More athletes getting their ‘Om’ on with Yoga
College sports • Utah football and baseball teams are enthusiastic practitioners.
Published: May 5, 2014 10:31PM
Updated: May 9, 2014 11:56PM
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| Courtesy photo Members of the University of Utah football team take part in a recent yoga class with instructor Denise Druce.

Between classes for his degree in mass communications and practice times and games as a member of the University of Utah baseball team, senior T.J. Bennett can often feel stressed out and overwhelmed.

When he gets in that place, he reminds himself of the lessons he has learned in yoga.

“It has helped me relax and focus,” he said. “There are so many things going on in your life, yoga can help you get focused on one task at a time and you are better prepared to handle whatever it is.”

Yoga? For a baseball player? It isn’t as uncommon as one might think.

Sun salutations, the pigeon and happy baby poses are all terms that were once reserved for a special group of people. You know the ones, you see them on the street riding their bikes with a yoga mat made of earth-friendly material slung across their shoulders while their dreadlocks fly free in the wind. Chances are they probably had some superfood, vegan granola mix for breakfast too.

OK, so the stereotype can get taken a little far, but you get the point. For many years yoga was thought of as an activity reserved for hippies and stressed-out mothers.

But more and more, yoga is becoming an accepted and almost vital part of training for many athletes.

UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos-Field recently credited yoga with keeping her star gymnast, Samantha Peszek, healthy after many years at the elite level left her body worn down and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has added hot yoga to his list of activities he uses to escape the pressures of football.

Professional stars such as the NBA’s LeBron James and the NFL’s Vernon Davis have added the sport to their regimen while teams such as the Utah Jazz, Philadelphia Eagles and rugby’s New Zealand All Blacks have employed yoga instructors.

If yoga is OK for these guys, what other qualifications must there be for it to be considered mainstream?

Salt Lake City yoga instructor Denise Druce, who has worked with many of the University of Utah teams as well as the Jazz, said yoga might be best known for turning stiff bodies into pliable ones, but the practice has more valuable assets too.

“The biggest benefit I see is the mental aspect,” she said. “You have to have the ability to focus and be present for any sport, whether it’s standing on the free-throw line or making a tumbling pass on the balance beam. You have to have a single-mindedness for that. You aren’t going to compete well if your mind is scattered.”

Druce began working with the University of Utah athletes through her friendship with gymnastics coach Megan Marsden. The benefits of being flexible for gymnasts is obvious, but Marsden said the most gains for her team was helping athletes cope with their stress levels.

“The breathing and meditation times have been huge,” she said. “Those are the things that they won’t do unless someone makes them, but the inspirational thoughts and motivations are so valuable to them.”

Convincing gymnasts to sit quietly and get their “Om” on is one thing, but getting other athletes such as basketball and football players to do so is a whole other challenge, Druce acknowledged.

“Athletes are so used to work, work, work, it’s hard for them to be still sometimes,” she said. “They really need that restorative, quiet yoga, but it can be hard to keep their attention.”

However, several sessions of power yoga later and athletes become suddenly receptive to a more restorative practice, she said.

“By the end of the season we had the football team sitting for seven minutes in full meditation,” she said. “It was really hard for them at first but they worked up to it.”

Finding that peace wasn’t hard for Bennett, he welcomed it.

“There were a couple of guys who were like, ‘Why are we doing this?’” he said. “But it was cool to see how everyone got into it after a few weeks. It has helped us a lot and it has made us closer as a team.”

Bikram, or ‘hot,’ yoga, in which the temperature is set at 105 degrees, is extremely popular with athletes because the high heat makes yoga mentally challenging but also helps loosen tight muscles.

However, Druce doesn’t have a particular favorite, she just likes the thought of athletes empowering themselves in a different way than normal.

“When people do yoga they are more open to suggestions,” she said. “We get into that alpha brain wave state where they are more open to creating possibility. We use a lot of big heart opening positions and have them say the word ‘yes!’ It makes them feel powerful and that carries over to their sports.”