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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)

De Pere - To the left is a cinema straight out of 1955, where you can order a beer for $3.75 and watch a movie for $4. To the right is a wine bar. In between is a small green "Yoga" sign with an arrow pointing inside.

Flow Yoga Studio is camouflaged along this quaint one-way segment of George St.

Inside, a petite 36-year-old instructor bounds to her feet. She finds a yoga block from a closet, uses it as a seat cushion near the front window, and one beam of light - presumably from the football gods - shines directly onto Ryanne Cunningham.

She is not affiliated with the Green Bay Packers. She does not want to be knighted a savior.

But here in De Pere - a hop over the Fox River and 10-minute skip down Riverside Drive from Lambeau Field - Cunningham is a ray of hope who might just help rescue this team from its No. 1 problem. Right here may be the person who squashes the injury bug, who exorcises the haunting hamstrings of Green Bay once and for all.

"I'm not the savior," says Cunningham, who grew up in a family of Bears fans in Illinois but has spent most of her life in Green Bay, "but I care. I care about these guys and I want these guys to perform their utmost best on the field. That's my goal for them, is to take their performance to the next level up. If I can. That's what I can do with yoga."

A practicing instructor for 12 years, she has run Flow Yoga Studio for 1 1/2 years. That's when the connection with the Packers began. Already massaging players for about four years, she noticed tightness. So the doors were opened for private sessions, and results were immediate.

Tramon Williams was the first regular. Jarrett Bush wasn't far behind. Many others followed.

Now, Cunningham treats about 15 players, and the number's growing.

This day, she bites her tongue.

She doesn't want to sound arrogant and won't namedrop, either. But the players she works with, the regulars, have never suffered a muscular injury. Nagging aches players endured in years past have vanished under her watch.

And, oh, the few players who had hamstring issues in 2013 and stopped coming to her sessions? They reinjured their hamstrings.

"'T' is a testament to it," Bush said, referring to star pupil Williams. "I'm a testament to it now. A testimonial. It works. It keeps your muscles healthy. It keeps you healthy."

Yoga fever in Green Bay truly began in Houston at Adrian Peterson's celebrity fashion show in February 2013.

Williams sought out Terrell Owens to get one simple question answered.

How did you last this long? The football fountain of youth, Owens explained, is yoga. The 15-season veteran embraced yoga late in his career.and instantly wished he had done so sooner.

So right then, Williams infused his already-hellish off-season workouts in Houston with morning yoga. Some days, he'd do a round of "hot" yoga, cranking the thermometer to 95 degrees. Already flexible, already a human highlight film on the team basketball court, he discovered new ways to contort his body.

Back north, Williams continued with Cunningham three nights per week and then spread the word.

To him, "no doubt about it," yoga is a major reason the back half of 2013 was his best stretch of football ever. He had four interceptions, eight pass breakups and 36 solo tackles in his final eight games.

Meanwhile, the somber sight of players limping off the field became the unofficial emblem of the 2013 Packers. Hamstrings, specifically, were the issue.

Morgan Burnett (three games), Casey Hayward (all but 87 snaps), Brad Jones (3 1/2 games), John Kuhn (1 1/2 games), Sam Barrington (nine games), Bush (four games), Clay Matthews (four games in 2012, one half in 2013) and Sam Shields (two games) all fell victim to hamstring issues.

The defense dissolved. Williams had a career year. It's no coincidence.

"I was the only one trying to stand," said Williams. "That's a good sign, though.For me to do yoga, guys can see that."

Throughout the locker room, yoga has gained traction. Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers has embraced the mat, through a different program. This day, Williams prods Muscle & Fitness-built Chris Banjo to join.

Others aren't so quick to embrace yoga. This is the P90X DVD you skip, this is the workout designed for soccer moms. Not professional athletes.

"But it's hard. It's hard. That's the thing guys realize," Williams says. "They come in thinking it's going to be an easy day. And guys are sweating like they had a whole day of practice."

Cunningham understands the stigma, too.

"It's 'women are really flexible, I don't want to do yoga,' "she said. "Well, men are really strong, so there's a lot that a guy can do that women struggle with strengthwise.

"I keep bugging them. The ones I don't see for a while, I have to send out the text right away - 'just keeping you in the loop.' And then they show up, like, 'Wow!' They know they need it."

Cunningham does not watch Packers games like you. Like me. Like anyone. A self-described physiology/kinesiology "nerd," she takes notes.

All game, she studies specific body movements of an NFL cornerback, a wide receiver, a nose tackle.

