With their heads tilted back and clasped hands pressed under their chins, DeMatha football players let their rhythmic exhalations fall over them in the steamy studio. As the 17 Stags were frozen in meditated form, sweat drizzled down their faces, none finding relief from the five skinny ceiling fans and loud vent recycling the room’s 104-degree air.
A petite instructor slowly paced among them, her words flowing forth like an auctioneer as she taught and tweaked the novice group in the opening moments of their sixth session at the Bikram Yoga Riverdale Park studio.
“I see some bending elbows; lock those elbows,” instructor and studio owner Kendra Blackett-Dibinga said. “Good. The more you hold your breath, the more intense the feeling becomes, and then it all goes downhill from there. Breathe. Relax.”
To survive a 90-minute session of Bikram yoga is to work counter to your instincts — breathe when your body says strain, stretch when your muscles beg to restrict, push when your mind screams to relent. That’s why, with the two-time defending Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion Stags preparing to face arguably their toughest schedule ever this fall, DeMatha Coach Elijah Brooks has embraced the unorthodox form of offseason training for his team.
“Everything about Bikram yoga starts with mental focus, and anything that’s going to give our guys a competitive advantage, we want to do,” said Brooks, who also participated in the classes. “Most games are won in the fourth quarter, and we have to do something that much more different to get our guys prepared. If this is what’s going to take them there, we’re willing to do it.”
Along with the usual gantlet of WCAC teams, the Stags will open the 2015 season against national powers Miami Central and American Heritage, the defending Florida 6A and 5A champs, respectively, before seeking revenge against Archbishop Wood, the Pennsylvania stalwart that handily beat them last year.
After seeing DeMatha’s basketball team turn its 10-week Bikram yoga experience into 33 wins last winter, Brooks followed suit in June, signing up his football players for a two-month pass to the Bikram Yoga Riverdale Park facility just down the street. Tuesdays were for skill positions, while the larger linemen and linebackers took to the mats on Wednesdays.
Upon sharing the news, Brooks was met with muffled laughs. How could a discipline of poses with names such as “half tortoise” and “full locust” help their burly physiques?
“I’m pretty sure a lot of people thought it was going to be a joke because it’s yoga, we’re supposed to be strong football players and it’s not normal to be doing yoga,” Stags senior running back Lorenzo Harrison said.
That attitude spilled into their first few sessions as players giggled and stumbled their way through the 26 poses. But once Harrison, who has attended extra classes in hopes of remedying his hamstring issues, and his teammates began to experience increased flexibility and elevated explosiveness during their football workouts, a more focused group emerged.
“In the beginning, they all start in the same place; they don’t know what to do,” said Blackett-Dibinga, who opened the studio last year. “Their arms are all over the place, they’re jumping all over their mats. It’s about trying to instill discipline in them, and that’s kind of the process. But eventually, the athletes learn how to sit themselves still.”
Plenty more obstacles remain, however, from the sauna-like conditions to the mind-bending techniques that twist their bodies like pretzels. As Blackett-Dibinga puts it, the heat is a welcome “distraction,” reminding the players to breathe as they attempt each daunting pose. In doing so, their muscles ultimately relax, like steel giving way to scorching temperatures.
“Our muscles are big and tight, and we’re not really used to stretching them like that, so when you first do it, it’s like ‘Whoa,’ ” Stags junior running back Anthony McFarland said. “But it helps. Last year, we struggled some with up-tempo offense and getting to the line quick, so I think this will help us because we’ll be loose and not worried about little injuries.”
Each player comes with at least one jug of water in tow, but because heavy hydration is encouraged before and not during the class, their swigs are limited to every 30 minutes. On occasion, like the time two players tried sneaking in bags of ice, Blackett-Dibinga will briefly open one of the two glass doors out of pity, breaking up the stuffiness with a rush of cold air.
At the close of the 90 minutes, the students cool down with breathing exercises before being handed a white cloth doused in water and a refreshing scent. Rather than escape the sweltering heat, most heed the instructor’s advice to remain on their backs, bask in the sedated state of their muscles and envision their “destination” as a team.
“We’ve got to continue to work toward another level so we can get over the hump in those tough times this season,” said Brooks, his black shirt soaked with sweat. “If our bodies don’t fail us, we’re not going to lose.”