By Joe Troop
The art of pugilism, as Howard Cosell once said, “Is chillingly simple: One man purposefully endeavors to inflict bodily harm on another man”. The practice of Bikram Yoga, a 90 minute series of Hatha Yoga postures performed in a room heated to 40C, aims: “To deliver total health through the balancing and strengthening of every system in the body.”
At first glance, the two practices seem unlikely bedfellows. And yet an increasing number of Britain’s top boxers have begun to incorporate Bikram Yoga into their training regimes.
“It’s a mad Ying and Yang mix,” said Denton Vassell, Commonwealth Welterweight Champion, when speaking to BoxingScene about Yoga. “But it fits as one.”
I caught up with Vassell at the gym in the midst of his preparation for the eagerly anticipated British and Commonwealth title unification bout with Frankie Gavin, scheduled for the 28th of June. Arriving, shall we say, just a shade later than the time we had originally agreed upon (“What time did he tell you he’d be here?” joked Vassell’s veteran trainer Bob Shannon), Vassell strolled into the gym he calls home with a quiet, understated confidence.
Located in the basement of Crossley House — an imposing, Edwardian, redbrick building and formerly home to Openshaw Lad’s Club — Shannon’s Fighting Fit Gym is warren-like. Vassell ushered me into one of its many nooks to escape the combination of pulsing music, shadow boxing youngsters and a man, resembling a grizzly bear in proportions, thumping out the frustrations of the week into the abdomen of a heavy bag.
Carrying the ring moniker “Achilles”, owing to his impressive physique, Vassell is built more like a mini Mike Tyson. “I’m pretty muscle bound for a welterweight” is how he puts it, and unlike the warrior of Greek myth from whom he takes his name, so far he has proved invulnerable — undefeated in 20 professional contests and with exactly half his wins coming by way of stoppage.
“I’d recommend Bikram to everyone, but especially if you’re fighting,” he told me. “I’d do it every day if I could.”
Equally as effusive about the benefits of Bikram Yoga are Anthony Crolla, and two of Liverpool’s fighting quartet of Smith brothers, Paul and Stephen. All three boxers took the time to chat during preparations for big fights of their own.
Super featherweight Stephen Smith boxes on the undercard of the Vassell vs. Gavin scrap, making his return to the ring after more than a year out. Anthony Crolla and Paul Smith fight the very next night, with Crolla taking on Gavin Rees for the WBO’s intercontinental lightweight strap, while Smith rematches Tony Dodson for the vacant British super middleweight title.
Was there any hesitation for these fighting men to try Bikram Yoga? “It sounds feminine”, Vassell had told me, “but it’s tough!” Anthony Crolla echoed this sentiment, confessing that: “Nine times out of ten, when I’m in there, I’m thinking ‘I just want this class to end!’”
None of the fighters, however, show any reticence in practising an art form that each of them value as an important part of their training. “I think its just more strings to your bow,” said Stephen Smith.
“I think the more things you pick up, the more that can help you in terms of your training,” added elder brother Paul. “If it will benefit my career, and benefit my training and boxing, then I’ll try it.”
The fighters all cite enhanced flexibility and injury prevention when I ask what they see as the benefits of their practice, particularly Stephen Smith. He said: “With doing the track work you do find you get injuries quite easily, so I started doing the yoga more for injury prevention and then when it got to the Bikram, I found it was better for me to do — it helped with flexibility.”
Perhaps more interestingly, Anthony Crolla suggests it has helped him to improve his breathing technique when fighting. When I ask Paul Smith to expand on this, he tells me that: “It’s good, mentally, knowing that when it gets tough I can concentrate on my breathing, whereas in the past I wouldn’t have, I would have concentrated on what was tired and what was hurting.”
When Denton Vassell raises another similarity between the two practices, I begin to see why all of the fighters I have spoken to tell me that Bikram Yoga is perfectly suited to their training.
“The little breaks [in between postures], the Savasana, are just like breaks in fights,” said Vassell, crediting these periods of rest with helping to improve his powers of recovery.
It is the heat in which the postures are performed that distinguishes Bikram Yoga from other forms of practice, and perhaps there is another parallel to be found here, the heat of the yoga studio simulating the heat of the battle. All boxers must learn to keep a cool head in the stifling atmosphere of a fight. So can Bikram Yoga help a fighter to master their emotions in the ring?
“It seems a bit mad, doing a nice, chilled out session of Bikram, but it’s chilled out in boxing,” said Vassell. “The more relaxed you are in boxing, the more fluently the punches will flow out, and the more relaxed you are the more resistance you have to taking punches.”
Paul Smith tells me that the heat and physically demanding nature of Bikram Yoga allow him to feel that he can, “Give that extra little bit in training, push a little bit further”.
Vassell suggests that his practice gives him a mental edge when stepping through the ropes. He said: “It’s mentally good, because you can get in the ring and say, ‘I’ve done something extra for this fight,’ so that boosts confidence as well. I could fight Mayweather and I’d still feel as confident as I am now.”
Mention of Floyd Mayweather, the sport’s pound-for-pound king and a man who can be found in the gym all year round, brings me neatly to my final question for the fighters. Does the use of Bikram Yoga show that, increasingly, boxers are elite athletes, in a way that perhaps they were not in the past?
“Yeah, definitely,” answered Crolla. “I think now, gone are the days where you’d hit the bag, you’d do a bit of floor work and you’d go running and that was all.”
“Times are always changing”, Paul Smith concurs, “and things are always happening to evolve and to further us as athletes. I think Yoga is definitely one of those things. The fact that we’re trying it now shows that it’s definitely beneficial.”
It is no surprise then, that all of the fighters predict that the use of Bikram Yoga in boxing will continue to spread. “Now, more and more boxers are jumping on it by the week,” said Crolla.
“I reckon there’s a few boxers in almost every gym. Also, you’re getting higher profile boxers who are going as well, and I think that’s inspiring young amateur fighters to think: ‘Well, they’re doing it, I’ll give it a go’.”
If Crolla is right, there may be a whole new generation of fighting Yogis yet to come.