What would you expect to see at a yoga class in which the only participants are rugby players? I can tell you what I expected: shenanigans. Horseplay. Not at kindergarten levels – these guys are professionals. But I figured someone, however gently, would poke fun at a less-than-supple teammate, and that there’d be at least a little bit of smirking, jovial self-deprecation and paperplane throwing. I was wrong. Unfolding on a patch of grass overlooking the beach at Sydney’s North Bondi on a pristine morning, this was 45 minutes of serious business.
Okay, it might be a stretch to claim, for example, that Bernard Foley looked every bit as focused while executing a tree pose as he does when lining up a penalty shot in a World Cup semi-final. But the difference really was negligible.
And just as well. “I take my work seriously,” says instructor Kirsten Scott. “Not too seriously. But we’re here for a reason.”
RELATED: How To Get Your Body Rugby Ready
The players could not agree more. They do these non-compulsory sessions on their days off because they believe yoga is improving them as footballers and extending their time at the top. “None of the boys is going to become a yogi,” says hooker Damien Fitzpatrick. “But the point is we’re in better shape than we were.”
Growing out of a shared association with athletic apparel retailer lululemon, the Waratahs-Scott relationship began at the start of last year and reflects the broader trend of men taking up yoga in pursuit of pain-free movement and greater agility. “As recently as five years ago there might have been one male in my classes – and he’d be in the corner looking embarrassed,” says Scott. But in the last year or two, things have turned upside down. “Now some of my sessions are 80 per cent male.”
At long last, argues Scott, guys are wising up on what a balanced fitness routine looks like. Wall-to-wall weights workouts are murder on joint-andmuscular health. “Guys in the gym are just getting tighter and tighter,” says Scott. “And they’re getting injuries. And I think they’re starting to see that their body is aging quickly as a result of lifting all those very heavy weights. They need some sort of recovery tool that’s going to help them out.”
Scott begins this morning’s session with a query: “Anything I need to know about? Injuries? Trouble spots?” After a weekend bye, the players are unscathed. Not surprisingly, it’s the more senior Waratahs – Foley, Fitzpatrick, Kurtley Beale – who make up the bulk of the group. “When you’re young you feel invincible and you bounce back from the batterings,” says Foley, 29. Young bucks don’t seize up in the wake of intense effort or battle chronic soreness. The mature warrior, on the other hand, can be weighed down by self-doubt. How can you trust your body – how can you release it – when you fear it might snap? “I’ve just turned 30 and yoga allows me to keep up my flexibility,” says Beale, who looks chuffed when Scott remarks on the improved depth of his yogi squat.
It took Scott a matter of moments to size up the Waratahs. After 10 years in the fitness game, “I know the minute I see someone what’s weak, what’s tight and what they need,” she says. Footballers’ shoulders, she explains, tend to be their most compromised part: it’s all that bench-pressing, combined with the constant protective hunching and colossal impacts that occur in rugby. Her sessions with the Waratahs, Scott says, are less pure yoga than a combo of yoga and mobility work – “yobility”, she calls it.
“The sessions were humbling at first,” says Fitzpatrick. The players knew they were being broken in via elementary poses, yet they still found them challenging. The players were like you, probably: they thought they were strong. And they are, of course – immensely so, in many cases. But it’s a certain kind of strength you build by shifting barbells through the same old arcs.
Guys walk out of their first yoga class drenched in sweat, says Scott. “They’ve been looking around at these girls doing amazing things. They’re used to being so explosive, to moving quickly all the time. And now they’re being asked to slow down, to assume positions they’re not used to and to hold them. That can be hard, physically and mentally.”
TUCK AND MAUL
Foley’s attendance is predictable: cut from the same cloth as the Lleyton Hewitts and Cooper Cronks of the world, he’s a meticulous customer forever hunting for an edge: “You keep looking for something that makes a difference . . . for that extra one per cent.”
But if you’re someone who’s neglected flexibility for years, taking up yoga could prove to be less a onepercenter than a gamechanger. Stiffness you’ve attributed to age may fade or disappear. “It’s really good for us to come here,” says Foley, taking in the grass, the sunshine and the ocean, into which the players will plunge when the session concludes: “To open up our bodies, to stretch, to feel good and to turn on some muscles that don’t normally activate – that’s what this is about.”
Rather than subtracting from their lifting, yoga has improved it, the players say. They report being able to shift more weight with their more limber bodies – and of feeling safer in the process. Their experience is science-backed: men in a Colorado State University study who did eight weeks of yoga were able to pull 13 per cent more weight in the deadlift. Scott advises fitting in a yoga session before hitting the sack on a day when you’ve competed or trained like a demon; it will tame tomorrow’s DOMS.
The physical benefits are only the half of yoga’s payoff, Scott argues. The ancient discipline is a form of meditation. “When they’re on the field and in those intense scenarios, the players can keep a steady mind because they’ve learnt to do that on their mat,” says Scott. “It’s what you can take from the mat into the real world that’s both the point and the hard part. If you can take that calmness into your game you’re going to make better decisions. You’re going to think more clearly.” You’re going to be, in other words, very hard to beat.