JenRay Michener never imagined she would be the type of person to get into yoga, figuring it was too “earthy.” Still, she gave it a try in college and realized there were some benefits, but it took a nasty tumble on the ski slopes in Colorado—enough to throw her knees out of whack and turn her true love of playing hockey into an arduous task— for her to see the light.
“I ran into a friend who had been doing yoga in Denver and she asked if I wanted to try it,” Michener says. “I wasn’t thinking about my knees. I just remembered starting up and within two weeks, my knees felt fantastic. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something to this. There’s a lot more going on than just sweating and getting flexible.’”
Now Michener, 35, plays weekly in an adult hockey league in Denver while practicing yoga at least twice a week. She can’t imagine one without the other.
“I’ll come back from a long tournament, maybe pond hockey, and it’s cold and your joints get achy. I’ll do yoga the next morning even though I’m dead tired, and it’s detox. It’s a good balance,” she says. “We do this to our bodies. If we want to play hockey for the rest of our lives, I think we have to repair and restore from the damage done from hockey.”
Anyone who has tried yoga knows it’s more than just breath control and relaxation. It involves specific movements and body postures that give the entire body a workout.
But can yoga really help you score more goals or save more pucks? Dana Santas has built an industry around a definitive answer of “yes.”
The Tampa-based creator and director of Radius Yoga Conditioning was introduced to NHL goalie Tim Thomas though his agent early in Thomas’ career with the Boston Bruins. Thomas credits his work with Santas as an influencing factor in rising from backup goalie to Stanley Cup champion and playoff MVP.
Santas works with countless NHL players and other professional athletes, helping them fine-tune the firing of their muscles and ensuring proper pelvic movement through yoga.
“All of our muscles are related and they all talk to each other. Once you throw one out of line, it can develop a pattern that crosses the body. You can have left shoulder issue that turns into a right hip issue,” Santas says. “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, it’s just yoga,’ but we’re using yoga movements for them to actively think about how they restore the right muscle firing patterns.”
For hockey players, Santas says, that specifically means a lot of poses that work the pelvic region and hips.
“All of the lunging movements, warrior poses, lunges with twists,” she says. “Hockey players need to be mobile through their mid-back—their T-spine—and their hips. … Anything that’s going to help build hip mobility.”
If hockey players aren’t mobile in the proper areas, Santas says, their bodies will start compensating in ways that put stress on less mobile areas like the lower back and knees. That can lead to injury and hamper a player’s ability to access their core strength.
And when that happens? Well, you don’t play as well.
BUT IS YOGA FOR ME?
The same principles that Santas employs for world-class athletes also apply to average adult league players. Yoga classes are readily available in virtually every market at fairly modest fees.
The greatest barrier, sometimes, is the perception of what it is.
“I remember the first couple of classes being kind of childish about it, but then I started realizing there was really something to it,” Michener says. “I think a lot of people think they have to be flexible in order to go.”
For many players, trying is believing. Once they see results both in their bodies and on the ice, they wish they had started doing yoga sooner.
“I would say most of the guys on my team have tried it or they want to. Once they’ve tried it, they enjoy it,” Michener says. “One of my teammates actually had a really bad injury in high school to his back. His doctors told him he would have to do yoga if he wants to get through life. He plays hockey and is still active and does yoga. Whenever I tell him I’m going, he’s all about it.”