To the left is a cinema straight out of 1955 where you can order a beer for $3.75 and watch a movie for $4. To the right is a wine bar. In-between is a small green “Yoga” sign with an arrow pointing inside.
“Flow Yoga Studio” is camouflaged along this quaint one-way segment of George Street.
Inside, a petite 36-year-old yoga instructor bounds to her feet, as Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks” dances in the background. She finds a yoga block from a closet, uses it as a seat cushion near the front window and one beam of light — presumably from the football gods — shines directly onto Ryanne Cunningham.
She is not affiliated with the Green Bay Packers. She does not want to be knighted a savior.
But here in East De Pere — a hop over the Fox River and 10-minute skip down Riverside Drive from Lambeau Field — Cunningham is a ray of hope who might just help rescue this team from its No. 1 problem. Right here may be the person who squashes the injury bug, who exorcises the haunting hamstrings of Green Bay once and for all.
“I’m not the savior,” says Cunningham, who grew up in a family of Bears fans in Illinois but has spent most of her life in Green Bay, “but I care. I care about these guys and I want these guys to perform their utmost best on the field. That’s my goal for them, is to take their performance to the next level up. If I can. That’s what I can do with yoga.”
A practicing instructor for 12 years, she has run Flow Yoga Studio 1 ½ years. That’s when the connection with the Packers began. Already massaging players for about four years, she noticed tightness. So the doors were opened for private sessions and results were immediate.
Tramon Williams was the first regular. Jarrett Bush wasn’t far behind. Many others followed.
Now, Cunningham treats about 15 players and the number’s growing.
This day, she bites her tongue. She doesn’t want to sound arrogant and won’t namedrop, either. But the players she works with, the regulars, have neversuffered a muscular injury. Nagging aches players endured in years past have vanished under her watch.
And, oh, the few players who had hamstring issues in 2013 and stopped coming to her sessions? They reinjured their hamstrings.
“‘T’ is a testament to it,” Bush said, referring to star pupil Tramon Williams. “I’m a testament to it now. A testimonial. It works. It keeps your muscles healthy. It keeps you healthy.”
Yoga fever in Green Bay truly began in Houston at Adrian Peterson’s celebrity fashion show February of 2013.
Williams sought out Terrell Owens to get one simple question answered.
How did you last this long?
The football fountain of youth, Owens explained, is yoga. The 15-year veteran embraced yoga late in his career…and instantly wished he had done so sooner.
So right then, Williams infused his already-hellish off-season workouts in Houston with morning yoga. Some days, he’d do a round of “hot” yoga, cranking the thermometer to 95 degrees. Already flexible, already a human highlight film on the team basketball court, he discovered new ways to contort his body.
Back north, Williams continued with Cunningham three nights per week and then spread the word.
To him, “no doubt about it,” yoga is a major reason the back half of 2013 was his best stretch of football ever. He had four interceptions, eight pass break-ups and 36 solo tackles his final eight games.
Meanwhile, the somber sight of players limping off the field became the unofficial emblem of the 2013 Packers. Hamstrings, specifically, were the issue.
Morgan Burnett (three games), Casey Hayward (all but 87 snaps), Brad Jones (3 ½ games), John Kuhn (1 ½ games), Sam Barrington (nine games), Bush (four games) and Clay Matthews (four games in 2012, one-half in 2013), Sam Shields (two games) all fell victim to hamstring issues.
The defense dissolved. Williams had a career year. It’s no coincidence.
“I was the only one trying to stand,” said Williams. “That’s a good sign, though. …For me to do yoga, guys can see that.”
Yoga has gained traction in Green Bay. Even Aaron Rodgers has embraced the mat, through a different program.
Others aren’t so quick to embrace yoga. Inside the locker room this day, Williams prods Muscle & Fitness-built Chris Banjo to join. This is the P90X DVD you skip, this is the workout designed for soccer moms. Not professional athletes.
“But it’s hard. It’s hard. That’s the thing guys realize,” Williams says. “They come in thinking it’s going to be an easy day. And guys are sweating like they had a whole day of practice.”
Cunningham understands the stigma, too.
“It’s ‘women are really flexible, I don’t want to do yoga,'” she said. “Well, men are really strong, so there’s a lot that a guy can do that women struggle with strength-wise.
“I keep bugging them. The ones I don’t see for a while, I have to send out the text right away — ‘just keeping you in the loop.’ And then they show up, like, ‘Wow!’ They know they need it.”
True, too many tin men occupied the roster last season. Here at Flow Yoga — where Williams quite literally stands on his head, where he’s so flexible the instructor wonders if he even feels anything at times — Cunningham attacks the Packers’ No. 1 problem.
Williams turned 31 years old in March. He’s entering a contract year.
After playing 122 of a possible 123 games, he sees no end in sight.
“The way I’m built, the way I work,” he said, “I think I can go as long as I want.”
Ryanne Cunningham does not watch Packers games like you. Like me. Like anyone. A self-described physiology/kinesiology “nerd,” she takes notes.
All game, she studies specific body movements of an NFL cornerback, a wide receiver, a nose tackle.
