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MU players see benefits of yoga

MU yoga
Aug. 25, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Gage Niemeyer is an intimidating specimen of a man: 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds with a Duck Dynasty-esque beard and a mohawk. He can also strike a killer warrior pose.

If you're unfamiliar with the warrior pose, it's yoga; and, if you're unfamiliar with Niemeyer, check your game day program. This football player turned yogi is a senior offensive lineman for the 2013 edition of the Thundering Herd.

Niemeyer was one of approximately 30 football players, from quarterback to defense, that took part in a summer yoga class taught by Gina Hart-Smith. The five-week session took place in a yoga studio at the Marshall Rec Center, with a wall of windows looking out onto Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

"I'd been dealing with some back problems in the off-season, and I talked to the coaches about doing something to help deal with that and increase my flexibility," Niemeyer said. "They mentioned that they thought yoga would be a good idea so I enrolled, and I actually really liked it a lot. I'm already a lot more limber."

It's not just the physical act of yoga, according to Niemeyer's instructor, but also the breathing exercises and mental component that make up yoga's benefits. Yoga is defined by Webster's Dictionary as a Hindu-based philosophy that advocates a series of postures and breathing exercises practiced to achieve tranquillity and control of the body and mind.

"Yoga is the marriage of the body, mind and spirit. It brings everything together," teacher Gina Hart-Smith said. "To me, the best gift you can give me is taking the meditation and breathing techniques from my class and applying them to your life."

For five weeks, Smith tended to a class of 30 Marshall football players, showing them a variety of stretches and breathing techniques for not only the football field, but beyond. She said one of her most remarkable moments in teaching yoga was when Marshall's golf coach sent a student golfer to study in one of her classes.

"He said his coach encouraged him to take yoga because he was so angry. It was physical, it was mental," Smith said. "Our athletic department gets it. They know what yoga can do."

Scott Sinclair, head strength and conditioning coach said the class keeps the players flexible and adds to their weight room work by helping with extra stretching.

"They realized and can see the benefits of the class and how it helps them out here as a player," Sinclair said. "When they realized it would help them to be a better player, then they took part in it and really believed in it more.

"Plus, we don't have to take them to the weight room and do extra stretching with them because they are doing it in the class," he continued. "We can get right to work."

Sinclair cited legendary NFL running back Herschel Walker who studied ballet as one athlete who recognized the importance of alternative workouts. The NFL's New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles have both been known to employ yoga for their athletes.

"I tell (our players) all the time, it's like baking a cake. If you put all the ingredients together, you've got a good cake. If you take one out, the cake may not taste as good," Sinclair said. "We're lifting and running and doing all this stuff, so if we can interject a yoga class to help them with their flexibility, it's going to be a key ingredient for them to be better football players."

Smith said it takes a few classes for athletes to loosen their competitive nature and for most participants to slow down, put down the cellphone and just let go. Once they submit to the class, the benefits are immeasurable, she said.

"First and foremost, you can a better ability to focus the mind," Smith said. "For these guys, they know they may get knocked down, but they're going to get up faster and be able to bend and move more freely, they'll perform better and they'll get injured less frequently.

"Beyond the field, it teaches you how to breathe, to slow down, to focus and to enjoy what you have. Yoga gets me back to that centered place," she said.

For Niemeyer, yoga's results on the field will be tested mightily in the coming weeks against foes like Virginia Tech, Tulsa and, in a matter of days, Miami of Ohio. The Hemet, Calif., native said he's considering taking another yoga class in the fall, and found lessons he can take from it, for beyond the football field.

"You know, it will apply toward anything. If I can take those breathing exercises and use them to sit down for three minutes and just focus or use them when my back is hurting, that's a great benefit," Niemeyer said.

Sports reporter Grant Traylor contributed to this story.

Follow H-D reporter Beth Hendricks on Facebook or Twitter @BethHendricksHD.

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