Yoga class tortures, then trains Duke football players

What type of trouble do adolescent idle hands within St. Louis’ city limits get into when they’re bored? Zach Muñiz wouldn’t know.

When he and his brother and two cousins were bored as high school freshmen, they popped in a yoga workout from the leading authority in the fitness sphere: McDonald’s.

“We were all drenched in sweat, and I liked it ever since,” Muñiz said.

So much so that Muñiz, now a sophomore cornerback at Duke, spent the spring 2015 semester trying to get into a yoga class. The demand was too high and he couldn’t find any friends willing to test their pliability, so he had to wait until this most recent summer session.

When he arrived for the first day of class, he was surprised to see a handful of his teammates waiting with their mats, too.

“I saw yoga was offered and thought it’d be helpful,” said Thomas Sirk, who is penciled in as the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback. “A lot of athletes, like Aaron Rodgers, take it.”

Sirk was looking for a break from classes that required his eyes be locked on a computer screen, but a few minutes into his first yoga class he was looking for another break -- from the twisting poses, protracted stretch sequences and burning shoulders. This wasn’t the calming yoga classes typified in pharmaceutical commercials. The classes were taxing. While the instructor was making it look easy and relaxing, the players were trying to catch their breath and “questioning if this is what you want to be doing,” Muñiz joked.

The Blue Devils football players never got used to the strain, but they all enjoyed the challenge. It was a respite from the normal conditioning and weightlifting that most football players have done since middle school.

“It really challenges you. You have to fight through, and it challenges in ways you don’t deal with as much,” Sirk said.

For the players, the class had a purpose. Sirk recognized quarterbacks often find themselves in compromising positions when 300-pound high-speed wrecking balls are bearing down on them. Sirk needed to work on his flexibility, specifically in his hips. Muñiz learned effective stretches before football practices.

“We worked on flexibility, balance and static strength, all of which help a football player,” instructor Lisa Wright said. “The balance exercises were particularly helpful in developing not just proprioception, which helps with innate agility, but balancing right, left, front and back sides of their bodies. I think most of them saw nice increases in flexibility and liked having yoga as a sort of warm-up before their group weight-training session.”

Wright said she also worked with the players on breathing. While running gassers this summer, Muñiz focused on his breathing and felt he had more energy after a 100-yard sprint. Sirk has learned to control his breathing during 7-on-7 workouts this summer.

Sirk said he’s better prepared for the role of starting quarterback mentally, too.

“Yoga makes you focus when you get tired, to focus maintaining your posture and balance,” Sirk said. “When you’re tired you tend to develop bad habits, and yoga helped me a lot.

Overall, Muñiz said he’s just a better player.

“This summer’s been weird. In the weight room, I’m getting more weight. In practices I’m feeling faster and making more plays,” Muñiz said. “Only thing I can think of is yoga and age. And I’ll keep getting older, so I've got to keep doing yoga.”