A player like B.J. Raji, she noticed, uses his shoulders. A player like Williams, cuts on a dime into awkward positions. Hip flexibility is essential. And then in their sessions, she’ll make stretches player-specific.
She’s admittedly “protective” of her players, rarely telling her closest friends about this work. And when players arrive, the doors are locked, the curtains close and outsiders cannot peek in.
Workouts begin and Flow Yoga Studio becomes a laboratory where Cunningham is the scientist. A typical session lasts an hour.
And these athletes — many beefed and sculpted to Greek God-perfection in the weight room — usually have their egos scarred off the bat.
As Williams says, when players stretch by themselves it’s “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, that’s a wrap.” With Cunningham, they’ll stay in a pose for 60 seconds straight.
“Your muscles are in such high demand,” Bush said. “Everything gets stretched and pulled and worked and yanked so many times, I think when you expose your muscles like that (with yoga), they get used to it. …Say you slip and you’re in that split position. Well, you’ve done that. It’s familiar. Your body says, ‘Alright, we’ve been here. OK, back to normal.'”
When necessary, Cunningham will scold players double (and triple) her size, too.
If someone’s loafing, she can tell.
“There are times they’re slacking and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?'” she said. “And they say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry m’am!’ But I’m not like a sergeant. We just flow, we laugh. If they like a song, we start jamming out and singing.”
Cunningham jumps into a stance on the hardwood floor to demonstrate one beginner stretch that helps with hamstrings, the “pyramid” pose. Players set their right foot ahead of their left, bend that right knee and reach downward onto a block. Gradually, a player straightens that bent leg out. Gradually, they lose the block completely and palm the ground.
Those players with pulled hamstrings were human faucets of sweat — “dying,” in Cunningham’s words — during this simple pose. They could hardly stretch their arms forward at all. Eight months later, some were reaching all the way forward.
One late Monday night, Cobb is her lone student. In his Kentucky basketball shorts, he goes barefoot, sets up and follows Cunningham’s instruction. The sound of water trickling through a nearby vase synchronizes with Cunningham’s voice, stretch to stretch.
“I think it’s helped a lot,” Cobb said. “She had to press me for a little while to get me to come in. But I think I’ve definitely made strides and if I continue to do it, it’ll help out even more just with my elusiveness and being able to move around on the field.
“It helps me open up my hips a little bit more and having that flexibility to elongate my muscles a little bit more will help make me faster and different things. Definitely it’ll help me on the field and help me prevent injuries as well.”
There’s the buzz word. Injuries. Cunningham expects more players to join once the season begins. A midseason body is much, much different than a preseason body.
And a fine-tuned midseason body can single-handedly win a game.
On Sept. 12, 2013, Jarrett Bush pulled his hamstring in practice and didn’t play for a month. A big deal considering he hadn’t missed a game since Week 16 of 2007, a run of 92 straight.
The bionic special teams ace who runs sprints with a weight vest on after summer practices had a weakness.
“Obviously with the hamstring,” he said, “I wasn’t doing enough. After that, it was lesson learned.”
Sporadic with yoga before, he became a Flow Yoga regular. Bush is now the closest Cunningham has to Tramon Williams. And there have been no flare-ups with the hamstring. If anything, Cunningham said, “he just exploded.”
Bush benefitted most from the deep visualization sessions. At the end of the hour, Cunningham has players close their eyes and picture themselves on the sideline. Envision yourself holding your helmet, she’d say. Envision yourself staring at the opponent across the field. Through September, October, November, Bush pictured himself in Green Bay’s defense, breaking on a ball.
The scene at the studio was palpable. Bush said you “could feel the energy,” the “heartbeating” of himself, Raji, Jerel Worthy and others.
Then came Dec. 8.
Trash-talking Tony Gonzalez at 9-degree Lambeau Field, Bush broke up a late fourth-down pass intended for the Atlanta Falcons tight end. The next possession, he sealed the win with an interception. From her home, Cunningham leapt out of her chair. She knew Bush had visualized this moment.
The corner never known for his flexibility had enough flexibility (and Zen) to slay a future Hall-of-Famer.
Yeah, Bush is a believer.
“Visualization is huge,” Bush said. “You always want to see it before you actually do it. …It doesn’t always go exactly the way you see it in your head, but the goal happened. You saved the game. You made an immaculate play. You end up winning the game.”
These days, Cunningham jokes she needs a curtain between Williams, Bush and the rest of the class so beginners don’t hurt themselves.
They’ve advanced. One by one, more are following.
Maybe Cunningham — maybe yoga in general — is the solution in Green Bay, at least muscularly. Last January, the defense was a battered shell of itself. The Packers can conduct injury studies, adopt new technologies and number-crunch all they want. The answer could be a short drive away.
Starting Week 1 at Seattle, they’ll see if it makes a difference.
Legs crossed, staring out the window, Cunningham flashes a smile.
“I’m going to enjoy this as long as it lasts,” she says. “I can only say I’m proud of them. Very proud.”
Source: Journal Sentinel