Stretching Their Limits


Players stretch out during their weekly yoga sessions

Okay, this is how this is going to work.

I'm going to tell you what several Packers players have received instruction in once a week for 45 minutes as part of their offseason workout regimen and you're not going to believe me.

"What does a lightsaber-wielding little green guy have to do with football?" you'll ask.

But I won't be talking about 'Yoda,' I'll explain. I'll be talking about 'yoga.'

And still you won't believe me.

'You mean the Packers are doing all that deep-breathing, unitard-wearing, saluting-the-sun stuff?' you'll question.

'Yes,' I'll insist, 'they're doing all that, only minus the unitards. The Packers stick to T-shirts and athletic shorts. They are football players, after all.'

If you still don't believe me, I'm not going to blame you. Some things you just have to see for yourself.

Like, for example, a room full of professional football players standing on one leg with the other extended behind them, arms behind their backs looking like something out of the figure skating division of the Winter Olympics.

It might not be easy to imagine, but within the training facility at Lambeau Field it happens every Wednesday.

And it's not just for the smaller guys or the youngsters. That's the nearly 300-pound offensive lineman Mike Flanagan out there, getting ready for his seventh NFL season. And that's fellow O-lineman and 310-pounder Marco Rivera to his right.

They're out there stretching and balancing with the rest of them, with guys like Terry Glenn and Darren Sharper, among others, everyone responding to the orders of the pint-sized Keena Hillsberg, the health and fitness coordinator at Green Bay's West Side YMCA, who instructs both Packers classes.

Time and again, she commands the players into several odd looking positions with names like 'Downward Dog,' 'Pyramid' and 'Warrior.' Watching, you'd think it might be easier if all these guys tried to play Twister.

But with only a touch of playful resistance, the players perform as commanded: contorting, stretching and, hopefully, breathing.

"I'd say more than anything I just have to remind them to breathe," Hillsberg said. "Sometimes they just try to do the moves without the breathing and I have to remind them that when you breathe, you stretch better and you balance better, you do everything better."

That's music to the ears of an NFL player. They'll take any advantage they can get.

"I'm hoping it makes me a better player, because everyone knows that the more elasticity that your muscles have, the quicker they respond," said Sharper, who is coming up on his sixth season. "But the yoga classes are also important because stretching is such a major part of staying healthy and avoiding injuries, and a lot of us don't stretch enough."

It was staying healthy that Rivera had in mind when he took Hillsberg's yoga class at the YMCA last year. Having experienced favorable results, he then suggested yoga to Packers strength and conditioning coach, Barry Rubin, who subsequently added it to the workout program.

"It definitely helped my core strength," Rivera said, using the vocabulary of a yoga veteran. "One of the major injuries that big guys like myself have is due to weak abdominal muscles, because those tend not to be up to par with the rest of our bodies, and so we end up having a lot of lower back pain. Taking the yoga class definitely helped me in that area."

Which doesn't mean that he wasn't a little skeptical at first.

"Oh yeah, I went into it thinking it was just a stretching class," admitted Rivera, "but it only took me one class to see it was more than that. Your heart starts beating, you break a sweat and you start feeling it pretty good. It's more of a workout-stretch than anything."

This time around, Hillsberg's instruction also isn't limited just to yoga. In the second half of each session, players get lessons in 'Pilates,' a technique known especially for strengthening the abdominal area.

"It's my first time doing that, but I'm liking it," Rivera said. "I think she's been taking it easy on us, though, because she knows that we'll start crying if she really tears into us. But guys can definitely feel it. I think I even have some abs growing."

And maybe slowly, but just as surely, Packers players are growing to embrace their new workout program.

Hillsberg said several players have asked her where they can obtain instructional videos to do more yoga and Pilates at home, and others are looking to take an additional class at the YMCA.

Blending NFL athletes and yoga may be a little hard for you to imagine, but in this day and age, it's far from unorthodox. Remember, it was more than 20 years ago that Lynn Swann made his ballet classes famous.

Anything for the edge.

"I haven't done anything like this before, but I've heard good things from around the league," Glenn said. "I'm not very flexible, so I've never been very big on stretching, but as players we have to do everything we can to prepare our bodies for the rigorous season ahead.

"If it will make me a better player, I'm all for it."

At least as long as unitards aren't mandatory. No one could picture that.

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