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Florida Today

Athletes increasingly turning to yoga for focus and flexibility

Yoga is spreading its wings.

According to the 2005 Yoga in America study sponsored by Yoga Journal magazine, Americans spend $2.95 billion annually on yoga classes and products, and 16.5 million U.S. adults practice yoga -- 77.1 percent of whom are women and 22.9 percent men.

Yoga has become as mainstream as mochas, but much more effective across the spectrum of athletics. Enthusiasts in sports from golf to tennis, surfing and triathlon are turning to yoga as part of their training.

Just ask golf superstar Tiger Woods or tennis queen Venus Williams, pro soccer player Cobi Jones or Indy Car Series driver Danica Patrick -- all yoga practitioners.

Or just ask golfer John Oertel, 60, of Merritt Island.

"Flexibility is really the main thing that I get out of yoga that applies to golf," said the NASA retiree. "Being able to turn, being able to squat down and read a putt and get back up. I've got to feel that it's helped."

Oertel averages about three Bikram yoga sessions a week and also finds the breathing element important.

"The whole 90 minutes of yoga," he said, "is basically trying to control your breathing."

And it also can be used to keep golfing partners in check.

"When some of my buddies give me a hard time, I just say 'Look, you come, you go to class, you make it through, I'll pay for your class,' " Oertel said. "There's no sitting . . . it's 90 minutes of working your butt off."

Once Oertel retired, he found he had the time for visits to the health club for conventional exercise and yoga. He chose yoga as the way to go not only for golf but for his life in general.

"It is important," he said. "I chose yoga, and I'm convinced I made the right decision. You can go to the healthplex and pump iron on the machines or use the free weights. The yoga, basically everything gets worked out."

And that includes the baggage many people carry when approaching yoga for the first time.

"Let go of the idea that you're not flexible enough to take a yoga class," said instructor Annette Armstrong of Downtown Yoga in Melbourne.

"One woman said, 'I'm overweight, I don't like to sweat, and I am not flexible. I really shouldn't be here should I?' It was as if she was looking for me to tell her, 'You know what, this is not the place for you.'

"She said to me, 'I haven't worked out since I was in high school . . . and I don't like to be in a room with a lot of people.' And I said to her, 'You've come to the right place because you are going to face every one of those obstacles. And if you breathe through your process and let go and control your thoughts, you will be perfectly fine.' She's lost over 40 pounds and she still comes consistently."

The benefits extend well beyond the studio as Armstrong, 35, of Merritt Island, learned as she worked her way into the Indian River Lagoon for an open water swim as part of training for her first triathlon.

"I was in the river, and it was the first time where all of us were going out together so I thought, 'OK, interesting, swimming no problem.' I lost it," Armstrong said. "And mentally, I had to stop myself. Physiologically, I could have A: completely lost it or B: go in survival mode, which for me was turn on my back, relax for a moment and just control my breath. The moment I could bring my awareness to my breath, I was able to relax and the moment I was able to relax, that's when I could actually rationally think as opposed to going into panic mode.

"So that's where yoga can be so beneficial."

For others, yoga has transcended the benefits of controlling breathing and the related benefits.

Instructor and sometime surfer Reb Hirsch, 51, of Cocoa Beach, says yoga is an ideal compliment to many sports.

"All of our Western sports, we have those repetitive movements that cause imbalances in our body," she said. "Yoga is awesome. I try and tell other surfers it will improve your focus, it will improve your endurance, it will improve your balance. It improves literally on every level, whatever sport you're in."

But Hirsch adds, the people she sees when instructing at the Yoga Center in Melbourne and two local gyms aren't limited to just athletes.

"They range from people who have never done yoga to people who have been doing yoga for 15 years to people who are so bound up with muscles and strength that they are absolutely rigid and don't have full range of motion in any joints," she said.

The ages of participants range from very young adults to 84-year-old men and women, she added.

"A lot of what we hear now is, 'my doctor told me yoga might be good for me,' " Hirsch said.

For Wolfgang Jensen, 56, of Indialantic, a speech therapist at Health South Sea Pines Rehab Hospital, yoga played a major role in his recovery from a hip replacement 13 months ago.

"I began to do it three months ago," he said. "I think it certainly has helped loosen up my hip where it has more range of motion. It's probably strengthened some of the muscles around the hip. Meanwhile, it's also helped my breathing and stretching the rest of my body like my left leg, the good leg, that had been really tight because it had been doing all the work."

Jensen has resumed competition in triathlon and credits yoga with smoothing the path to that end. But his weekly sessions have been challenging.

"We spend at least an hour, I'd say maybe a little over an hour doing a lot of the basic moves," Jensen said. "They're pretty hard. I actually leave there and the next morning I can feel it, I'm a little sore but it's a good sore I guess."