High school athletes are stretching out with yoga.
Players at Troy – Auburn High School – have embraced the discipline.
Skeptical at first, Connor Howat has found the benefits of yoga, and now the Trojans’ three-sport performer makes it part of his preseason training. The school offers it as a must-see-and-do, summertime group exercise option for student-athletes, coaches and staff of all seasons.
“I was confused at first. I was like, ‘How is this going to benefit me?’ said Howat, a junior who plays football, basketball and baseball. “And then I started doing it, and then when I went home, my body … was relaxed and limp, and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s amazing.’ ”
As Howat and others have quickly discovered, yoga is about much more than meditation and movement.
“It’s pretty relaxing, but it can get hard,” Howat said. “Last week, I cried.
“When you’re doing the poses and sweating, and getting around other people and doing it with them and seeing them struggle as well, knowing you’re getting better, it’s very reassuring,” he said. “For me, I come in tight every day and yoga really relaxes your muscles. That’s the big part of it.”
More than self-awareness, yoga teaches the body to move as a single, fluid unit, which is a significant discovery for a lot of developing high school athletes.
More athletes are buying into the class that Katie Henry, the school’s athletics director and a certified yoga instructor, leads for 45 minutes every Monday and Wednesday morning on the mats inside the school’s small, humid wrestling gym. On Monday of this past week, Henry pushed the pace, encouraging a class of about 75 athletes – girls and boys – to emulate yoga’s many basic postures. She guided them through a myriad of exercises that involved standing, inverting, twisting and balancing.
Yoga, as Henry explained it, is physically and mentally helpful, especially when it comes to focusing, breathing, flexibility, strength and balance. Essentially, yoga will improve self-esteem, reduce stress and increase concentration – all while promoting healthy living, she said.
Her group has proven itself a quick study.
“This group from the get-go … trusted the process and understood the purpose of it,” Henry said. “They’ve become better so much faster. … They’re breathing when they are supposed to, they’re doing what they are supposed to. … There still is a little bit of the giggles and fall-overs. … I do it as an adult, so that’s fine, too.”
Henry, who has taught yoga as a side job for 25 years since her days at Eastern Washington University, began working with Auburn athletes last summer after head football coach Aaron Chantler approached her about the possibility of bringing the discipline to kids. As a coach at Gig Harbor, Chantler had seen how yoga helped athletes, big and small, weather the rigors of a sports season.
Yoga, he insists, helps athletes, especially football players, absorb hits, recover and avoid injury. It’s good for the core muscle group. A little goes a long way.
“One thing we push in our program is getting the kids being comfortable being uncomfortable,” Chantler said. “So that’s the first step. It’s like they are not comfortable in here. You can hear it, you can see it, the grunting, the moaning. There are times when it’s hard and they are crying … and it’s OK … learning how to be uncomfortable … having them do these things to be better.
“People think yoga is just stretching, but the strength they build in their core, which is so important in all sports, is just tremendous in this.”
For some athletes, it isn’t easy being nimble on the yoga mat, but there are payoffs.
Ronna Brown, a 210-pound senior linebacker, toiled on the mat before finding his feet.
“It was awkward at first but I got used to it,” he said. “I thought it would be easy, but it takes a lot of core to do it.”
Siarah Brown, senior captain of the volleyball team, was among those in front of the class, eager to follow instruction.
“We all want to keep improving, getting better,” she said, “and yoga will help us with our flexibility, breathing and our focus.”
With football camp opening Aug. 21, sophomore receiver and cornerback Preston Habowski vows to come ready.
“It’s pretty relaxing when it’s not as hard as it was today,” he said following Monday’s yoga session. “We have a lot more people showing up for practice, which is better.
“I was surprised when we decided to do yoga,” he said. “I didn’t know it was something we did. I didn’t know the main focus of yoga. I didn’t know it was for breathing and focusing, but it seems to help when you get in that moment.”