Hard men are softies for yoga - The Daily Telegraph, November 2013 by Mike Pattenden
The days when professional rugby players eased down with a beer after the game are long gone. Today, teams are more likely to be seen doing the cobra than drinking one with a curry.
Forty-eight hours after their win over England in the opening match of the Rugby League World Cup last month, the Kangaroos went for a warm-down at Manchester's Yoga Lounge, a modern fitness studio dedicated to Yoga and Pilates. Here, Bikram yoga, the "hot" kind that's performed in a super heated room to ensure an instant sweat and enable deeper stretches, is a speciality - and 40% of these attending classes are male.
The Australian team are not alone in striking a sweaty yoga pose to speed their post-match recovery, improve general flexibility and help guard against injury. Their English opponents have also supplemented their training with the ancient discipline at the insistence of Mark Bitcon, head of performance with the national team as well as Wigan Warriors, the rugby league club.
"It's not about lying around on a mat", explains Bitcon. "It"s an intense physical workout which has numerous physical benefits. There's a lot of work with weights in rugby, plus intense, competitive action. In the past, we tended to neglect the flexibility aspect, which is very important for an 18 stone athlete."
The old world macho view that "yoga is for girls" or at the very least only for blokes who are a "bit spiritual", is history. This season, Wasps, the London rugby union club, has also introduced regular yoga sessions for its players.
Manchester United's veteran winger, Ryan Giggs, who turns 40 this month, is such a talisman for its benefits he has released his own yoga for men DVD. Andy Murray has famously credited his strong but wiry, Wimbledon winning frame to the effects of Bikram.
But the elite sportsmen that yoga attracts aren't interested in the path to enlightenment. "What they are interested in is prolonging their career", says Nisha Srivastava, instructor at the Yoga Lounge. "If they can tap into that one percent that enhances their game, they become interested. When they see the benefits of yoga, that's when they persevere with it".
Wasps and England forward James Haskell, 28, who has been practising for three years, admits: "I'm not there to get my chakras aligned - I use yoga to give me an advantage in my game and keep me on the field".
Haskell, who hopes to make it back into the full England squad before the end of the current series of autumn internationals, is convinced of its benefits. "When I was 18, I'd just go straight out and train hard. Now my first port of call is to get out the mat - otherwise I'm like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, I just seize up."
Dense muscle is notoriously inflexible, but the benfits from yoga-style stretching are measurable. "We test various physiological aspects, and one is range of flexibility" says Bitcon. We have seen as much as an extra couple of centimetres in areas like the hamstring. Any marginal improvement in an area like that can be very useful". It can also improve upper-body stabilisation, especially around the shoulders, where players grapple. It's not hard to sell men poses, or "asanas" - such as the Warrior of Hero - but yoga has other significant advantages, explains Srivastava. "The work we do appears to be purely physical, but the goal is the mind, and that's where it can be most beneficial. If they can control their mind, learn to concentrate, then they will make more correct decisions on the pitch."
Nick Chadd, the strength and conditioning coach who introduced Wasps players to yoga says: "We have found it has a real impact on the way the guys perform and that comes from aspects of relaxation and focus. It also improves mood and interaction among the group."
Spirituality and transcendence may not interest players, but what they are experiencing is svastha - literally, "to stay as yourself" - yoga's perfect state of optimal health and balance in body and mind. Just don't tell them that.