Yoga Warrior: Alonzo Mourning

Against all odds, NBA star and Olympic gold medalist Alonzo Mourning beat a deadly disease, won a championship, and founded a charity. His secret weapon? Yoga.

April 21, 2013    BY Trevor Kearney

Alonzo Mourning looks like a warrior in virabhadrasana II— herculean, focused, fierce. At 6-foot-10, he needs two yoga mats, stretched into one extended lane, to support his wide-legged, stoic stance. His legs are rooted in the lunge; his torso is long and strong; his arms extend into eternity. And the look he casts over his fingertips is stone-cold serious.

It’s not surprising that Mourning comes across as a warrior on the yoga mat—after all, he is one of the nation’s premier warriors on the basketball court. He’s the scowling, growling center of the Miami Heat, known for his menacing facial expressions and the game to back them up.

The 7-time All-Star is a few inches shorter than many centers, but what he lacks in height he makes up for with an endless supply of on-the-court menace and drive. He shoves his way into position, snatches rebounds, swats away opponents’ shots, and slam-dunks ferociously. With his trademark scowl, he’s intimidating and downright scary on the basketball court. But he’s also a courageous, determined champion at heart, a dedicated philanthropist, and a spiritual family man.

Plenty of professional athletes have turned to asana, pranayama, and even meditation to cope with the stress of sports and get an edge over their competitors, from NBA star Kevin Garnett to football running back Ricky Williams to golfer David Duval. But Mourning needed yoga for a more serious reason. In 2000, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening kidney disease. With the help of doctors, yoga teachers, family, and friends, he turned a potential tragedy into a rebirth of sorts, and against all odds, returned to the court an even stronger warrior.

"I swear by yoga. I wish I'd started practicing when I was 22, when I first got in the league."

“As you get older, you’ve got to do more to help your body deal with the rigors of life,” he says. “I swear by yoga. I wish I’d started practicing when I was 22, when I first got in the league.”

The History of Zo

Alonzo (aka “Zo”) began to transform into one of NBA’s best after his third season in 1995, when he was traded from the Charlotte Hornets to the Miami Heat.

In the next five seasons, he was voted Defensive Player of the Year twice, and helped the U.S. men’s basketball team win the Gold Medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. But his life was about to change.

After flying thousands of miles, playing ball like a maniac, and adjusting to different time zones almost weekly, Mourning was suddenly, irreversibly exhausted. By the time he returned to Miami for the summer, the basketball warrior knew something was wrong: he was too tired to play with his kids.

With another NBA season approaching, Mourning went to see his doctor. A blood test radically changed the direction of his life: Mourning was diagnosed with anemia—an often overlooked symptom of chronic kidney disease. A kidney biopsy revealed he had focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a life-threatening illness that causes scarring or hardening of the blood vessels in the kidney and hinders the organ’s ability to clean the blood.

The causes of FSGS are largely unknown, but without treatment its deterioration of kidney function can require dialysis and ultimately a transplant to keep a patient alive. For some people, though, dietary changes and prescription medication can drastically slow the disease’s progression and even prevent a transplant. The good news for Zo was that doctors detected his illness early, and they were hopeful that medication and lifestyle changes would boost his chances for recovery. But for a basketball warrior who had dedicated his life to becoming one of the best players in the world, the diagnosis was a shocking blow. In his prime, just short of his ultimate goal of winning a championship, Zo’s doctors ordered him to stop playing basketball immediately.

Rx: Yoga?

Optimistic he would eventually return to the NBA, one of Mourning’s doctors suggested he try hatha yoga to stay in shape.

Yoga? He winced. For a professional basketball player? “I thought it was more geared toward women,” admits Mourning, who wanted to cling to his basketball drills and strength conditioning.

“But when I did my first one-on-one class, it humbled me,” he says, shaking his head. “I saw the benefits, number one. I was so ignorant to the impact it had on the body.

“What amazed me was I didn’t run one wind sprint in yoga class,” he continues, “but I walked out of there after an hour session with my shirt drenched in sweat. And that was basically doing downward-facing dog, upward-facing dog, all of the warrior poses. It was amazing to me that just holding stances and trying to control your breathing will get your heart rate up to the point where you will sweat profusely, like you were on a bike or running sprints outside.”

Intrigued, Mourning began practicing with an Ashtanga teacher at Prana Yoga Center, in Coral Gables, outside of Miami. He spent the next five months adjusting to his medications, cutting sweets and red meat out of his diet, and staying in shape with intense, flowing yoga. Mourning missed the first 69 games of the 2000–2001 NBA season, but slowly, he regained his strength and returned for the final 13.

