Recovery: Body and Mind
Leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, I was gung ho, completely focused on competing in what would have been my 4th Olympic Games. I made it to May, which was the beginning of the month when the Olympic trials were taking place however, things weren’t looking good. I had just recovered from hernia surgery and my lower back was in serious pain. The medical team who were looking after me gave me the red card and said “Alright Leon, we’re not letting you do this anymore. Your body can no longer handle what you are asking it to do”.
I was at the point in 2008 where I couldn’t stand up properly and the medical team told me “Look Leon, if you were a horse we’d have to shoot you. You’re broken”. I had completely unbalanced my body by training certain movement patterns and caused incredible damage in very specific areas. I was told I needed to stop training, and for someone who trains 7 hours a day, 6 days a week, when you get told to stop training you go “Well hold on, what am I going to do?” because your life is this activity. At the same time, I was advised that if I stop training completely, I’m going to fall apart in other ways and that I might not be able to walk properly by the time I’m in my 40’s… And this really caught my attention.
I knew that I had done absolutely everything and that it was my time to accept that I was done. And sometimes that’s hard but, for me, over a period of a few months it was quite liberating because of the pressure and the strain and the expectation you put on yourself and the tenacity that gets you there can be your undoing in the end. So it was essential in having the people around me, the medical team that was assisting me in that way, and they worked with me after my career in advising me how to put myself back together again.
So, I’ll never forget this, but they recommended that I do something like yoga for the next 6 months in attempt to rebalance my body and then maybe, I’d be able to start doing other activities again. And when they told me that, I had no idea what yoga was apart from maybe amazing Indian people tying themselves in knots or middle aged women in a church hall somewhere in middle England saying OM.
So I took their steer very seriously and sent out an email to every one of my friends pretty much saying “Hi guys, thanks for all your love and support but, this is it, I’m done. I’ll be going to Beijing to do the commentary for the BBC. I’m super excited and I am completely broken. The medical team have told me to do something like yoga. I’ve looked online and I have no idea which one to do so please, help me!” And one of my friends Debby said “I know you’re in London a lot, you’ve got to check out this place called Bikram Yoga. You should give it a whirl”. So I rocked up to my first yoga class in June of 2008, two weeks after I announced my retirement.
Six months later, after practicing yoga in the heat, between three and sometimes seven times a week, I was pain free in my entire body for the first time in 6 years. And that was a combination of stopping all of the things that were aggravating me and just moving smoothly with my breath. And the great thing about practicing in the heat for me was that it opened up all the really tight areas in my body.
Some of the yoga poses I was already pretty good at because of background in gymnastics but other ones—anything that had to do with twisting or hip opening—it was like I was made of wood. It took me 6 months to figure out that yoga wasn’t about being the best in the room, so that’s my competitive athlete mindset. But the subtle education was that you’re there for your wellness—and I didn’t get that strait away. I was there to heal my body and to be the best in the room. But that’s not what yoga is about.
So, I found myself, 6 months later, pain free but also a couple of other things happened. Suddenly I realized that I’d been though a really interesting and challenging time in my life where this love affair with sport had ended. The love of my life, my sport, was no longer with me. Now a lot of athletes become very low, have bouts of depression, others don’t know what to do but I was moving and transitioning into other stuff and I seemed to be okay. Then I realized that when I was in traffic jams, I wasn’t shouting at the car in front, when people were late to meet me I wasn’t looking at my watch and getting annoyed. I suddenly found myself, dare I say, the most relaxed I’d ever been in my entire life.
I had this realization that the practice of yoga wasn’t just about the physical or the exercise but there was actually other stuff that was going on. And that was when I wanted to find out more and subsequently my journey went something like this. I went on to speak to people who’d studied yoga and in 2009 two things really happened. I started to explore yoga and I started running. I decided to run a marathon for a charity in the UK called Sports Aid who had always asked me to support them.
Exactly a year after the medical team told me that I wouldn’t be able to walk when I was in my 40’s I ran the London Marathon in under 4 hours and that was a pivotal moment for me. Doing something that I disliked for many years—running—and still don’t like now but you know, there’s a lot of things to be said about bumping up against your comfort zone and for me I realized that the consistent practice of yoga had allowed me to start to be a little more adventurous in my activities. I couldn’t go back to diving, that was never my intention but I started to do some spin classes, some HIIT classes, but being careful. And it was amazing.
By the time I’d run the London Marathon for charity in April, I’d done enough investigation to find out that I wanted to go and study yoga somewhere. I ended up in Scottsdale, Arizona and studied under my mentor Sumit Banerjee, who was Indian by birth. He had this amazing business out there where he had a chain of yoga centers and I had the opportunity, with another friend of mine, to go and live with him. So I lived with him for 5 weeks in his tiny apartment and I just learned directly from him. From his experiences as a young Indian man growing up with his guru and things like that and then turning it into a business in America.
So I spent 5 weeks with Sumit before going back to the UK, and then I went back to him again later on that year. At the end of 2009 I was back in the UK having spent almost 10 weeks learning from Sumit. I could teach yoga, I could talk about it, I had learned the language but I was not equipped to pass the exam because I had not studied it properly.
I felt that I wanted to cement my learning so at the beginning of 2010 I got involved in teaching yoga with a UK company and did my training in Morocco. I qualified properly as a yoga instructor at the beginning of 2010 and interestingly enough that is where I met my girlfriend Ali. It was her company that was delivering the training and we’ve been together ever since.
Now I regularly teach yoga but the most important thing is that I practice every day. So while I’m here in St. Lucia I have my yoga mat in my room and occasionally I do it in there or sometimes I head up to the gym in the morning to do some yoga before instructing BeachFit.
If I don’t practice yoga I really start to feel it mentally, physically and emotionally. I start to get less calm, more irritable and my body starts to let me know. My shoulders or my back especially start to go “hmmm, be careful” so I’ve learned over the past 8 years that a consistent practice allows me to function better, in all aspects of my life.
Part I – Fitness: How I Became the Best
Part III – Nutrition: What Works for Me