The Om Team: Burlington High School footballers add yoga to the game plan | Health + Fitness | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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The Om Team: Burlington High School footballers add yoga to the game plan 

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It's unlikely the god Shiva was pondering pigskin when he “invented” yoga 5000 years ago. Historically, Eastern enlightenment and American football haven’t exactly shared the same bench. But the postures spelled out in the Upanishads are wholly compatible with athletics. So compatible, in fact, that the football team at Burlington High School is supplementing its regular training schedule with twice-weekly classes. The players are hoping the mental and physical discipline of yoga will give them a leg up on the competition.

The Seahorses look more like sawhorses as they struggle to grab the backs of their heels in a killer hamstring stretch. Kelley Lyons and Marla Bell of Bikram Yoga in Burlington put 66 adolescent guys — and usually all six adult coaches — through the paces. Instead of shouting for sit-ups and squat thrusts, they call for “concentration, meditation and focus.” Standing on a folding chair at the front of the room, Bell orders, “Push your knuckles into your chin, squeeze your elbows together, exhale and feel the snoring sound.” All at once, the motley collection of athletes is transformed into praying pretzels, a roomful of budding Buddhas.

Forget about the classic warrior image of the padded football star. In the heated, incensed wrestling room at BHS, the barefoot players are sharing a contemplative moment, each on his own beach towel. Everyone appears to be wearing low-slung, baggy blue gym shorts. Some are shirtless. Others wear modified team T-shirts sporting mantras like “Intensity. Integrity. Intel-ligence.”

Is there room for “Indian exercise” or “introspection” in that lineup? Coach Jim Merrier says the kids have been very receptive to the ancient discipline. “Any time you can get these guys thinking outside the lines of traditional football training, it’s huge,” suggests the former policeman who played for Burlington as a youth. It’s his first season coaching the team. “I mean, football is like the most macho sport there is. Yoga’s kind of a female thing. It’s amazing to see a bunch of teen-age guys up there. You’d never expect to see that.”

The idea actually came from Bell, who grew up in a football family. “She called up Jim and he was completely interested,” Lyons explains. Bell knew funding would be a problem. So she convinced Pomerleau Real Estate to pay for it. “A bunch of the people who work there come into the studio all the time — Ernie being one of them,” Lyons explains. “They totally support it. A lot of them have kids that age.”

Not surprisingly, “the kids” had some initial reservations. “We were all like, ‘What’s this going to do for us?’” says Noah Myott, a junior and wide receiver who recalls the announcement of the unorthodox approach with a convincing eye roll. Three weeks later, he’s in the front row with senior stand-outs Dillon Devrow and Corey Rondeau, who are transforming every audible order into a concerted physical effort. After 10 minutes of “stretching,” both boys are glowing. After 15, even the tops of their feet are soaked in sweat.

“All football teams should do yoga,” Rondeau proclaims. “It prepares you mentally and physically and gives you an advantage over other teams… It hurt the first two times,” he concedes. Now Rondeau finds the workout beneficial. “In February, I injured my gluteus. This is helping to loosen it up.”

Anatomical references abound in the hour-long session. Wherever they can, Lyons and Bell try to mix science with the spiritual stuff. They alternate roles — one walks around the room adjusting bodies while the other plays the drill sergeant at the front of the room.

“Both Kelley and Marla do an excellent job of relating the yoga to the football experience,” Marrier observes. Mid-balancing act, Lyons suggests, “You want to find that center of gravity here so you can feel it on the field.” Bell tries tough love: “You don’t want to end up like Terrell Davis — not able to play football because of an injury,” she suggests, referencing the running back for the Denver Broncos.

Both take some liberties with the Indian art form whose name roughly translates “joining.” While the boys offer their “oms” in the cross-legged position, Lyons encourages them to “think about unity, togetherness, team…” Anyone who has learned an asana knows that’s a bit of a stretch.

The lotus position looks to be forgotten by the time the boys move outside into the hot afternoon. Not a single sun salutation is offered as they line up on the grass, in full uniform, for calisthenics. Even at Burlington High School, the inverted handstand surrenders to the jumping jack.

“They haven’t grasped the concept of applying the yoga on the field — the mental aspect of it,” says Marrier. “A lot of people will tell you that’s 50 percent of the game.”

It remains to be seen whether the yoga training will make a difference for the Seahorses when they suit up for the first game of the season on Friday. And it may be karma, not coincidence, that their non-limbered opponents from Springfield call themselves Cosmos.

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About The Author

Paula Routly

Paula Routly

Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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