Beliefnet

June 5 -- The New York Giants--the football players--have taken up yoga. So have other athletes of various sports, and it's easy to ask what took them so long.

The practice of yoga, a school of Hindu philosophy, dates back at least 2,000 years. Until late in the 20th century, however, a practitioner in the United States was usually regarded as a skinny contortionist who somehow stretches his feet up behind his head while wearing only a rumpled white sheet around his waist. He then blows on a squeaky recorder before an audience of one, a slithering snake.

Beginning about 1975 yoga began to be a celebrity activity in America and the first prominent athlete to admit to being a yogi was the basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, nee Lew Alcindor.

Today 15 million Americans are into yoga, twice as many as 15 years ago according to a recent cover story in Time magazine. One is Sandra Day O'Connor, the 71-year-old Supreme Court justice and a member of a Tuesday morning class held in the justices' basketball court--"the highest court in the land."

The Giants added yoga to their pre-season conditioning program because of two of their players, Greg Comella and Amani Toomer. They had found yoga on their own, joining a class held in New York's lower Manhattan and found it to be so beneficial that they convinced the head coach, Jim Fassel, and the strength coach, John Dunn, to add yoga to the six-week spring conditioning program.

Two women, Sarah Margolis and Marilyn Barnett, were hired to infuse stretching and flexibility into a program otherwise focused on lifting weights. It is beginning to dawn on the football fraternity that building brute strength in a brutal sport isn't the only predilection.

A chunk of the yoga package--deep breathing, stretching and flexing these big bodies--might make the athletes quicker, faster and less susceptible to injury. No coach resists those qualities.

The Giants' veteran players, Sarah Margolis told The New York Times, were less limber than the rookies.

"You're dealing with more scar tissue and the inflexibility that comes with being a veteran for years and years," she said.

Since Justice O'Connor and another septuagenarian yogi--this writer--qualify as veterans, we grasp what Ms. Margolis had in mind.

The inflexibility--the lessening of confidence in one's balance going down stairs, for example--can be overcome in part by embracing the discipline that began in a village in India in the 5th or 6th century B.C.

My experience comes from 18 months in a class described as power yoga at a suburban Connecticut sports club. A motherly instructor named Gail twice-weekly takes a mixed bag of about 15 through a 90-minute workout that moves us in ragged unison from one posture to another.

This is a crafted, integrated series that flows like a straight river going to the sea. Muscles that one never knew existed awake and say hello.

So universal is the practice of yoga, in its many forms, that the benefits reach out. It had never occurred to me that yoga would work for football--whose scrimmage line seems so cramped. But then why not?

A yoga claim is the enablement of release of energy--that's good. And a little chanting helps to release.

If yoga takes off in the National Football League, led by the Giants' example, we expect to hear coming from the huddle, picked up by television sound devices, such exhaling yoga sounds as ah, ma or sa.

Try them. Ah. Ma. Sa.

Better than commercials.

The kind of yoga I know--with emphasis on opening up the lower back and pelvic areas--would seem even more rewarding for baseball players. And golfers.

Baseball's batters in the big leagues hit at a small white ball being thrown around 85 miles an hour, a feat deemed the most difficult in all of sports. They fail to connect three times out of four on average.

With freed-up, gelatinous hips from yoga, perhaps the batter can achieve a more fluid arc of bat swing. Ted Williams, the wily veteran who was the last to hit for an average of above .400 (.406 in 1941) might have hit .425 if he'd been a yoga.

Are current big hitters, like Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire, into yoga? Maybe next year.

As for golf, imagine that Tiger Wood's successes are due in part to Yoga--his free-swinging hips, etc. If that could be then Nike, the shoe manufacturer and his major sponsor, would have a problem. You do yoga in bare feet.

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