How the NFL Could Shift Its Criminal Culture With Yoga

Yoga is the practice of becoming honest with yourself and others, and that could benefit some athletes.

Yoga is a practice of visualizing greatness – to see yourself as the positive change you want to facilitate. 

After the horrific video of Ray Rice punching his fiance and dragging her limp body out of an elevator was released, domestic violence is back in the spotlight for the NFL. As of 2012, 21 teams had a player on its roster who had faced domestic violence or assault charges. In the past month, the NFL has been a hot-bed of criminal behavior.

The only way to eliminate the barbaric off-field behavior in the NFL is to shift the culture. You become what you practice. If players are treated like animals or objects, that’s what they become. Yoga is the most efficient method to change the values in a league that desperately needs transformation.

From Sadistic to Supportive

In June 2013, Chris Ballard, the director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, delivered a harsh message to recent draft picks. "Most of you will not be in this league three years from now," he said, according to ESPN. "Nobody cares about your problems. The fans don't care. The media doesn't care. And ownership doesn't care. They care about results."

He said this just seven months after a Kansas City player, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times, then killed himself in the team’s parking lot.

It’s this brutal treatment that produces players who act violently. Sports are meant to be competitive. However, players who have off-the-field problems could learn to be peaceful without diminishing their athletic performance. With the support of yoga, teams could change their tone to be more positive. Yoga students practice seeing the good first. Imagine coaches who actually care about their players and build up their confidence rather than tear them down.

The Seattle Seahawks are doing just that. Pete Carroll, head coach for the Seattle Seahawks, has his team practice meditation and holds mandatory yoga sessions. As he's said in previous interviews: "I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?"

Last year, Carroll’s Seahawks didn’t just win the Super Bowl. They destroyed the Denver Broncos 43 to 8.

Vulnerability and Self-Worth

Right now, football players are not willing to reach out for help when they're suffering. The NFL is not conducive to a healthy self-esteem. Many feel alone, and much has been said about the large number of suicides.

"The four years I played pro football were some of the most horrendous of my life," Jimmy Stewart, a licensed family therapist and former defensive back with the Saints and Lions, told ESPN. "I cried alone. I was frightened. I badly needed somebody to talk to, and I know so many guys today who feel the same way."

Yoga is the practice of becoming honest with yourself and others – from being fierce without being abusive, to the awareness of your breath and how you feel. When a team buys into these ideals, lines of communication will open. Over time, players who struggle to have a  difficult conversation about their problems will open up.

Proactive coaches who talk with players promote results both on and off the field. "If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am," Tom Cable, the Seahawks’ assistant coach, has said. "I'm attacking his self-confidence and he's learning that if he screws up, he's going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it's going to get fixed."

Reactive to Responsive

Athletes are trained to react. In the heat of the moment, they don’t have time to over-think their next move. If you just default to your knee-jerk reaction in real-life situations, you'll likely do something you regret. Yoga trains your mind to pause, so you can learn to force yourself to stop and breathe. In yoga, there are crucial moments where the class becomes so challenging that students want to run for the door and quit. It’s right at that mental edge where a yoga practice is most beneficial. You want to always practice at that precipice, and pause and navigate your emotions skillfully rather than impulsively. With that clarity, players could respond to stressful situations in a more thoughtful way.

Positive Thinking

Happy players are more effective players. In a league that is hypercritical and always demanding players perform, a yoga practice can help athletes think positively. I have students in yoga class achieve a level of health they never imagined possible just thanks to encouragement. If players had that kind of support, they would be well-equipped with the courage to make decisions from a positive mindset.


Yoga is a practice of visualizing greatness – to see yourself as the positive change you want to facilitate. Students visualize themselves in a pose and take logical steps toward achieving that shape. This empowers them to control their mind and change their behavior appropriately. They learn they have a choice, and this realization leads to better behavior off the mat.

"We do imagery work and talk about having that innovative mindset of being special," quarterback Russell Wilson has said. "We talk about being in the moment and increasing chaos throughout practice, so when I go into the game, everything is relaxed."


Intentions and constructive thinking matter. However, they’re only part of the equation for positive change. Unless you put your intentions into action, nothing gets accomplished. What you do matters. What you don’t do matters. In yoga, you learn to be completely honest with yourself and responsible for your choices. You make decisions to take a step back or advance in a pose based on clear mental and physical landmarks. Through this process of self-assessment, you learn about yourself and your tenacious tendencies – whether it’s how you handle yourself in a relationship or the inclination to misalign in a yoga pose. With practice, you learn to manage your habits accordingly. In this way, misalignments can be viewed more positively, as a gift, as what helps keep you honest.

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