Sure, NFL players don spandex daily, but bending and stretching with the grace of a ballerina in those very pants may not be the first thing that comes to your mind. However, according to Gwen Lawrence , yoga coach to the New York Giants, two yoga sessions a week helps her athletes maintain and increase balance, agility, strength, stability, mental toughness, focus and proper breathing.
“If they do it more, they get more; it’s really pretty simple,” says Lawrence. “I dedicate my program design to the specific player and specific position.” The benefits of a regular yoga practice for football pros include decreased injuries (helpful for contract renewals), increased speed, reduced effort, refined breathing, less anxiety, clearer presence of mind, increased range of motion and power. “My veteran players often tell me: If I had only started this when I was younger, who knows how much longer I would have played!”
Here, the key poses that help athletes on and off the field.
Pose: Standing forward bend against the wall
“Hamstrings are key to quickness, knee health, speed and agility,” says the pro. “This version is the hardest. However, it sets the athletes form perfectly and the most disciplined athlete will see results more quickly.
“Open hips, in all directions, are necessary for healthy knees,” explains Lawrence. “Deep squatting is a natural movement of the knee joint that needs constant cultivation in order to stay safe. Many athletes find power from the lower body and it all starts with squat.”
Pose: Downward dog
Downward dog is a pose that addresses many areas at once. “I can also really assess my players needs by seeing them in downward dog,” says Lawrence. “It will increase flexibility in the ankles, calves, hamstrings, shoulders, tractions the neck and brings blood supply to the brain.” The pose also tests mental strength when held for 1-2 minutes, allowing one to surrender within the pose.
Lawrence tells us targeting the lower legs is in constant demand. Pigeon pose opens the hips in another direction, deeply stretches the gluteal muscles of forceful extension, increasing power to push off while also helping relieve sciatic pain.
Pose: Supported block hip flexor opener
Hip flexors can be considered “the secret sauce” as once they’re released, they automatically realign the pelvis to where it should be, creating slack in the hamstrings and lowering tension on the low back. “The beauty is gravity does the work for you; so you can just be,” says Lawrence.
This challenging pose is “affectionately called the wheel of death” by her athletes. “You get the benefit of realigning the spine, wringing out the organs, opening the lats and shoulders and increasing range of motion in the rotation of the neck,” says Lawrence. “Talk about pose of surrender, this is it, if you fight it it is deadly when you release, you win. I make then hold if for at least 5 minutes in order to get mindful, present and find clarity.”