“Visualize your thoughts, like they are clouds moving through the sky. If you get lost in your thoughts, take a breath and then let them go.”
Citadel football coach Kevin Higgins won’t be using those words to fire up his players when they play Appalachian State next season. But the Bulldogs are employing that advice — spoken by yoga instructor Lyn Tally to a roomful of players — to get ready for next fall.
Citadel players are taking part in 45-minute, twice-a-week yoga sessions as part of an intensive five-week training period before the start of spring practice in early February.
In addition to twice-daily sessions of heavy-duty weightlifting and speed work, Citadel players gather in groups of about 30 in the upstairs “mat room” at Deas Hall to clear their minds and stretch their bodies through yoga.
Poses such as “Sun Salutation” and “Plank Position” don’t come naturally to a 6-0, 310-pound lineman like Jim Knowles, but the junior from Belle Glade, Fla., said it’s worth the effort.
“It gets me very loose,” he said. “It stretches my hamstrings, makes you very flexible. When you get down in that three-point stance, the coaches want you to come out with a low pad level, and doing yoga really helps.”
In contrast to the blasting heavy metal or rap in the weight room, the yoga class is mostly quiet, with the occasional gasp or grunt from the players and the soothing tones of Tally, who runs Go Interactive Wellness and has been working with the Bulldogs for four years.
“We really work on trying to get into their hips, so they can get lower to the ground with more open, flexible hips and create more range of motion,” Tally said. “And since this is my third or fourth year with some of the guys, we’ve been working more on the mental aspects of being really focused.
“Yoga is much bigger than just the physical aspects, and this season we’ve gotten more into the mental aspects. Getting them to hold the poses for a longer time kind of hits all those points at the same time.”
The Bulldogs have been incorporating yoga into their offseason workouts since 2008, when Donnell Boucher took over as head strength and conditioning coach.
Boucher said he saw a TV special about Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters using yoga to recover from their bouts and decided to explore that option for his football players.
“When you look at the amount of work these guys do, the stress they put on their bodies, it takes a toll,” Boucher said. “And we’re always trying to find ways to accelerate the body’s recovery process.”
Yoga definitely helps in that regard, says defensive end Bay Amrhein, a 6-2, 235-pound junior.
“It makes you feel so much better,” Amrhein said. “I feel like a hundred bucks when I walk out of here. When I get out of yoga, I feel like I could go run around and play a football game right then.”
Just as the quiet of yoga balances the energy of the weight room, the stretching balances all the heavy lifting the Bulldogs do during this period.
“We get to spend these five weeks focusing on lifting heavy weights every day,” Boucher said. “We want to get as much muscle mass on these guys as we can, and we’re also working on speed mechanics. We maintain a basic level of fitness, but right now we’re not running as much as we do in the summer.”
“The other day, our guys were in the weight room from 5:45 a.m. to 6:45,” Boucher said. “It was our heaviest leg day of the week, and they had to peel themselves off the floor. They were crushed, sore all over. But after the yoga session that afternoon, one of them said, ‘Coach, I feel revitalized.’ ”
Head coach Kevin Higgins was skeptical at first, Boucher said, wondering about the “transcendental” aspects of yoga, which originated in ancient India.
But the benefits of the program have been readily apparent, even helping to reduce the rate of injury.
“When I first got here, I asked (director of sports medicine) Andy Clawson about what problems we’d been having,” Boucher said. “Sore backs, tightness in the pelvic floor, stiff ankles and hamstrings. It’s helped with all that, I think.
“You know when it’s difficult for them and they still want it, it’s doing something good for them.”
Boucher said his own studies show that yoga may help performance, as well.
“I’ve looked at our yoga group vs. the non-yoga groups, and we’ve seen a trend were improvements in the 40-yard dash were a little bigger, improvement in vertical jumps were a little bigger. I think it helps keep guys fresher throughout their training.”
The benefits are not all physical, Boucher said.
“It’s not an easy thing to do to get through a 45-minute yoga session,” he said. “To ask a 285-pound guy like Derek Douglas to get into some of those positions, it’s a fight, inside his head and physically. When you can train your mind to tune out those distractions, it pays off elsewhere.”