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Players put machismo aside for benefits of yoga

Baseball is a macho sport. Baseball players are bred on toughness, broken in with age-old training techniques that their hardscrabble forefathers cobble into a broad, manly category called, among other things, "getting after it."

The notion of reporting to a room where the lights are dimmed, soft music is playing and the instructor speaks in a calm voice and spouts odd terms such as "downward-facing dog" and "Namaste" doesn't exactly qualify as old-school hardball.

Then again, if a player is willing to venture into the foreign land known as the yoga studio, he's usually in for the rudest of awakenings. In a serious hurry.

"They show up, even to the most basic class, and they think it's some easy thing, some foo-foo thing for women," said Tracy Hayes, a yoga and Pilates instructor and the wife of Chris "Disco" Hayes, a Minor League right-hander.

"After getting into the first simple pose, they're all crying like babies. They realize how difficult it is."

And eventually, they see how rewarding it is.

Matt Repplinger, a Denver-based baseball yoga consultant, says the connection between the age-old teachings of yoga and baseball have grown "exponentially" in the last five to 10 years. He said adventurous players looking for an edge would always seek it out, but now it's becoming more and more accepted throughout the ranks of the Grand Old Game.

"There's always been the chew-spit mentality in baseball, and I suppose that will always be there," Repplinger said. "Baseball people can be set in their ways. But it's growing, and it's gotten to the point where guys aren't ashamed to admit that they're doing it.

"And it used to be that guys who did do it wouldn't tell anyone about it, because it gave them their edge."

But as any instructor or disciple will quickly tell you, the benefits of yoga go far beyond gaining strength and flexibility. The focus, attention and mental fortitude required to not only contort and compress the body into the poses but to stay in those poses for long periods of time can often translate to the desired "zone" when on the field.

More and more teams are signing on during Spring Training, with optional classes available, and players are seeking out individual instructors in the offseason.

Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants is a longtime student, and Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees has dabbled in yoga and did it with New York-based instructor Gwen Lawrence as recently as 2009.

Lawrence is a huge baseball fan. Her husband, Ted, is a former player who was drafted and spent time in the Minors. He's now the high school baseball coach at Rye Country Day School in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., and Gwen travels to Florida with Ted to help prepare the team during its own yearly Spring Training.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman knows to go to her when his players are interested in yoga fine-tuning, and Lawrence also works with the New York Giants football team, New York Rangers hockey team, the Red Bulls pro soccer team and several colleges. She has a program called "Power Yoga for Sports" that comes with DVDs. Yankees prospect Dante Bichette Jr. has been using them for years.

Lawrence said her approach to baseball players isn't what you might expect when you walk into a yoga studio. You're not going to smell incense and hear Yanni, for example. What you might hear is Lawrence screaming at you.

"I go into their world," Lawrence said. "I don't ask them to come into my world. The object is to boil down a 5,000-year-old art to the most structured, make-sense time for them. So I'll get in their face a bit. I'll yell, 'No! You're staying in that pose! Find a way!' It's that kind of training aspect.

"I've been known to drop an F-bomb or two."

Alan Jaeger, a longtime yoga instructor and pitching guru who currently co-operates Jaeger Sports, which has been known lately for its commitment to long-tossing techniques for pitchers, says he has always gone with a different approach. Jaeger has worked with Zito since the beginning of the left-hander's career, and Jaeger also has taught yoga to Boston reliever Andrew Bailey and former players Mike Lieberthal and Joel Zumaya, among others. He says his sessions always begin and end with meditation.

"You enter a lot more of that calm, relaxed, quiet presence and state," Jaeger said. "A lot of it is about slowing down and deepening poses, and getting into your breath and calm perseverance. It's a quiet discipline.

"Getting in game situations, you're sped up. And that's not the problem, because these guys are already built-in competitors. You can be as quiet and calm as you want, but poses for 90 seconds are brutally challenging. Breathing is getting faster.

"But it's about slowing down, quieting down, detaching from outcome and consequences in your world. I want their attention on their breath and their body, not their head. Be present. Thoughts are going to take you into the future or past and be distracting. There's nothing to do with the action in front of you. My commands are about presence, attention. 'What are you doing now?'"

Elena Brower, the New York-based founder and co-owner of the Virayoga studio, isn't surprised that different teachers could have such different methods. She says it's imperative that each prospective student finds the right teacher for their mind and body type. That's why baseball players require different needs in yoga from football or basketball players.

Then again, Brower said, some things about it will always stay the same.

"There's a level of focus and refinement of attention that yoga brings to athletes," Brower said. "Athletes can identify, because it's exactly what they can identify when they're in their space, on the field. It's the same feeling. It's just the thing you do. It's the same experience. So it really is the same teaching.

"Can you put attention in one place and just leave it there? And can you switch from that to being aware of everything? Can you see it all? That's basically what they're doing as athletes. They have to see the whole field and the one thing they have to accomplish."

Lawrence knows it's helped A-Rod. She said with a laugh, "The last time I worked with him was the last time he won."

And Hayes, who has been a submarine pitcher and a sidearmer and a conventional righty, knows it's helped him with flexibility and focus as a pitcher and can help other baseball players, too, if they get past any stigmas that might prevent them from walking in that door and getting in that brutal first pose.

"Early on when I was doing it, it was like, 'OK, I'm weird. I throw really weird. I have this really weird wife,'" Hayes said.

"And now it's, 'Well, maybe we're not so weird.'"

Andrew Bailey, Mike Lieberthal, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Zito