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St. Pius football turns to power yoga

St. Pius football players have embraced the virtues of yoga with the help of instructor Melora Lager. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

St. Pius football players have embraced the virtues of yoga with the help of instructor Melora Lager. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Did you hear the one about the football team doing yoga?

There’s no punch line.

That is the punch line.

“I was skeptical,” said St. Pius senior running back and linebacker Austin Waterman. “Yoga is not really a manly thing to do.”

His was the shared general consensus around the Sartans’ circle when head coach San Juan Mendoza asked yoga instructor Melora Lager to begin regular classes with his football team a couple of months ago.

Skepticism. A cocked eyebrow or two. A little snickering. Maybe all three.

Yoga? For football players?

“In yoga,” Lager said, “you only need a flexible mind, not body.”

So yes, the St. Pius football team does yoga. Deal with it. The Sartans have, and are embracing its virtues. Although, it wasn’t an immediate connection.

“You get into it,” junior quarterback Drew Ortiz said, “and the first 15 minutes, you’re really sweating, and you’re, like, ‘This is way more than I expected.’ ”

The evolution was simple. On a team trip to Isotopes Park in May, Mendoza said, it was a day devoted to fitness. Let it Be Yoga, Lager’s yoga business that opened 10 months ago at Montaño Plaza, was at the ballpark.

“It was a team building thing,” Mendoza said. “And our kids really liked it. I read up on some teams across the country doing yoga for injury prevention. … And the last time we did yoga, we had a great season where we didn’t have any injuries. I thought, ‘We need to bring this back.’ ”

St. Pius football player Zach Morrison goes through a yoga routine as part of the team’s preparation for the season. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

St. Pius football player Zach Morrison goes through a yoga routine as part of the team’s preparation for the season. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Indeed, St. Pius had done this once before, when Lager’s son, Bo Bostinto, was playing for Mendoza about a decade ago. But it didn’t last beyond that one season.

“I don’t know what happened,” Mendoza said, when asked why they didn’t continue with the yoga.

But now St. Pius has reinstituted it, and there was sound reasoning behind the decision. Mendoza believes it will help keep his team healthy.

“Now that our numbers are so low,” he said, “injury prevention is important in our program.”

The plan is do the yoga on Mondays, after lifting, conditioning and scouring through game film. It is one half of Mendoza’s master plan to keep the Sartans healthier, longer. The other is reducing the amount of hitting his team does in the second half of the season.

As for the yoga, there are tangible therapeutic benefits, players say, ranging from better balance, better flexibility and more stamina thanks to breathing exercises.

“As we continue to do it,” said linebacker Austin Schull, “I’m getting more strength in my joints, and I feel more balanced. At first, I was tumbling over and toppling.”

When she began with St. Pius in the spring, the super-friendly Lager knew she’d need to be part yoga instructor, part saleswoman.

“I told them what yoga was,” she said, “the actual meaning of the word. And then I briefly explained to them that yoga was originated in India – by a man!”

Once Lager broke down some stereotypical walls about yoga, it became plainly obvious that she had found plenty of eager students. She’s been working the Sartans outside on the softball field and sometimes in the main gym.

“This will help you with running, and this will help you catch the ball,”Ortiz said. “It works you out in a whole different way.”

Senior lineman Alex Sais was among those who wondered what purpose yoga would serve. Now he knows.

“Just in my breathing, in a lot of different situations, I’ll notice that this is my yoga breathing,” he said, adding that it gives him more energy during workouts.

“Deep breathing helps stamina,” said Lager, who has been teaching for 13 years. She has sort of tailor-fit some of the poses and given them a kind of football-themed vernacular.

“One of the main things,” she said, “is getting them to be focused on being still and settling in, so they’re really aware of their body.”

In Lager’s “sun salutations” pose, the athletes open their hips, making them more mobile, which is certainly welcome with all the stop-and-go, quick action on a football field, she said.

The “side-angle pose,” Lager said, is affectionately called the “I-catch-the-ball-every-time pose.”

Don’t chortle.

“We do that pose, and it really does help me catch the ball,” junior wide receiver Brenden Alcala said. “It’s really beneficial for all us wide receivers. Flexibility is the key.”

Waterman said yoga relieves some of the strain on a player’s muscles – which gets back to what Mendoza said about trying to keep athletes from appearing on the DL, especially at a school that has been struggling to load up on football players.

To that end, Lager said, strengthening is one of the key discussion points in all poses.

To his end, Mendoza is excited to see the results down the road.

“It’s mentally great for our kids, and physically, also,” he said.

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