By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Nate Burleson’s first visit to a yoga class did not go quite as smoothly as he planned, and by the end of the session, his body and his ego were both smarting.
“There’s these old ladies in there, and they’re looking at me like, ‘You call yourself an athlete?’” the Detroit Lions wide receiver recalled with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ True story. I was like, ‘I need to get up and walk out of here,’ but my pride wouldn’t let me walk out before everybody else, so I just sat in the back and acted like I was pulling the moves off, but they … knew I was messing up.
“I knew there was a good chance that I wasn’t going to be able to do everything in there, but I had no idea how tough it was,” Burleson added. “Other athletes would say, hey, it’s tough. But it was a lot tougher than I expected.”
Many big, strong, manly football players do yoga, including superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and almost all of them – yes, Burleson included – initially resisted taking up the practice.
“Oh yeah. 100 percent yeah,” Burleson said. “I remember when somebody first told me to do yoga. The first thing I thought of – that’s for girls.”
Center Dominic Raiola felt the same way, holding out for several years before finally caving to the recommendation of his wife, a certified yoga instructor. He eventually bought in.
“I didn’t for the first few years,” Raiola said. “I was like, ‘What is that? That’s for you guys.’”
Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis, an 11-year veteran, and Darius Slay, a rookie, had similar responses. It did not take too long for all of them to see the benefits once they gave yoga a chance.
Johnson, who recorded an NFL-record 329 yards in the Lions’ most recent game, does yoga as part of his pregame routine. The specifics of it vary based on what he wants to stretch out, but he definitely believes it is beneficial. He was no stranger to yoga but started doing it consistently when quarterback Drew Stanton was with Detroit from 2008 to 2011. Stanton’s wife, like Raiola’s, was a certified yoga instructor.
These days, Johnson just does the workout on his own.
“Whatever I’m feeling, if I need to work on my hamstrings, if I need a full-body deal or if I just need to work on my hips, whatever needs work,” Johnson said.
“I’ve seen definitely a positive impact from just being loose in my hips, hamstrings,” Johnson added. “I know it’s something that worked for me. I’ve just been doing it ever since.”
Slay first tried yoga with a bunch of other rookies-to-be while training for the NFL combine. Everyone was skeptical, but they quickly saw the value of the exercise as they became more flexible. Slay said they all do yoga now, at least in the offseason. For him, all the stretching provided another benefit.
“I used to have a little short stride when I was coming out,” Slay said. “It made my stride longer, so that’s why I ran pretty fast at the combine.”
Burleson said doing yoga or pilates or another exercise along those lines makes a world of difference for football players because it stretches out the muscles that are so often compressed.
“Lifting just makes you tight,” Burleson said. “You basically tear and re-tear your muscles. That’s how we build muscles, so if we’re continually doing that, all your muscles are going to do is get tighter and tighter as it heals up. With doing yoga and pilates and whatever else you need to do, it helps out.”
Making the body more flexible instead of tight also helps reduce the risk of injuries, which loom as a constant risk in such a grueling profession.
“What most guys are doing now, they’re using it as a preventative measure, so it’s almost like ‘prehab’ in a sense, and you’re able to get your body more flexible, and your ligaments and tendons, all that stuff can give a little bit more when you have it already stretched out and worked out,” Burleson said.
Raiola initially wanted nothing to do with yoga, content to stick with what got him to where he was – Olympic lifts in the weight room. As he learned more about yoga, though, his resistance waned.
“Some ways your body bends on the field you’re not supposed to bend,” Raiola said. “If you’re flexible and you can move, that’s going to help.”
With many of the older players doing yoga, younger ones quickly follow suit.
“Usually guys will look at veterans, and they’ll see, midway through the year they’ll see a veteran moving around great, he’s at practice running full speed, he doesn’t feel like he’s bothered by the wear and tear of the season,” Burleson said. “That’s when the young guys get to asking questions. ‘Hey, what do you do to stay loose?’ ‘What do you do on your off days?’
“And most guys, especially if you’ve been in the league for a while, your off day is a subtle work day,” Burleson continued. “You’re doing something, some type of tissue work with a massage therapist, chiropractor, yoga, pilates, you’re always trying to figure out a way to keep your body as loose and limber as possible.”
While many NFL players initially believed yoga to be an exercise just for woman, not gritty enough to fit the super masculine image of a football player, most of them implement it often now. In the end, guys were willing to suspend their suspicions.
“Anything that can help you stay on the field, I’m doing it,” Raiola said. “This year I just started doing pilates. Anything that going to help me stay on the field, I’m interested and listening.”