When Athletes Become Yogis

Yoga is a useful tool for mental clarity, injury prevention, sports recovery, and physical rehabilitation.


Many athletes make their way onto a yoga mat at some point in their career, finding that the practice has benefits for the body, and beyond.

As a lifelong athlete and professional athletic trainer, Kevin Pillifant both understands the benefits of yoga, and has experienced them firsthand. Though he’s had many roles in the sports world, Kevin got his start by playing collegiate and semi-pro baseball. He then went on to work as a professional athletic trainer for the Chicago White Sox, and has filled many roles since.

Kevin was introduced to yoga in 2013. He took his first yoga class on Thanksgiving morning, which he says was “so powerful, physically and mentally. The message that was delivered really resonated with me, and I knew it was where I needed to be.”

Soon after starting his practice, Kevin felt the benefits of getting on his mat each morning.

“My body felt light and refreshed, and my mind started to feel less cloudy,” he says. “I had a sense of purpose to begin each day. Most importantly, my yoga practice kept me out of the bars late at night so I could make my 6:15 morning class.”

The pull of his yoga routine was so powerful that Kevin began to crave it every day. “My yoga practice began to build strength and flexibility throughout my body,” he says. “The balance of the two really made an impression on me, especially through biomechanics and body alignment.”

Kevin added meditation into his daily regimen, and began to incorporate what he learned on his mat into his medical staff work with the United States Paralympic Ski Team. He began to integrate yoga into athlete recovery. “Whether we were training or racing, the athletes felt the benefits of ending their day with a yoga practice,” he says. “They started to request it, especially after a tough day on the hill.”

Overuse injuries on the team were reduced, and athletes were recovering faster from their hard work.

Kevin is now an athletic trainer for Dr. Steven Singleton, a sports medicine specialist at the world-renowned Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado. And this past summer, Kevin completed his 200-hour yoga teacher training.

For every ounce of mental and spiritual awakening that yoga can give an athlete (or anyone who commits to the practice), there are deep physical benefits and practical uses as well.

Yoga for Injury Prevention

The main benefit of yoga for injury prevention, Kevin says, is the balance of strength and flexibility in the practice.

“Yoga creates this balance by working the eccentric and concentric muscles at the same time, resulting in protecting the joint in each pose,” he adds. “The protecting of the joint, by strengthening the muscles around it, is the best way to prevent injuries in sport. Yoga does just that.”

Yoga for Sports Recovery

Kevin emphasizes how recovery is as important as the physical activity a person has done.

“We recommend allowing time to properly cool down with a yoga practice following strenuous activity or workouts,” he explains. “This allows the athlete to recover and produce more work the next day.”

This is especially important for elite or professional athletes, he shares, like those who are training daily for their sport or event.

Yoga for Physical Rehabilitation

“Currently, we are recommending yoga for both pre- and post-surgical procedures on the knee,” Kevin explains. “Our patients are reporting great results in injury prevention and post-surgical care with a yoga practice.”

Because of the many modifications available during a yoga practice, an athlete is able to perform a variety of poses early in the rehabilitation process. This allows for strength and stability training to begin early in the rehab journey, especially with isometric (not dynamic) contractions in certain poses.

“Proper alignment and muscle integration are very important in a rehab yoga setting,” Kevin says. “This allows athletes to gain strength and flexibility early, while decreasing the incidence of further injury.”

The biggest benefit of yoga in a rehab plan is that it can be performed daily once the injury allows. Kevin is currently designing a rehab yoga protocol for post-surgical knee injuries, for all types of patients.

Learn more about Kevin’s work and sports medicine at thesteadmanclinic.com.

kim-fullerKim Fuller grew up in the Colorado mountains and has always found beauty and inspiration through nature and movement. She is currently a freelance journalist and yoga teacher based in Vail. Her writing and photo work has focused on health, wellness, recreation, food, and travel since 2007, and Kim began her yoga practice in Boulder, followed by her first teacher training with Real Evolution Yoga at Peace Retreat Costa Rica in November of 2012.