High School Football

Team of Zen: How yoga has helped Escalon football team play better, stay healthy

The “Front Row Boys” were chatting.

Two of them were jokingly shoving each other for the center position.

Shortly after, the wrestling room at Escalon High School filled with members of the high school’s football team became quiet.

It was 7 a.m. It was Yoga Wednesday.

Instructor Liz Evans put on some background music — Sublime and a mixture of soothing music — and told the players to get in yoga’s child’s pose, with head down, hands and torso stretched forward from a crouched position.

“Yes!” a couple of players shouted.

For the next 40 minutes, Evans worked and stretched the team ... with not a single word coming from the 30 or so players.

The 4-0 Cougars, The Bee’s No. 1-ranked small-school team, were two days away from a huge matchup against Trans-Valley League rival and the undefeated Hilmar High Yellowjackets (5-0).

Yet, on this somewhat mild, fall morning, they were focused on “getting into a nice Zen” and “nourishing” their bodies.

This summer, Cougars coach Andrew Beam said he was looking for a different workout for his team, which lift weights every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday mornings.

“I wanted something where they would work their bodies and muscles,” Beam said. “Something that would pull us in a different direction.”

Beam turned to yoga, an exercise he said he did frequently while a quarterback at Bowling Green State University.

Since Aug. 17, the Cougars have done yoga every Wednesday with Evans, who said the workout is a perfect complement to weight training.

“Their muscle fibers are shorter which means they are tight and that’s when injuries happen,” said Evans, who has been an instructor for four years. “They are surprised by how physically challenging yoga is.”

Cougars senior running back/linebacker Colton Panero is a member of the “Front Row Boys” who Evans said is the group that takes the workout the most serious.

Panero said yoga has helped stretch his muscles and relaxes his team.

Coming in the middle of the week, Wednesdays are toughest on football players’ bodies, Panero said. Yoga removes some of the soreness by the time they hit the practice field.

“We have a lot better energy,” Panero said. “We have been able to finish the week strong.”

The Cougars, who have outscored opponents 166-40, haven’t had a single major injury this season and Beam attributes it to the Wedneday morning sessions.

“Liz does a great job of getting them to a nice Zen and to relax,” Beam said. “She also gets them to try to block out external stimuli.”

While some local coaches said their teams don’t necessarily do yoga, Davis coach Tim Garcia said his Spartans work on flexibility and emphasize CrossFit.

Former 49ers safety Mike Adams, who spent over a decade in the NFL and was a two-time Pro Bowler, said yoga helped him have a more relaxed mind.

“I am able to focus on more positive thoughts, and I can clear my mind and eliminate any stress I may feel in my life,” Adams said in an interview with Yoga International. “Football players in particular can definitely benefit from yoga because the practice can help you build endurance, as well as become more flexible, balanced, agile, and strong overall.”

Panero said the first yoga workout was “interesting” as Evans gave them different balancing techniques and teammates were falling over.

Tights? Nope. Most players wear T-shirts and shorts.

Junior running back Luke Anderson smiled throughout the workout, even during some of the balance exercises that saw him struggle.

As the workout came to a close, Evans had the players lie on their backs.

“Feel your body and nourish it,” Evans said.

The workout ended with Evans saying “Namaste” and bowing.

About seven hours, the players were back on a football field, preparing with a stronger mind.

Related stories from Modesto Bee

Julian A. Lopez has been covering local sports for The Modesto Bee since August 2018. He graduated from Arizona State in 2016 with a BA in Journalism.