Sundays this fall, I’ve been teaching yoga to the Carolina Tar Heels football team. Each class is full of interesting moments—like the time the entire defensive line (average weight: 302 pounds) challenged one of the players to back his claim that he could do a full split, or the time another player went straight from crane to handstand, just after I’d proffered, “This pose is about balance, not upper-body strength,” or the time my suggestion “You might rest your fingers on your chest so you can feel your ribs” was greeted with chuckles and a good-natured call of “Maybe you can feel your ribs.”
I added some extra centering to last Sunday’s class. The boys had just returned from a loss that meant their goal of playing for the ACC championship was out of reach. Numbers in each of the four groups I see (O-line, D-line, specialists, and receivers/secondary) were low, as many players visited the sports-med office instead of doing the recovery workout. As the students lay on the floor, I talked them through some breath exercises designed to help them relax. (They love this and ask for it each week.) Fresh off reading Kelly McGonigal‘s nice description of the nervous system in November’s Yoga Journal, I expounded on the parasympathetic nervous system and ways to tap into it through breathing.
“When your parasympathetic nervous system is in control, you feel relaxed. When your sympathetic nervous system is in charge, you’re ready for ‘fight or flight,'” I said, as I walked around the room, “and that’s where you spend much of your game. Our work is to amp up the relaxation response and the parasympathetic nervous system.”
One of the players cracked an eye open. “What if stretching makes me feel ‘fight or flight’?”
It was another light moment, but a good question. The obvious answer is that it shouldn’t. Yoga, especially, may sometimes—by design—bring you close to the edge of panic, but the goal is to use your breath and your awareness of the present to keep things steadily in the camp of relaxation. For some of my students, that situation comes in handstand, or a yin hold of pigeon; for linemen, it comes in trying to connect fingertips behind the back. No matter how you get there, you’re given an opportunity to practice staying calm in the face of intensity. This skill is invaluable across everything you do: sports, driving, parenting, living, dying.