A player like B.J. Raji, she noticed, uses his shoulders. A player like Williams cuts on a dime into awkward positions. Hip flexibility is essential. Thus, in their sessions, she makes stretches playerspecific.

She's admittedly "protective" of her players, rarely telling her closest friends about this work. And when players arrive, the doors are locked, the curtains close and outsiders cannot peek in.

Workouts begin, and Flow Yoga Studio becomes a laboratory where Cunningham is the scientist.

These athletes - many beefed and sculpted to Greek-god perfection in the weight room - have had their egos scarred here.

As Williams says, when players stretch by themselves it's "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, that's a wrap." With Cunningham, they'll stay in a pose for 60 seconds straight.

"Your muscles are in such high demand," Bush said. "Everything gets stretched and pulled and worked and yanked so many times, I think when you expose your muscles like that (with yoga), they get used to it.Say you slip and you're in that split position. Well, you've done that. It's familiar. Your body says, 'All right, we've been here. OK, back to normal.' "When necessary, Cunningham will scold players double (and triple) her size, too. If someone's loafing, she can tell.

"There are times they're slacking, and I'm like, 'What are you doing?' "she said. "And they say, 'Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am!' But I'm not like a sergeant. We just flow, we laugh. If they like a song, we start jamming out and singing."

Cunningham jumps into a stance on the hardwood floor to demonstrate one beginner stretch that helps with hamstrings, the "pyramid" pose. Players set their right foot ahead of their left, bend that right knee and reach downward onto a block. Gradually, a player straightens that bent leg out. Gradually, they lose the block completely and palm the ground.

Those players with pulled hamstrings were human faucets of sweat - "dying," in Cunningham's words - during this simple pose. They could hardly stretch their arms forward at all. Eight months later, some were reaching all the way forward.

One late Monday night, wide receiver Randall Cobb is her lone student. In his Kentucky basketball shorts, he goes barefoot, sets up and follows Cunningham's instruction. The sound of water trickling through a nearby vase synchronizes with Cunningham's voice, stretch to stretch.

"I think it's helped a lot," Cobb said. "She had to press me for a little while to get me to come in. But I think I've definitely made strides and if I continue to do it, it'll help out even more just with my elusiveness and being able to move around on the field.

"It helps me open up my hips a little bit more, and having that flexibility to elongate my muscles a little bit more will help make me faster and different things. Definitely it'll help me on the field and help me prevent injuries as well."

There's the buzzword. Injuries.

Cunningham expects more players to join once the season begins. A midseason body is much, much different from a preseason body.

And a fine-tuned midseason body can single-handedly win a game.

On Sept. 12, 2013, Bush pulled his hamstring in practice and didn't play for a month. A big deal considering he hadn't missed a game since Week 16 of 2007, a run of 92 straight.

The bionic special teams ace who runs sprints with a weight vest after summer practices had a weakness.

Flexibility. "Obviously with the hamstring," he said, "I wasn't doing enough. After that, it was lesson learned."

Sporadic with yoga before, he became a Flow Yoga regular. Bush is now the closest Cunningham has to Williams. And there have been no flare-ups with the hamstring.

He embraced Cunningham's deep visualization sessions, too. At the end of the hour, Cunningham has players close their eyes and picture themselves on the sideline. Envision yourself holding your helmet, she'd say. Envision yourself staring at the opponent across the field. Through September, October, November, Bush pictured himself in Green Bay's defense, breaking on a ball.

The scene at the studio was palpable. Bush said you "could feel the energy," the "heart-beating" of himself, Raji, Jerel Worthy and others.

Then came Dec. 8. Trash-talking Tony Gonzalez at 9-degree Lambeau Field, Bush broke up a late fourth-down pass intended for the Atlanta Falcons tight end. The next possession, he sealed the win with an interception. From her home, Cunningham leaped out of her chair. She knew Bush had visualized this moment.

The cornerback never known for his flexibility had enough flexibility (and Zen) to slay a future Hall of Famer.

Yeah, Bush is a believer. "Visualization is huge," Bush said. "You always want to see it before you actually do it. It doesn't always go exactly the way you see it in your head, but the goal happened. You saved the game. You made an immaculate play. You end up winning the game."

Legs crossed, Cunningham flashes a smile at the thought of what her players have accomplished.

"I'm going to enjoy this as long as it lasts," she says. "I can only say I'm proud of them. Very proud."

Copyright 2014, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

June 15, 2014
 
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