Relax.  Breathe.  Stretch.

Those aren’t typically words you’ll hear during a collegiate men’s ice hockey practice, but times are changing at St. Thomas University.

It is a good workout – it’s a core yoga and there is a lot of movement of the body and the guys get a pretty good workout.
-- St. Thomas head coach Jeff Boeser

During the preseason, the Tommies introduced yoga as a part of their regular strength and conditioning routine. Every Tuesday afternoon, the team gathers for a yoga class with instructor Kristin Lucius, who also works in the school’s development office. She teaches the student-athletes Vinyasa-style yoga, focusing on core strength, balance and flow. It also emphasizes breathing in order to connect the body and mind.

When most people envision a yoga class, they think of an activity that involves mostly women -- not big, burly hockey athletes.  But St. Thomas assistant coach Parker Burgess set out to modify those views this season, including the opinion of the Tommies’ head coach Jeff Boeser.

“Hockey training is becoming so dynamic and there are so many different ways to train,” Burgess said.

Boeser has been with the program for 30 years, and is in his second season as head coach. He was a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team, and self-admittedly has traditional views about hockey training. But the 24-year-old Burgess suggested yoga may be beneficial for the team, especially to improve their flexibility in order to prevent injuries.

“[Boeser’s] been around hockey for a long time so he is pretty old school,” Burgess said. “He’s never done yoga or heard of hockey players doing yoga. I tried to explain it as best I could to him. One great thing about Coach Boeser is that he’s really receptive to new ideas from his assistant coaches and open to change. He realizes the game is always evolving and there are new ways to do things and new ways to gain an advantage.”

“We have a young coaching staff – I’m kind of the old guy here – and last February we had an opportunity to try a yoga class and we got a pretty good response from our players,” Boeser said. “I noticed we had a lot of players that had poor flexibility and we were having some issues with pulled groins and injuries like that.”

Burgess, who split his hockey career between Robert Morris University and St. Thomas, began doing yoga towards the end of his playing career while working out in the offseason in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

“I found it really beneficial,” Burgess said.  “I thought it was just another outlet for our guys to gain an edge. Workouts for hockey have typically been lifting weights and running, so I thought yoga would be a change of pace for the guys and they could take something different from it.”

WHAT IS VINYASA-STYLE YOGA?

Vinyasa is a term that covers a broad range of yoga classes. The word Vinyasa means “breath-synchronized movement.” In other words, the teacher will instruct you to move from one pose to the next on an inhale or an exhale. This technique is sometimes also called Vinyasa Flow, or just Flow because of the smooth way that the poses run together and become like a dance.

This style allows for a lot of variety, but will almost certainly include Sun Salutations. If your yoga class schedule lists a Vinyasa class, expect movement, not just stretching. Whether the class is fast or slow, includes chanting, or is very alignment-oriented will depend on the individual teacher. Some very popular yoga styles, such as Ashtanga and Power Yoga, make use of the Vinyasa method, but they will be listed on a class schedule by their individual names.

Source: About.com

One of the women’s hockey players from St. Thomas recommended to the men’s coaches that Lucius would be up for the challenge. She also teaches classes on campus, and at CorePower Yoga in Minneapolis.

But while the coaches and Lucius were excited about the positive impact yoga could make on the hockey team’s condition, they were a little worried about the players reaction to the idea.

“I was a little skeptical at first because it is not really your normal activity for men’s hockey teams,” junior forward Spencer Brendel said. “My dad had introduced it to me originally, so I was personally all for it. As a team, I was afraid of how the guys would like it. On Mondays, we have our heavy lift, so we go in on Tuesday and get loose.”

“They’ve been pleasantly receptive,” Burgess said. “With male collegiate athletes sitting in a studio and doing different yoga poses, we were kind of nervous how they would react. It’s neat to see that they all take something different out of it – some like the relaxation and breathing, others like to work on their flexibility and balance, other guys like the core poses.”

Lucius is proud of the progress the hockey players have made since starting the class in the fall.

“I thought they were really good sports and caught on really quickly,” Lucius said. “The style of yoga I teach is a vinyasa – a power style of yoga – so there’s a good amount of strength and flexibility work, so I think they felt comfortable with a lot of the strength postures. The flexibility has been a little more challenging, but they always feel good once the class is over. They know it is paying off and working for them.”

Even the “old school” coach believes in the non-typical practice.

“We don’t know all the results yet, but so far, so good,” Boeser said. “We haven’t had any pulled groins or hamstrings, and our flexibility seems to be getting a little better. It is a good workout – it’s a core yoga and there is a lot of movement of the body and the guys get a pretty good workout.”

Lucius takes the student-athletes through a series of poses, including the Sun Salutation, Runner’s lunge, Half Pigeon, King Pigeon, Eagle pose and various forward folds and wraps.

“I’m cuing them, and they have to listen really carefully,” Lucius said. “I give them three cues, and then three refinements. They’re listening to what I’m saying as opposed to watching what I’m doing.  I think that was a challenge for them to get used to the language. It can be frustrating.”

“It was a learning experience during the first couple of weeks, but I think we all have the basics down now,” Brendel said.

St. Thomas (6-3-2, 4-1-1) currently sits on top of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference standings.