Down. Set. Zen. The Ticats embrace yoga

Close your eyes, focus on your breathing and imagine a room full of giant football players performing the downward dog yoga pose in unison.

As part of their innovative training camp regimen this season, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have been holding mandatory team yoga sessions in the McMaster University gym held by a certified instructor from local company Moksha Yoga. Yoga isn’t unheard of as a workout tool for football players — linebacker Simoni Lawrence has been doing it regularly for years — but it’s new to many of them.

“I hadn’t done it more than three times before this training camp but, as you get older, you can’t just go out there and play like you could in college,” said quarterback Zach Collaros “It’s relaxing. We just got done and I feel mellowed out right now.”

Based on biometric data collected over the last couple of seasons, the Ticats have significantly reduced the on-field workload for their players this spring. Instead of an unending string of two-a-days or four-hour power practices, head coach Kent Austin has increased the number of contact-free walk-throughs and introduced things like yoga.

“I think it’s paid off. We’re way ahead of the game injury-wise than we have been the last four years. We like to think that’s because of what we’ve implemented,” Austin said. “Feedback has been good, especially from the guys we know are pretty honest, the ones that will definitely say, ‘Coach, that’s ridiculous.'”

It has helped that veterans like Collaros and Lawrence have embraced the process.

“One of the worries was that guys wouldn’t buy into it, that they’d be fooling around. But everybody’s really bought in, or the guys that haven’t bought in haven’t been chirping,” Collaros said. “We have a lot of guys that have been here that know what it takes, what it is to be pro. One of those things is taking care of your body.”

Canadian safety Courtney Stephen says the gym actually gets quiet during the yoga session as players strive for a degree of mindfulness. Given the degree of focus and concentration to play professional football, there are some benefits beyond increased flexibility and faster recovery.

“Honestly? It might be the secret weapon. Considering it’s a bunch of energetic football players, there’s some serene moments, some real Zen going on,” Stephen said. “Yoga is not just stretching; it’s about calmness and focus. I think we’re getting a lot of it.”

Notes: Austin said that Zach Collaros will start Friday’s final pre-season game at home against the Toronto Argonauts. Jeremiah Masoli, slated as the back up to Collaros this season, will follow with playing time determined by “the complexion of the game.” Rookie Cody Keith and newly-acquired Logan Kilgore will also see action, though both will have limited packages based on their inexperience. “Our plan with Zach and Jeremiah won’t be affected. We’ll get those guys ready according to how we feel is best to do that and go for them,” Austin said. “If we had to just hand the ball off, we’d just do that.”

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