High School Sports Teams Stretch Out with Yoga

When baseball practice begins next month at Jeffersonville (Ind.) High School, Matt Rigsby will find out whether the optional once-a-week yoga classes he has been offering his players since September have paid off.

Student-athletes at Oxnard (Calif.) High School have participated in a Friday afternoon yoga class for the past three years. (Photo Courtesy of Chuck Kirman/Ventura County Star)Student-athletes at Oxnard (Calif.) High School have participated in a Friday afternoon yoga class for the past three years. (Photo Courtesy of Chuck Kirman/Ventura County Star)

When baseball practice begins next month at Jeffersonville (Ind.) High School, Matt Rigsby will find out whether the optional once-a-week yoga classes he has been offering his players since September have paid off. The head coach appears confident, despite initial skepticism from team members and their parents. "I think a lot of parents thought we were going to sit around a campfire and meditate for an hour," Rigsby says. "But 95 percent of the kids came out of yoga class that first day saying it was the hardest workout they've done."

He'll get no argument from members of the lacrosse team at Apex (N.C.) High School, where varsity head coach John Hayden has been hosting optional yoga sessions since October - first on the lacrosse field after school and now in one of the school's gymnasiums on Tuesday nights. "It's really hard," senior Jake Fegley told The Apex Herald in December. "It stretches every muscle, ones you didn't even know you had."

"Yoga teaches the body to move as one whole, fluid unit - which is an amazing discovery for a lot of athletes," says Michelle Kelsey Mitchell, co-founder and executive director of YoKid, a Richmond, Va.-based nonprofit organization that provides low-cost, onsite yoga programs for children and teenagers at schools and other facilities. "Yoga is all about self-awareness. And as kids discover more about themselves, they also figure out how to relate to those around them and become better teammates. But yoga is not going to take a fierce football player and make him not want to tackle somebody."

Rather, she says, yoga will improve self-esteem, reduce stress and increase concentration - all while promoting healthy living. Rigsby, whose Red Devils went 20-6 last year and were ranked among Indiana's top 10 teams, also hopes yoga will help win a state championship. "Yoga is something I've wanted to do for a while," he says. "When you coach, you always want to get a little extra edge over your competitors. Instead of wasting our time doing the same old things in offseason conditioning, I decided to focus on the core. Every fundamental movement in baseball comes from the core of your body. If you don't have balance, you're not going to have good mechanics, and if you don't have core strength, you're not going to have balance. What is the best way to get a stronger core? All the research I've seen points to yoga."

YoKid recommends Ashtanga, a physically demanding workout designed to build strength, flexibility and stamina, and one that the organization has adapted for kids. "It eases the mind, particularly for people who are always thinking," Kelsey Mitchell says, explaining why it's ideal for busy student-athletes.

Regardless of the type of yoga employed, the instruction sessions are only as good as the instructor. Finding the right person - someone with the patience to work with kids, who understands that most high school sports participants have never attempted yoga and whose personality encourages positive results - isn't always easy, and Hayden and Rigsby say they got lucky.

Hayden tabbed certified yoga instructor Tara Farrell because she was a longtime friend and the mother of a freshman lacrosse player. Similarly, personal trainer and fitness instructor Karen Moreno Lawyer became the yoga teacher at Jeffersonville after the mother of one of Rigsby's players recommended her.

Certified yoga instructor Suzanne Speed teaches a Friday afternoon class at Oxnard (Calif.) High School that is open to all student-athletes - although most attendees are volleyball players and members of the track and cross-country teams. Her husband, John, coaches the girls' cross-country team and the track team's sprinters, so she volunteers her time. And, in the spirit of community service, she encourages other qualified yoga instructors to approach local school teams and offer to do the same.

Jeffersonville High's baseball booster club currently covers the $35 per week that Moreno Lawyer charges, although Rigsby says he will eventually ask the 30 or so players who participate to chip in a few bucks. Similarly, Hayden occasionally passes around a hat and encourages his 45 to 50 player participants to each donate $5 to help cover minimal expenses.

Hayden also considered offering coed yoga for both the boys' and girls' lacrosse teams, but decided against it, hesitant to ask members of the opposite sex to stretch and bend in front of each other. Speed's classes (which average approximately 80 student-athletes) have been coed since she began teaching three years ago. She says the split between boys and girls is nearly equal, and she manages her sessions accordingly by locating rows of boys in front of rows of girls. "Boys don't realize how hard yoga is," Speed says. "They think we're just going to lie down and stretch. So I'm trying to be tougher on them, make them respect it a little more. I also am very aware that I'm dealing with teenage boys and girls who are striking awkward poses. I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable."

The initial discomfort associated with practicing yoga seems to have dissipated among members of the Apex High lacrosse team. "I want them to have fun," says Hayden, who also takes Farrell's class and received his own yoga mat for Christmas last year. "Sometimes there is lots of laughter, because there are 40 or 50 high school boys doing something they're not very good at. But the kids are getting better and enjoying it. I just didn't realize how many of them thought I was joking about the whole thing when I told them we were going to do yoga. Now a lot of the boys show up with their own yoga mats."

But will weekly yoga sessions translate into on-the-field success? "We won't be able to say we got 'this many more' wins or made 'this many more' goals because of yoga," Hayden says. "But this should help make the players' bodies more flexible and stronger and prevent injuries. We did really well last year, making it into the state semifinals. So if yoga improves us at all, then we'll be in the state championship game - and maybe win it."

John Speed, meanwhile, credits yoga for helping several female sprinters at Oxnard High set new school records last year. Adds Rigsby, "I told the instructor that if we win the state title this year, we're going to buy her a ring."

So why aren't more sports teams adding yoga to their training regimen? After all, the equipment required is minimal (wrestling or gym mats will do), and it's not hard to find available instruction space at most schools. "The biggest challenge to having this spread is people's misperceptions about yoga," Suzanne Speed says.

"All of the stereotypes that go along with yoga - it's only for women, it's something only people on the West Coast do, it's a religion, it's voodoo - are very slowly going away," Kelsey Mitchell says. "People are starting to move past them, just out of simple curiosity, because they've heard yoga has positive health benefits for their kids."

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