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Port Jefferson, NY. He is a sports and fatigue management consultant.
1. Sharma L. Benefits of yoga in sports—a study. International Journal of Physical Education, Sports and Health. 2015;1(3):30-2.
2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Use of Complementary Health Approaches in the U.S.: National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Available at https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/NHIS/2012/wellness?nav=chat.
3. Kabat-Zinn J. Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology and Practice. 2003;10(2):144–56.