On Tuesdays and Fridays when the Astros are home, a yoga instructor and a handful of players occupy the Astros’ press conference room at Minute Maid Park, a space used more commonly for manager Bo Porter’s nightly media debriefings.
Hosted by instructor Christin Staszesky Harper, the classes began last season. Participants have included Wednesday night’s starting pitcher, Collin McHugh, as well as Anthony Bass, Dallas Keuchel and Brett Oberholtzer. The classes are open to the entire team, even if cerebral pitchers have found their way through the doors more often this season.
“It helps with mobility, it helps with core stability,” Astros strength and conditioning coach Jake Beiting said. “And then secondarily, I think it’s a really good mental benefit when you look at being able to teach yourself to keep your body relaxed … kind of keeping your mind in the moment.”
Baseball is in many ways a violent sport, every play just another burst of intensity. Yoga, at first glance, might not seem a relevant fit. But its use in baseball and other professional sports has taken off because of the potential gains in breathing, strengthening of core muscles and focus.
Matt Repplinger, a Denver-based baseball yoga consultant, said that even compared to two years ago, yoga’s practice has grown “immensely” in the majors.
“I’d say that 60 percent of the teams have someone working with them now,” Repplinger said. “From the Mets, to the Phillies, from the Dodgers to the Rockies, they have got either a full-time or a part-time instructor.”
Veteran Chad Qualls was with the Padres in 2011, and in spring training, they had mandatory yoga sessions on occasion.
“I’ve done pilates, I liked pilates,” said Qualls, who isn’t a yoga practitioner himself. “In San Diego, they just did (yoga) in spring training. It was like once a week, instead of doing poles or sprints or something, our cardio for the day would be a half-hour, hour yoga class. Just to get people a little more flexible, change it up a little bit.
“It was around (when I first got to the majors). I think people have always tried to gain an edge anywhere. You hear of football players doing ballet. … I’m just a naturally tight person, my hamstring, lower back, hips have always been tight. Some people that are more flexible, you’re more loose and you feel better, the more you stretch, the more you get limber, the better you’re going to feel on a daily basis.”
Some teachers approach yoga with a spiritual element, which might deter some people immediately, Beiting said.
There are physical sensitivities that are kept in consideration for the Astros. A relief pitcher who might pitch in a game later that night can’t be too tired out by his yoga session. Nagging injuries and soreness are taken into consideration, too.
“You see a lot of guys, on the mound, if a guy’s in an intense moment, a lot of times you’ll see these guys just take these big breaths through their chest,” Beiting said. “To calm yourself, yourreally want diaphragmatic breathing, deep into your stomach, to teach yourself to relax and release tension. Some of it’s not for everybody.”
At Class A Lancaster, one of the Astros’ better known prospects, third baseman Rio Ruiz, has had some back troubles this season. One way he’s working to improve his core is through yoga. Yes, even the Astros’ Class A team, though, have an instructor.
That teacher is not outsourced, however.
Dan Gulbransen, an Astros minor league outfielder whom they drafted in the 16th round out of Jacksonville University in Florida, is a certified yoga instructor. When he’s able to, he hosts sessions for his teammates.
Gulbransen developed hip and lower back issues in high school. He heard about yoga, picked up some instructional DVDs and watched them in his basement.
“That’s how I got it started, and then I went to college and as an exercise science major, I actually had to take a yoga class as part of my curriculum, and it kind of started giving me the tools to start doing it on my own,” Gulbransen said. “I started doing classes for my college baseball team, teaching them.”
The winter after he got drafted, in 2012, Gulbransen wanted to keep learning and invest in himself, so he successfully reached a 200-hour certification with the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit that represents the yoga community.
“So the Astros wanted to institute yoga and do it a few times a month, so when I got assigned out here to Lancaster, I’ve just been leading some classes,” Gulbransen said. “Probably three times a month. All the different schedules and stuff, it can be tough to get a group of guys together to do it.
“We started out probably with five or six (players), but it’s only been a few times … It’s catching on ’cause guys notice the benefits. I’ve been told from some of our guys in the front office, player development, they want me to kind of make sure the benefits of it are known. I’m doing my best to be an ambassador.”