Nelson Cruz is threading the needle in the early morning sunlight behind the weight room at Seattle's Spring Training facility in Peoria, Ariz. And no, this has nothing to do with poking a seeing-eye single between two well-placed infielders.
Instead, the Mariners slugger is on his hands and knees on a sticky black mat, with his left arm laced between his right hand and right knee. Cruz's eyes are closed against the sun, and he's breathing, deeply, to the cadence set by his yoga instructor, Leigh Ann Lesho, as he raises his right arm to the sky. The pose -- known as "threading the needle" -- opens and stretches the shoulders, chest, arms, neck and upper back.
This is just the second time Cruz, 35, has done yoga; the first was three days ago, when the Mariners and Pro Positive Yoga began their partnership at Spring Training.
While many teams include yoga in their Spring Training schedule and have yoga instructors available to their players during the season should they request them, most clubs do not commit to a season-long yoga practice. This is the first time the Mariners have done so, and they intend to have two classes per week through Spring Training and while at home during the regular season, and at least one per city while on the road, likely in the morning at their hotel. The logistics of this have been made inordinately easier by Pro Positive Yoga founder Matthew Repplinger, whose company matches MLB teams with certified yoga instructors with experience training athletes in whatever city they may happen to play.
"When Matthew reached out, we were intrigued by the way this program is set up and our ability to have access all season," said Mariners vice president and assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, who himself is a Bikram yoga devotee. "We hope this program allows us to have our players consistently practice yoga throughout the year, no matter where we are."
Kingston was inspired in no small part by crosstown coach Pete Carroll and the success he had with the Seahawks after adding yoga and meditation to their practice routine. Kingston read a story about quarterback Russell Wilson and his yoga practice, backed up with the instant credibility given by a Super Bowl win in 2014, and he knew it would also be applicable in baseball.
"From a sports-science standpoint, I think yoga is a piece of the puzzle," Kingston continued. "It puts a big emphasis on flexibility, mobility and stability -- and as far as keeping our players on the field, that's what it's all about."
The Pro Positive Yoga instructors also place a huge emphasis on the mindfulness side of yoga, teaching players to access and control their breath to quiet the mind and improve performance.
Lesho, who is one of Seattle's Spring Training instructors, was a collegiate and professional softball player, and he has impressed upon the players that the tools they learn on the yoga mat will help them to calm their minds while at the plate or on the mound and subject to many different thoughts and external stimuli.
"These guys have incredible muscle memory, but when it comes to performing in the game, it comes down to being able to relax the physical body enough to allow the muscle memory to take over, and that comes with an awareness of the breath," Lesho explained. "The idea is to direct your mind to the present moment and to the task at hand, and that can be very challenging. Yoga provides the tools to be able to direct the mind to specific points, because it increases our awareness of things that are happening in the present."
All-Stars Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez already have their own yoga routines, and they will continue them in the Mariners' program. With leaders such as Cano, Hernandez and Cruz on board, Seattle athletic trainer Rick Griffin hopes other players will also be inspired to come to the mat.
"I'm a realist, so I don't expect the whole roster to do this," Griffin said. "The guys who choose to do it, do it for a reason, and there's a lot of guys who don't want to do it. Baseball is probably the most superstitious sport there is. If you've never done it before and you're very successful, you say, 'Why do I want to do that?' And that's the mindset we have to try to change. But if we can get half of our guys to do it, that would be great."
The Mariners' first yoga class had 10 participants. The second, on a day filled with meetings, had only four; Cruz was joined by outfielder Dario Pizzano, pitcher Luiz Gohara and catcher Steven Baron.
Cruz, though, is already sold on the benefits, both physical and mental.
"I think the breathing experience can help with at-bats, being able to calm everything down," Cruz said. "When you take 600 at-bats, a few of those at-bats, you're going to feel lost. If you have something in your pocket that can help with that, it's nice to have it."