Despite the fact that the word yogi conjures up an image of a free-swinging, malaprop-spewing catcher for the Yankees, the stereotypical images of baseball players—wads of tobacco lodged in their cheeks, answering to managers with generous beer guts—don't appear to jibe with the serenity and philosophy of yoga.
But image is one thing, reality quite another. The sometimes languid pace of baseball and softball games belies their physical demands (good players need everything from fast reflexes to excellent eye-hand coordination). Yoga is the perfect complement to strengthen and stretch muscles in both the mind and body. "Yoga enhances any athletic performance," says Jimmy Barkan, owner of the Yoga College of India in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, "and baseball is no exception." He should know: He worked with members of the Florida Marlins during their 1997 World Series winning season. Coincidence or not? "I can't really take responsibility for that," says Barkan with a laugh.
What he can take responsibility for, though, is loosening up some seriously tense muscles, and consequently improving, albeit intangibly, on-field performance. Barkan practices Bikram Yoga, a series of 26 asanas performed in a room heated to approximately 95 degrees. Typically inflexible men (read: most baseball players) flock to these classes for two reasons: First, the fiery temperature instantly heats the body, allowing a more intense stretch; and secondly, the postures don't require a lot of flexibility to begin with. "No matter what, there's a level at which you can participate in and benefit from this class," says Barkan.
Secret of My Success
Initially, pitcher Al Leiter, a former Marlin, current New York Met, and long-time yoga devotee, sought out the services of Barkan. "This is a great workout," he told the Palm Beach Post. "It's definitely an asset in my success." Once his teammates and various staff members heard him waxing om-ecstatic, a number of them wanted in, so Barkan went to Pro Player Stadium to lead their sessions. "We gathered a number of heaters," Barkan remembers, "But the room wasn't as hot as we like it."
Still, the postures he led the players through stretched and strengthened key areas of the body used in baseball and softball. Although each field position requires a different athletic specialty—shortstops need to be agile and acrobatic, first basemen need flexibility to do the splits, pitchers need shoulders of steel, catchers need balance and strong legs—the muscles used in the staple motions of batting and throwing encompass almost the entire body.
When you step up to home plate, although it's the bat that's swinging, it's actually the rotation of your hips that generates the power necessary to clear the fence. The greater range of motion your hips have, the better your chances for a decent hit.
Twist Like Joe
Jeff Conine (formerly a Marlin, now a Baltimore Oriole) would watch films of Joe DiMaggio, whose hips were so flexible they'd be facing third base by the end of his swing. Says Barkan, "Conine could barely get his to first until he started practicing yoga." The Bikram posture Dandayamana-Dhanurasana (Standing Bow Pulling Pose), Utkatasana (Chair Pose), and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) will help to get your hips swinging as fully as your bat does.
Once you make contact with the ball, taking off from a standstill to a full-out sprint forces your hamstrings to spring into action. If they're not flexible and strong, you'll definitely feel it, probably in the form of a pulled muscle.
"When you see a guy slow down as he rounds third base," says Barkan, "he's having problems with his sciatic nerve." Fielders also commonly practice the abrupt sprint-from-dead-stop as they take off to field a fly or grab a grounder.
Dandayamana-Janu Sirsasana (Standing Head-to-Knee Pose) and Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) will help limber up your sciatic nerve, the real source of perceived hamstring tightness according to Bikram philosophy.
Strike Them Out
Throwing the ball involves a series of complex motions which, when done correctly, employs everything from your feet to your fingertips. During the wind-up, after your legs set your stance, one leg pushes off as your shoulder muscles support the cocked arm; then the energy generated in the lower half is transferred, via your torso, to your chest, latissimus dorsi, triceps, and shoulder as you release the ball; for the follow-through, when the shoulders, triceps, and biceps slow down, your trunk bends forward to prevent shoulder injury. "Throwing takes a lot out of you," says Craig Moriwaki, a trainer with the University of Washington softball team. "It's important you have the right form. Otherwise, it can be extremely stressful on the shoulders." Barkan recommends asanas like Garudasana (Eagle Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), and Tuladandasana (Balancing Stick Pose) to lengthen and strengthen the shoulder joints—helpful when you're lunging to either catch or throw a ball. Or, follow the example of Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez, originally from Cuba, who routinely does Headstand and Handstand "to relax" and Supta Padangusthasana (Supine Hand-to- Foot Pose) to stretch his hamstrings.
It's All in Your Head
The mental aspect of baseball and softball is as important as physical preparation. With professional games that can drag on for hours, and the average college softball game ranging from 90 minutes to two hours, the ability to concentrate for long periods of time is key. Even though a right fielder may get just one ball a game, he/she still needs to be mentally present for the entire game. "Practicing yoga, when you have to stay within yourself and in the moment, helps on the field," says Barkan.
The ability to make decisions quickly is also imperative. "I have about one second to decide whether or not I should throw to try and get somebody out," says Vicki Siesta, who plays on the softball team at Princeton University. "The difference can be two runs coming in, or one out made." And when she's the one trying to score the runs, she's got to think even faster. "I've got to decide whether or not to slide. If it's yes, then I have to choose whether to go head or feet first, on the outside or inside of the bag, all in an instant," she says.
Breathing exercises which promote regular inhaling and exhaling help to both keep your head in the game and your mind as sharp as a cleat—benefits that come in handy in all ball sports: "I was playing golf with Leiter and [then] Miami Dolphins center Jeff Uhlenhake one day, and they were asking me to teach them how to take their breath back to normal," says Barkan. "It helps your focus, no matter what your game is."
Dimity McDowell is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer.