Yoga's flex appeal draws athletes

| Friday, Sept. 7, 2007

Say the word "yoga," and some people still think of a swami sitting in the lotus position, hands cupped upward, chanting "ohm" in meditation.

Those people have never taken an active yoga class like the ones taught at studios all over Pittsburgh, where the poses, the sequence in which they're performed and the length of time they're held produce a heart-pounding, sweat-filled workout that will be remembered the next day.

While yoga can and often does incorporate meditation and relaxation, athletes, particularly runners, cyclists and triathletes, now embrace the practice for its physical workout and usefulness in cross-training and injury prevention.

"There are so many levels to yoga," said Kristi Rogers of Breathe Yoga Studios on the South Side. "There's the internal focus, which I think that people who are more in tune to being outside can relate to a little more or are looking for. But I also think there's the physical aspect in that yoga is a full-body practice, so it can complement many things."

Baron Baptiste, whose style of Power Vinyasa yoga is taught at Amazing Yoga in both Shadyside and Wexford, has written articles for Yoga Journal magazine on yoga for cyclists, runners, golfers and baseball players. Baptiste, who worked for several years with the Philadelphia Eagles, says that as some muscles are overtaxed, others are underutilized, and as body parts tighten and stiffen, yoga can help restore balance to the body.

Sean Conley and his wife, Karen, studied under Baptiste and own Amazing Yoga. Conley played in the NFL from 1993-96 for the New York Jets, Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts and started doing yoga just as his career ended.

"I used to think the most challenging thing I'd ever done was in training camp, but there are times when I've found yoga to be more challenging," Conley said. "You're waking up dead spots in your body. It's challenging. But at the same time, it's relaxing."

Conley said that while many athletes are lured to yoga by the potential for adding core strength and flexibility, it is the mental benefits they come to appreciate the most.

"Athletes learn how to relax while they're doing something that's very challenging," Conley said. "That's what yoga is. You go into these postures and they can be challenging physically and mentally, and many athletes tell us that they can translate that to, say, an adventure race. In the past, they were push-push-push in the race, and after practicing breathing and meditation they can be more calm, whether it's in races or in training. They find ways to smooth out their training or stay calm while still in that competitive atmosphere."

Alicja Walczak, yoga instructor at the UPMC Center for Integrative Medicine, said she has also encountered athletes looking for the mental benefits of yoga.

"I had one experience with a runner training for the Boston Marathon who was looking to learn how to focus and concentrate," Walczak said. "He wanted to be less anxious and better aware of his body and his breath because he noticed when he was anxious, his muscles tightened up."

Joanne Spence of Fitness Yoga in Regent Square said that some athletes are naturally drawn to yoga and immediately see its applications toward their chosen sports.

"But for most people it's about realizing that if this is something they really love to do, they'd better find a discipline that will help them stay in the game," she said. "I don't think I really believed it until I hit 40 and realized that you can't not age, but yoga helps you do it gracefully and helps you keep doing the things you love to do."

Spence said that while Pittsburgh may not be New York, where there seem to be yoga studios on every corner, it has grown leaps and bounds in the six years since she first thought of opening Fitness Yoga.

"I think people are coming in droves and realizing it's all about breath and movement having a profound impact on the body," Spence said. "It's changing perceptions, becoming more acceptable and people are willing to check it out."

Additional Information:

Trying it out

Breathe Yoga Studios on Carson Street on the South Side is continuing its Breathe Outside program in conjunction with REI through the end of September.

What: Hatha flow yoga class for all ages and all levels in an outdoor setting.

Where: South Side Works, in the park behind REI.

When: Fridays, Noon-1 p.m. and Saturdays, 10:30-11:30 a.m. through the end of September

Cost: $5

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