Strike a pose: Gophers embrace yoga

Show up at the University of Minnesota's Gibson-Nagurski football complex on a Thursday morning, and you'll see something possibly unprecedented in nature: a 300-pound Gopher in a downward facing dog.

Minnesota has incorporated a weekly teamwide yoga session into its summer conditioning program. It would give new meaning to the term mat drills if the players actually used yoga mats. Instead, they strike their poses right there on the turf of their indoor facility, sometimes using their T-shirts as a cushion.

Strength coach Eric Klein introduced the one-hour yoga class to the team on June 12. When they first heard about it, several players -- like senior safety Cedric Thompson -- were like, "Om, what?" They thought yoga was just a lot of stretching and weird chants.

"I didn't really buy into it at first," Thompson told ESPN.com. "[Friends] had tried to get me to do it before, and I'd always said no."

Others, such as senior offensive lineman Tommy Olson, saw it as a break from grueling morning workouts, which begin at 6:45 a.m. in the summer.

"We were all kind of excited because we thought we'd be getting out of conditioning and running," Olson said. "But it turns out that in yoga, you've actually got to do some tough poses, and you've got to have some strength, too."

The idea was hatched this spring, when head coach Jerry Kill asked Klein -- who has served as Kill's strength coach since 1994 -- what he thought about yoga as a technique for football training. Kill and his staff had noticed an ESPN The Magazine article last year about how the NFL's Seattle Seahawks had embraced the practice, and nothing inspires imitation quite like a Super Bowl title. They also knew that All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a Minnesota native who often works out in the Gophers' training facility in the offseason, uses yoga to stay in shape.

Other college football teams, like Illinois and Memphis, had worked it into their programs in the past.

Klein had little doubt about yoga's effectiveness. His younger brother, Scott, is a devoted yogi who spent time in India unlocking its secrets. Klein had folded a couple of basic yoga poses into stretching regimens over the years, but he said this is the first time he's gone all-in with it for a team.

"I believe in it," he said. "I tell our guys that you have to stress the body to make it better. But even more importantly, you have to focus on your recovery to allow us to stress it again the next day."

Klein approached Christine Ojala, owner of Thrive Mind Body in Minneapolis, about designing a yoga regimen for the team. The two had met shortly after Kill's staff first came on board in December 2010 and learned that a few players were taking a yoga class taught by Ojala.

A Minnesota graduate who grew up near the old football stadium, Ojala lunged at the chance to work with the Gophers. She told ESPN.com that one of her main goals is teaching the players how "to access the breath in a more informed and intelligent way."

"It is very easy to teach a power yoga-style class," she said. "But what these guys need, after working hard, physically and mentally, is a restorative or yin style class. They need to recuperate from being worked to the max. Yoga is one of the best methods for restoring the mind, body and spirit to their essential, balanced and strong states of being."

Kill and Klein believe in emphasizing flexibility, not just strength, in their conditioning program. It's one of their mantras, you might say. Yoga should help with that, and Olson said he was already feeling more flexible after just two sessions. Ojala believes that regular yoga classes can help reduce injuries.

Yoga also teaches mental discipline and a calm state of mind. For an hour each week, the players block out thoughts about the upcoming season, school, girlfriends, video games and all other concerns while concentrating instead on their breathing and technique. Klein hopes that players gain the ability to "clear the mind of clutter" and that it transfers to the football field. In other words, the goal is to remain calm and focused when the play clock is ticking down, the crowd is roaring, and the game is on the line.

Of the millions of Americans who practice yoga, we can surmise that there aren't many gurus who look like defensive tackles. In the Gophers' first yoga session, Olson said he and several other linemen repeatedly fell over while trying to get into some of the more challenging stretches. One of the toughest, he said, was one called the awkward pose, which involves bending the knees and putting your arms out in front of your body.

"It's actually pretty funny, because [the linemen are] all working hard to get the poses," Thompson said. "Our instructor tells us if you need to take a break, put your hand down. And they're always the first ones to put their hands down. But I know they all really like it."

In fact, the yoga sessions have unexpectedly one of the players' favorite hours. At a recent Wednesday practice, team captains talked about how much they were looking forward to it the next day, Olson said.

"We're all just trying to get more flexible as a team because we work out so much, and we're trying to relax our minds, too," he said. "It's a really good way to recuperate from a long week."

Klein will continue the weekly sessions throughout the summer and then will ask the players if it's something they'd like to keep doing during the season. Thompson is a full convert now and says he's considering taking a yoga class on his own this fall.

"My body feels longer and I've stretched farther than I have with other stretches," he said. "I'm pretty sure everybody who was skeptical is all on board now. We all really like it and look forward to Thursdays."

Namaste. And Ski-U-Mah.