Memphis works all the angles with yoga

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- They line up, approximately 60 Division I-A football players in peak physical condition, young men as big as buildings and strong enough to move them. Before them stand three petite women, the leader sporting braids and freckles that make her look like an overgrown 12-year-old.

And these women need just one hour to leave these hulking, overmuscled athletes in sweaty heaps.

Anyone who thinks yoga is for sissies doesn't play football for the University of Memphis. You've heard of the poses Down Dog, Up Dog and Warrior. Add to those Cowering Tiger.

"I would rather do sprints and up-downs than that yoga," said senior tailback DeAngelo Williams, a training junkie who gained 1,948 yards and scored 22 touchdowns last year. "Take the yoga lady away from us. She has to be the nicest and sweetest lady in the world. Her job description is to torture the football players on Wednesday."

Williams meant no harm, and neither does Mary Sudduth, the befreckled "yoga lady" with the smile of a kindergarten teacher and the pipes of a Parris Island, S.C., drill instructor. Memphis strength and conditioning coach Mike Stark wanted a midweek workout for the Tigers that would emphasize flexibility. He had tried martial arts, but the equipment cost money, and Stark felt the upper-body training mimicked the punching moves players already practice.

Once he decided that this summer he would not look for the hidden dragons in his crouching Tigers, Stark came back to yoga. Sudduth had been after him to let her have a crack at the team. He acquiesced.

"I look at kids blessed with a lot of God-given talent," Stark said. "When they are challenged, and they are having a problem doing it, I know it's good. It's crazy to see the women do balance movements and strength movements, and some of our kids can't do them."

It is 90-plus degrees on a summer Wednesday in the turf building on the South Campus at Memphis, which has 40 yards of artificial turf on the floor and 10 large exhaust fans high up on opposite walls. The fans are all bark and no bite; the air is too heavy to move. Sudduth and her assistants don't walk among the players so much as glide, the first clue that their bodies can do things that offensive linemen can only dream about. Sudduth is 46 and looks 10 years younger. She has been a fitness trainer for 28 years, a yoga teacher for three.

Sudduth isn't about to let the exhaust fans drown out her commands.

"Stand with your hands and feet on the floor and spin into a sitting position," Sudduth says, and does. She spins 180 degrees into the floor and makes it look easy. The players make it look impossible.

"It's kind of embarrassing," starting guard Blake Butler said. "A couple of girls get up there and embarrass us, doing stretches and poses and holding positions longer. They drop into a pose and you think, 'They're expecting us to do that?'"

The orders come, one after the other, and there are no huddles in which the players may catch their breath, no breaks between reps under the bench press.

"Foot at shoulder height!" Sudduth barks. "Holding it straight out!" Think of a punter who grabs his foot at the height of his leg kick and keeps it there.

Forty-five minutes in, Sudduth puts the players on their backs and has them perform what amounts to a reverse pushup. With all the trembling, their bodies look like suspension bridges in a windstorm. There are yells of exasperation throughout the room.

Butler is positioned next to fellow starting guard Andrew Handy. At 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, Handy's upper body juts out at swollen angles. The look on his face when Sudduth and her assistants, Tina Epps Thomas and Cathy Thordarson, assume a position shifts from skepticism to incredulity and back again.

"I had no clue," Handy said. "I underestimated it. I thought yoga was a lot of meditation and a lot of stretching."

His opinion now?

"Women can do a lot of things men can't do," he said with a laugh.

Stark says he sees a difference in the weight room. He is convinced it will help his players survive the multiplayer pileups, in which knees are torqued and joints are buried beneath hundreds of pounds. Butler and Handy say squat lifts have become much smoother as their hips and knees have stretched and strengthened.

"My balance has gone up a whole lot," Handy says. "I would start on one leg and want to fall down in a second. Now I'm getting better, staying on one leg probably 30 seconds at a time. I'm glad Coach came up with that yoga thing. I needed it."

Three weeks after this class, Sudduth introduced splits to the players. First, she wanted them to understand how they can work their muscles in different ways.

"One player got down as far as he could go," she said Thursday. "I told him,'OK, push your toenails down, drop your calf down and lift your quad up.' He dropped some more. They had to understand, where do you let go so you can open up more?

"They're doing so good," Sudduth continued. "It's neat for me. Yoga works so many different muscles. One of the guys said to me yesterday, 'You find angles for the muscles that I didn't know muscles could go.'"

And, thanks to the yoga lady, the Memphis Tigers found an angle for conditioning that they didn't know they could go.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.