Leafs Nation November 2004

Some hockey players are now discovering how yoga is helping to perfect their game.

By Jen Horsey

It has been less than 10 minutes since the start of the class and the off-white walls of this dimly lit yoga studio are already glistening with moisture. The air is hot and heavy with sweat. A drummer sits in the corner, banging out a meditative rhythm as about two dozen people follow the instruction of a sinewy, dreadlocked yoga instructor standing in the center of the room.

“Inhale and reach,” he commands. There is a whooshing sound as two dozen Lycra-bound students suck in the moist air and raise their arms toward the low ceiling, performing yet another grueling repetition of the opening Sun Salutation posture. “Exhale and fold.” Together, these students at Toronto’s Downward Dog Yoga Centre surrender to gravity, enacting a slow and controlled swan dive and dropping their hands to the floor.

For nearly two hours, these yoga devotees will work their way through the string of postures that make up the Ashtanga yoga series. They will twist and stretch and breathe together until their minds are numb and virtually every muscle in their bodies has been touched by the exercise. When it’s all over, they’ll rest motionless together for a few moments in a traditional recovery period known as Savasana.

As they head out the door, most will have a satisfied feeling that approaches a mild form of euphoria. Others – the few who, in any athletic pursuit, push themselves too hard – will be so exhausted they’ll barely be able to walk.

A misconception persists among the hard-fighting, late-night hockey set that yoga is a lightweight, crunchy granola activity, best suited for vegans and aging hippies. But as this type of workout continues to increase in popularity, many people are coming to see it as a great complement to any exercise regimen – including hockey.

“I can’t put a tangible number on how much better it’s made me,” says Mike Ruysseveldt, 38, a goalie who regularly plays recreational hockey in various leagues throughout Toronto. “Yoga has allowed me to not play hockey for a week – and not do any other exercise – and then go out and not risk an injury.”

He says he took up yoga a few years ago on the recommendation of his sister and now practices about three days a week. He admits to being reluctant at first and says it wasn’t as easy as he thought it was going to be. “It was painful,” he says. “I remember I was very sore the next day.”

But anyone who’s ever taken to the net, or even watched closely as the goalie bends and flexes, can imagine the benefits of added strength, agility and focus that Ruysseveldt says comes from his yoga practice.

Ruysseveldt is such a devotee he now runs a new Toronto yoga studio, Serenity Yoga Studio, with his yoga-teacher girlfriend and makes going to class a regular part of his routine. “I would highly recommend it as part of a fitness regimen. It enhances every aspect of whatever sport you’re into,” he says.

He’s not alone. Many professional athletes are doing yoga these days. Even Toronto Maple Leafs strength and condition coach matt Nichol recommends it to the players he trains. He took it up himself – albeit reluctantly – about four years ago. “I didn’t want to go, but a friend took me to a Bikram yoga class,” admits Nichol, adding he too was humbled by how difficult it was.

Yoga has enjoyed a rapid rise to popularity in recent years and is increasingly attracting a more mainstream crowd. “I get people coming to me who, years ago, would never have come,” say Temmi Ungerman Sears, 43, a longtime instructor who runs YogaBuds™ Iyengar yoga studio in Toronto. “Now there are Crown attorneys and accountants... More and more people are appreciating its value.”

Jagjit Bhathal was surprised by the effect yoga has had on his game. The 33-year-old Toronto lawyer has been playing hockey since he was a kid, but these days, when he’s not on the ice playing cen0tre, he can be found working his way through the Ashtanga series at Downward Dog. “It helps me get a little bit more focused on the ice. I can guarantee it improves my hockey game,” Bhathal says, adding he recommends it to his teammates. “I describe it as pretty vigorous and challenging and demanding, but at the same time energizing and calming,” he adds. “It’s got a great calming effect.”

Ungerman Sears notes that on a purely physical level, yoga offers many benefits to hockey players that they can take with them to the ice. She points to the tight hamstrings, Achilles tendons and calves developed by chasing the puck and says yoga can help release some of that tension.

But with so many options available, how to choose the right class? Iyengar, for example, follows a much slower pace than the vigorous Ashtanga style that Ruysseveldt and Bhathal favour, and offers more of a focus on body alignment. Sears admits that finding the one that’s right can be a daunting proposition, but it’s well worth the research. “You have to know what you’re looking for and if you don’t know, then you have to window shop for a while.”

She recommends doing some reading online to find out about a few different styles and then trying classes at several studios to discover the right match. If the class feels safe and comfortable, she suggests, it’s probably a good selection. And sometimes what works can be counter –intuitive. The classic work-hard/play-hard, type A personality might be drawn to the energetic Ashtanga environment, but might actually find more benefit in the more meditative pace of an Iyengar class.

“Yoga’s about balance,” she says. “If we’re doing all of one thing how can we improve that one thing? We bring balance into our lives by adding complementary elements.”