Commentary

Giants' stars among yoga devotees

Amani Toomer, Shaun O'Hara and Kevin Boss are among the Giants who practice yoga to keep themselves strong and flexible during the long NFL season, Alisha Ricardi writes.

Updated: January 8, 2009, 9:40 AM ET
By Alisha Ricardi | ESPN.com

It hasn't been the easiest of seasons healthwise for some of the NFL's biggest names.

Just ask Tom Brady, Tony Romo and LaDainian Tomlinson.

Ah, such is football.

At any point in the season, any player can get hurt. And because injuries are generally unavoidable in the NFL, staying on the field for the postseason -- when nearly every player could use some Mighty Putty to hold himself together -- isn't always easy.

So as the New York Giants prepare for their NFC divisional playoff game Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, some of the defending Super Bowl champions are hoping their extra work incorporating yoga into their training this past year will pay dividends.

It's well-documented these days that athletes often choose to practice yoga in addition to their regular training. But for pro football players, who take such a beating every week of the fall, the benefits of yoga go well beyond getting a good stretch. Yoga can help them with conditioning going into the postseason -- and keep them moving long after their careers are through.

That's why you won't find 13-year veteran Amani Toomer in the weight room this week, working up extra strength to get through Sunday's game. But you will find him -- and other G-men -- on a yoga mat.

About 10 years ago, Toomer noticed that his muscles were always tight. He was losing a receiver's much-needed range of motion.

If I hadn't done yoga, I'd be out of the league by now.

-- Giants WR Amani Toomer, a 13-year NFL veteran

"When you're [weight] lifting," Toomer said, "your muscles don't want to go through the full range of motion, and I think that the first thing to go [in a football career] is range of motion. And I'm trying to keep my range of motion."

So he began incorporating yoga into his training. But in 2004, when weight training handed him a pulled hamstring, Toomer put down the bumper plates for good.

"I felt like after 2004, I had to do something different because the status quo of lifting weights was not doing anything for me," he said. "The best way to rejuvenate the body is to get back your flexibility.

"If I hadn't done yoga, I'd be out of the league by now."

[+] EnlargeAmani Toomer
Paul Spinelli/Getty ImagesGiants receiver Amani Toomer, seen here going through routine pregame stretches, is playing in his 13th NFL season.

Toomer has since used only yoga -- specifically Bikram (hot yoga) and Ashtanga (a more flowing form focused on the breath) -- along with kung fu (he has a black belt) as his strength training off the field. He devotes two to three days a week during the season to practicing yoga with instructor Gwen Lawrence. Once a week, he's joined by a few teammates, such as tight end Kevin Boss and offensive lineman Shaun O'Hara.

"Power on the field is not just strength -- the power equation that I know is strength plus flexibility," said Lawrence, who also works with members of MLB's New York Yankees, the NHL's New York Rangers, the NBA's New York Knicks and Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls. "Athletes in general are so taxed and tired and put in so much training that the first thing they cut out is flexibility."

And that's when athletes, Lawrence said, lose their maximum productivity. Because power, as she metaphorically describes it, is at its peak when a bow can bend back far enough and simultaneously produce enough strength to push an arrow onto a long, straight path.

The bend that yoga gives an athlete leads to less stress on the body and more mobility in the long run.

"I think it's just longevity in general," said Lawrence, who is in her sixth season working with the Giants. "It's the idea of keeping the body strong and supple all year long."

[+] EnlargeEli Manning and Shaun O'Hara
Larry French/Getty ImagesYoga helps Giants center Shaun O'Hara (60) remain flexible.

For Eagles long-snapper Jon Dorenbos, the flexibility he gets from yoga is key because he plays a position that can leave him in a split at the bottom of a pig pile after a field goal. But the core strength the practice offers is what will keep him in the game.

"I can't lift as much as I could in college, so alternate methods of training is huge," Dorenbos said. "The ultimate goal is to play and have a job as long as you can and to be productive."

Not every NFL player can forgo weight training for yoga as Toomer did. In fact, a handful of players, from Dorenbos to Green Bay linebacker Brady Poppinga to Denver safety Marquand Manuel, said yoga is too intense for them to get in more than one session a week -- if that -- during the season.

And then there are the guys who need to lift weights. If O'Hara were to get on the line with the ability to step into a beautiful Warrior pose but not the ability to hold off his 300-pound opponent, Eli Manning would be on the ground before Toomer could even run his route.

"I'm an offensive lineman, I have to lift. I can never stop lifting," said O'Hara, who has been practicing yoga since he became a Giant in 2004. "Amani, in his case, he's been in the NFL a lot longer than most, so what he's doing is working for him."

Yoga is not going to be the saving grace for every player. But for any player, the elongated muscles and lactic acid release that yoga allows can be extremely beneficial at this time of year.

"The only thing that's gonna cure anything is two months off, and at this point in the season, you're not looking for that," O'Hara said. "You want to keep going, keep playing."

For someone like Toomer, who's played on NFL fields for the same number of seasons as Tom Coughlin has grimaced as a head coach on the sidelines, a little yoga just might be the best medicine.

Alisha Ricardi is an editor for ESPN.com