At first, Mourning seemed to rebound without a problem, playing 75 games in 2001–2002. But suddenly, his condition relapsed, his exhaustion returned, and under doctors’ orders he missed the entire next season. He attempted a comeback with the New Jersey Nets in the fall of 2003, but some people in the NBA community cringed when they watched Mourning go to battle on the court; they wondered if basketball was putting his life in jeopardy.

Apparently, it was. After playing only 12 games, chemical balances of his blood became so unstable that doctors worried he might go into cardiac arrest. Mourning’s kidneys could not keep up with his rigorous lifestyle. Facing dialysis and a kidney transplant, he retired from the NBA at the age of 33, the number he’d worn on his jersey his entire career.

The Long Road to Recovery

Zo’s early retirement hit the basketball community hard, and his widely publicized condition drew donor offers from fans and friends, including former NBA star Patrick Ewing. The best match, however, turned out to be Mourning’s cousin, Jason Cooper, so on December 19, 2003, the two checked into Columbia University Medical Center for transplant surgery. With no guarantees for his career— much less his life—hooked up to a maze of tubes, IVs, and monitors, and suffering from excruciating pain, Mourning made a promise: “I was lying in the hospital bed, and I thought, ‘God, if you ever give me a chance to get back on my feet again, I want you to use me to touch as many lives as possible through basketball.’”

Determined to make good on that promise and regain his stature as one of NBA’s best, Mourning returned to his doctor’s initial prescription: yoga. He began practicing with Allison Egan, a yoga teacher at Oxygen Fitness Club in Tenafly, New Jersey, in January 2004—just a few weeks after surgery.

It was a tense time, Egan recalls, because Mourning didn’t know if his body was going to accept the new kidney. Over the next few months, Mourning couldn’t run at all; he could barely jump; and his energy level fluctuated daily. Because his muscles were weak from inactivity, his yoga practice started slowly. The rigorous, athletic sun salutations and other flowing series that he once relished were a thing of the past.

Still, whether he was up or down, exhausted or energized, Mourning brought to the mat the same consistency he’d always brought to the basketball court, meeting with Egan nearly five days a week for intense, spiritually centered, two- to three-hour private sessions. She started each class by asking him to set a simple intention and “give his practice away”—to imagine that his yoga practice would serve for healing other people in the world. “He liked that idea,” says Egan, “because that’s his nature, to give.”

Egan began to teach Zo how to meditate. “At first, I put him in comfortable poses like legs-up-the-wall and other restoratives…because you can’t get someone to sit up straight, cross their legs, and meditate immediately.” Eventually, though, she coaxed him into sukhasana (a simple, cross-legged sitting pose) and taught him several types of meditation, including tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist practice that involves mentally sending happiness to and taking suffering from others. She also encouraged him to visualize his body accepting the new kidney—and to picture himself back on the basketball court.

“I had to find a different way of healing my body,” says Mourning, who even practiced meditating on his own on the beach during a vacation that summer. Through yoga and meditation and “the sense of focus” that it gave him, he says: “I got in better contact with my body and did what I needed to recover a lot faster.”

As his body healed, Mourning was able to incorporate more challenging asanas: surya namaskar (sun salutations) along with other favorites like urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose), which he modified by grabbing Egan’s ankles instead of placing his hands on the floor. But meditation, she says, remained the foundation of their practice, and some days they spent their entire session talking about spirituality and meditating.

“Going through that particular surgery, it was very life-changing,” Mourning says. “I needed to focus on healing my body. Allison helped me do that through yoga. It was mental and physi-cal healing, but it started mentally.”

An Inspiring Comeback

Mourning’s focus paid off. In the fall of 2004—less than a year after surgery—he became the second player in NBA history to return to the court with a transplanted kidney.  He played for three teams that season, eventually landing back in Miami, where he began practicing again at Prana Yoga Center.

Meanwhile, he bounced back to success on the basketball court. Within two years after his surgery, he was once again dunking and rebounding with tenacity. And by 2006, he had regained his status among the league’s elite in both shot- blocking and shooting efficiency—impressive for any 14-year NBA veteran, not to mention one who’s been through a transplant surgery.

A lot has changed since Zo began practicing yoga in 2000. Years ago, he used to labor to get out of bed, sore and creaky from charging up and down the court, and most of his stretching involved a trainer and a lot of pain. “Now, I just jump right out of bed,” Mourning says. “I notice the difference. The first thing I do is bend down and touch my toes.” Then he moves into a series of flowing yoga postures each practiced 21 times, which he learned from the book The Five Tibetans by Christopher Kilham. This serves as the bulk of his yoga practice during the NBA season.

