Yoga with the Cincinnati Bengals

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By Josh Staph

Welcome to a Cincinnati Bengals 2004 off-season workout. As expected, youll find hulking men breathing heavily and dripping with sweat as they train for the
upcoming season. What might throw you off is the petite blonde woman directing the workout.

On a fall afternoon in 2003, while watching a Bengals game, yoga instructor Jen Damaska had an epiphany. After seeing quarterback John Kitna get sacked and put into an awkward position, she realized how she could help him and his teammates improve their game and stay healthy throughout the season. The next day, she wrote to Cincinnati's strength coach Chip Morton-and kicked off an NFL trend.

Taking Damaska up on her offer, the Bengals instituted a mandatory hour-long yoga class every Wednesday morning as part of their 2004 off-season strength and conditioning program. If you think big men performing Dancers Pose is odd, youre not alone. "Some of the guys were skeptical about practicing yoga," Damaska says. "They were wondering what their coaches were thinking."

After a few sessions, when the benefits had become evident, the skepticism was gone. "They were used to stretching the big muscles, like hamstrings and quads, but we got into deeper hip flexor stretches that lengthened all of the small connector muscles," Damaska says. "Once they went out and performed their usual lateral and pushing movements on the field, many realized that their hips had opened up. They were amazed and delighted."

Expecting to improve flexibility from yoga, the Bengals were surprised by the strength benefits of the practice. "Yoga doesn't just build strength in a specific muscle group," Damaska says. "It builds it throughout the whole body. You end up with balanced strength from working the little muscles that are hardly ever trained."

She adds, "I am a five-foot teeny woman, and I could hold these positions a lot longer than the guys. They would look at me like, 'I can bench 500 pounds, so why is this so hard?'"

The Bengals also gained improved mental focus from their time with Damaska. "They learned how to get themselves into a zone," she says. "They trained their minds to be aware of what their bodies were experiencing, which gave them the ability to concentrate solely on the job at hand."

Because of the dramatic improvements they experienced with Damaska, running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver T. J. Houshmandzadeh now continue a private yoga practice. Johnson tremendously improved his hip flexibility, which contributes to his ability to rumble through defenders. Houshmandzadeh, who experienced a severe hamstring injury the year before taking up yoga, remained healthy for the 2004 season, in which he had a breakout year.

Take it to the mat

Yoga consists of eight limbs. Hatha-the brand Damaska teaches and recommends for competitive athletes-represents the physical form. She says, "The other limbs, which deal with behavior and spirituality, would benefit an athlete differently, but Hatha helps athletes physically."

Hatha classes are found everywhere. Just ask around or look online. Damaska says that each Hatha class is a little different; some focus more on flexibility, others on strength. So many classes are available, though, that you will find one that fits your goals.

Develop your own personal practice

If sweating it out in class with other yogis is not for you, Damaska offers a quick routine and tips to practice on your own. Perform the postures after weightlifting sessions to open up and lengthen the muscles you just finished building.

Start by holding each posture for five deep, slow breaths, and work up to 10-15 as you improve your strength and flexibility. With each inhalation, fill your lower belly first, then allow your ribs and chest to expand. When you exhale, your shoulders and chest should drop. Then, contract your ribs as you press your stomach toward your spine to clear the lungs. This breathing method increases your oxygen intake and triggers your nervous system to relax the muscular system.

Perform the postures on each side of the body.

Standing Back Bend

This opens the front of the body-hip flexors, abdomen and shoulders. Most players were used to stretching the back of the body. But when it came to opening op the front, it was difficult for them even to bring their arms overhead and touch their hands together because of all the strength work they do with their sides and shoulders.

Triangle

This pose opens the hips and entire side of the body on the back side, and works the adductors and hamstrings on the side to which you are leaning. Maintaining balance works your core, and keeping your shoulders and chest up ensures a thorough stretch of the side and prevents strain on the low back.

Warrior II

This is a strength-building posture for the quads, core, shoulders and calves. Because you are barefoot, the feet, ankles and toes really work.

Extended Side Angle W/ Knee Down

This opens the chest and abdomen in addition to stretching the back hip flexor.

Downward-Facing Dog

This is great for opening the hamstrings, calves, back and shoulders. It also builds shoulder strength and stability.

Upward-Facing Dog

This posture stretches the whole front of the body-hips, abdomen, chest, and neck (if you can get your chin up).

Modified Lunge

This is an intense hip flexor opener that provides a thorough stretch across the shoulder and chest.

Butterfly

This opens your hip flexors and adductors while stretching the low back

Shavasana

After relaxing the body, it is time to relax the mind. Shavasana, or corpse pose, sets the mind at ease and expels stress and negative energy from the body. Find a dark, quiet area and lie down on your back with arms comfortably at your sides. Keep your palms up and feet separated at a comfortable distance. Begin by drawing focus to the top of your head and consciously allowing it to relax. Move the focus into your eyes, and then through each individual body part to let it relax. Damaska suggests visualizing water flowing down over your body-from you head to your toes.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: FOOTBALL | STRETCHING | CORE | CHEST | STABILITY AND BALANCE | HIP FLEXOR | TRAIN | POSTURE