Summer Yoga Program Gains Popularity Among Illini

Supo Sanni is one of many Illini players who have benefitted from the team's voluntary summer yoga program the past few years.
Supo Sanni is one of many Illini players who have benefitted from the team's voluntary summer yoga program the past few years.

Oct. 21, 2011

This story appeared in the game program at the Oct. 15 Illinois-Ohio State game.

By David Rachke, Illinois Sports Information

Football can be described as the ultimate man's game. It involves athletes at the physical pinnacle of their lives colliding into each other around for 60 minutes in order to beat their opponent. So where exactly does yoga play into all of that? Using yoga as a voluntary offseason workout dates back to when head football strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez arrived in Champaign in 2005, with the help of an Illini football alumnus playing in the NFL.

"I got the idea from (former Illini offensive lineman) Tony Pashos," Hernandez said. "When we first got here, there was this guy who was working out all the time in the weight room and it was Tony. He was the biggest, most impressive human being I had come across in a long time. He was playing with the Ravens at that time and he would spend his offseasons down here (Champaign).

"I put some workouts together for him and it was impressive to watch him. So as consistent as he was in the weight room, every now and then, Tony would start to miss a few workouts. I would ask him what he had going on and he said he was spending some time doing yoga because he could not believe how much it helped with his recovery, his flexibility, his range of motion and his mental relaxation.

"You sit and think about yoga, and it's hard to fit it into a football context. But to watch a professional athlete at the level he was and to see the benefits he was getting from it, I really had to take it into consideration and start to research it."

Hernandez started looking around Champaign-Urbana for someone to instruct the team through yoga sessions with concentrations on core, hips, legs, flexibility and range of motion. The type of things every football player desires.

"What athlete doesn't want to be flexible?" junior safety Supo Sanni said. "They say the more flexible you are, the stronger you can get. And it helped me squat in a lot of different ways. As a taller defensive back, you have to stay low and be as flexible as possible."

So when the Fighting Illini football team finally started to use yoga in its offseason workouts to improve their physical capabilities, it was quite a shock to some players.

"(Going in) I thought that I could do it and it would be really easy," Sanni said. "But I found out very quickly that it wasn't easy."

"I didn't really know what to think," said senior defensive lineman Craig Wilson, who is regarded as one of the most flexible players on the team despite his 320-pound frame. "Everyone says it's a lot of stretching but after doing it, it's more than stretching. It's stretching and holding these positions for long periods of time. It's a workout. I used to think less of it, but now I see it's a heck of a workout."

Despite being awoken to how difficult yoga can be, the yoga sessions had big effects on the players' physical capabilities and they started seeing the dividends on the field.

"When I was on offense, sometimes they had to change the play and I had to be in my stance a lot longer, so my thighs would start burning," he said. "Now, I can stand there a lot longer and maintain my focus and still be explosive. I can maintain my stance a lot longer than I could before I started doing yoga."

But linemen aren't the only position that have benefitted from yoga, Sanni says that the skill positions benefit greatly too.

"It did a number of things for me: not only making me more flexible, but relaxing me a lot. Being able to stretch out those long muscles that I needed to get."

Hernandez also has seen the impact of yoga in the way the players workout.

"We usually train Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday in the summer," he said. "In the past, Wednesday has either been an off day or a make-up day. Because of guys' stiffness from the Monday and Tuesday workout, it was almost like starting over on Thursday. This year, the Thursday workouts were so much better because they were doing yoga on Wednesday,"

Overall, more amounts of stretching have been adopted by Hernandez, who believes that it helps players in the weight room as well as on he field.

"We do a tremendous amount of stretching activities from dynamic to static to proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and more. So in the activities they do in the weight room like squats, cleans and the hip work that they do, it's increased their range of motion and their recovery, especially," said Hernandez.

As Hernandez noted, yoga also is used for injury care and prevention, which Wilson believes is a reason that fewer Illini players are experiencing serious injuries.

"It helps prevent injuries," the senior defensive tackle said. "From last year to this year, you don't see that many guys out for the season and I think yoga is a big part of that."

With all these benefits, from being mentally relaxed in your stance to preventing season ending injuries, it was only a matter of time before more and more players wanted to participate in these yoga sessions in order to improve their abilities.

The first year that it was offered, some linemen and a few other players who needed to work on their flexibility volunteered for yoga. During the summer of 2011, Hernandez said that of the players who stayed on campus, the "vast majority" participated in the yoga sessions.

"They're the ones who see the benefits for themselves and the word spread," Hernandez said. "It spread like wildfire among them.

"They (the players) reap the benefits," Sanni said. "If you do yoga, you're flexible, you're a better athlete. A lot of athletes are catching on to the new (yoga) trend and it's becoming a bigger thing."