Because he plays basketball daily almost nonstop from October through June, Mourning can only attend a few yoga classes per month. But in the summer, he practices with Anamargret Sanchez, his current teacher in Miami, at least three times a week.

Zo’s pain-management methods have changed, too. Mourning can no longer rely on the traditional basketball restorative routine (ice packs and ibuprofen) because anti-inflammatory medications are contraindicated for his kidney condition. Like a true warrior, he has to tough out the pain. But he also finds relief through yoga.

“Sometimes you think, ‘Gosh, I have to work this big guy out really hard,’ but often what he needs is more of a restorative practice,” says Sanchez, who will prescribe standing poses after he’s worked out his upper body; an asana like full wheel if he’s looking for a challenge; or supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose) if his energy is drained. During last season’s play-offs, she gave him balancing poses to help him focus and restoratives to relax and rejuvenate his muscles. “He does it all,” she says.

Except for group classes. But that’s not because he’s self-conscious about his own celebrity—last year he turned a day off in San Francisco into a couple of back-to-back classes at a studio. It’s just that he’s competitive. With a tendency to clench his jaw while perfecting an asana, Sanchez says, or insist he can kick up into a handstand even when his body says otherwise, Egan recalls, Mourning seems to have the most trouble with accepting his limits—and sometimes with leaving his scowl on the court.

“Look in the mirror,” Egan told him once when he was straining to perfect his warrior I. “Look at how scary you look!” Mourning’s scowl melted into a smile, but his warrior mentality remained.

“On the court he’s this dynamic, aggressive guy,” Sanchez says. “He can take away some of the aggression in his postures. He knows how to do that. But he’s still fierce.

“Now, he realizes he doesn’t have to kick his own butt. He realizes yoga can be gentler, and you can get the same benefit.”

Mourning sees the fruits of his practice every day. He’s not just back in the game—he’s also an incredibly effective, intimidating, energetic player. Last season, he ranked third in the NBA in blocked shots and helped the Heat win their first championship. He’s still a towering, glowering warrior. But beneath his ferocious persona is a thoughtful, thankful man whose nature is indeed to give. Explaining his on-the-court demeanor, Mourning says, “That’s my job. That’s what I do for a living. When I come home, I’m a totally different person.” Out of the spotlight, he’s a family-oriented Christian and a philanthropist who wants to give back to the world.

Shortly after he was diagnosed with kidney disease, Mourning launched Zo’s Fund for Life, a campaign to raise money for FSGS research, education, and testing, along with financial assistance for patients who cannot afford medication. To amplify their fund-raising efforts, Zo and his wife, Tracy, committed to match a portion of the donations raised dollar-for-dollar. He’s also the face of educational kidney-health programs like Rebound from Anemia. And in the last 10 years, he has raised more than $6 million through Alonzo Mourning Charities for organizations that provide assistance to at-risk children and families.

Mourning is also a quiet yoga ambassador for the basketball community, crediting yoga as a key part of his rehabilitation and introducing his sports friends to the benefits of regular practice. Years ago in New Jersey, he’d regularly show up at Egan’s class with a friend or two in tow, urging them to try it out. In Miami, he’s brought a handful of his NBA peers to practice with Sanchez, including his close friend Patrick Ewing.

Mourning’s wife practices yoga, too. “This is something we feel has a very positive impact on our lives,” he says. “It’s something we want to introduce our kids to as well.”

I really think yoga is the fountain of youth.

Helping the Heat win the NBA title last year might have been the perfect cap to his career, but Mourning isn’t ready to hang up his jersey just yet. “As long as I continue to incorporate yoga into my lifestyle,” he says, “the better the chances I have of playing this game at a high level. I really think yoga is the fountain of youth.”

Mourning returned this season with remarkable energy and picked up the slack for injured teammates like Shaquille O’Neal by averaging almost 11 points and six rebounds per game in December and January, when he ranked second in the NBA in blocked shots—and first in “intimidating scowls.” He doesn’t look like a 37-year-old kidney transplant survivor as he’s sprinting up and down the court today, shot-swatting and slam-dunking to help propel the Heat toward the play-offs to defend their crown. He looks more like the champ who’s earned a telling nickname from Miami fans: the Ultimate Warrior.

#sports,#profiles,#injuries Photo credit: Keith Allison Flickr 

Trevor Kearney
Trevor Kearney is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives with his wife, Michelle, and practices at Shambhala Yoga & Dance Center. He’s written about the NBA for many years.