24 January, 2011

Yoga keeps Ryan Giggs in Premier (League) shape at 37

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             At a time when most football stars simply exercise their Ferraris, he’s still a top level Premier League player. And it’s all down to yoga.
At 37, when most professionals have hung up their boots, the Premier League’s most-decorated player remains a vital member of the United team. He considers the yoga sessions he started almost a decade ago as one of the key factors in extending his career, hence his new DVD, Giggs Fitness.
Nor is he alone in embracing yoga. Roy Keane — threatening, glowering idiot Keano — is a convert, as are the goalkeeper David James, the Ashes-winning skipper Andrew Strauss and Andy Murray. As elite athletes and male role models they are helping to overturn some very old preconceptions: specifically that yoga is something old ladies do in dusty church halls or yummy mummies perform in smart dance studios.
There was a time when any man who did yoga was considered “a bit spiritual” or rather too in touch with his feminine side. These days guys are doing the downward facing dog in increasing numbers.
Giggs credits yoga for keeping him at the top of World football at 37
What brought Giggs to yoga was injury. He suffered a number of hamstring tears in his twenties that put him out of action for weeks at a time. When the club asked Sarah Ramsden, a yoga instructor, to assess him she was shocked to discover that he couldn’t even touch his toes. Soon he was taking two sessions a week.
“It was hard, really hard,” he reflects after a workout at a Manchester country club. “In fact I didn’t like it for a year because it was so tough. You’re stretching muscles you’re not aware of and it’s really uncomfortable. But I kept going back because I could feel the results pretty quickly. And once your body gets used to it, it becomes easier. I’m definitely much more flexible now than 15 years ago.”
Sitting there with a touch of grey about his temples, Giggs comes across as serious, phlegmatic. A model pro in an era of self-obsessed, vainglorious nonentities. Ramsden, meanwhile, is a former rower from Chester who adapted her yoga studies to treat sportsmen. She now works regularly with Manchester United as well as Manchester City.
“Fitness to me is three elements: cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. We’ve tended to ignore the latter so that when players age and stiffen up we discard them,” she explains. “We’re now seeing the benefits of a fresh approach. If you look at South American and southern European players they will have done flexibility work throughout their careers. Those teams also tend to place more emphasis on agility whereas we have relied on pace and strength and power. Look at that World Cup-winning Spanish team — they dance!”
Ramsden’s exercises adapt yoga poses to a tailored fitness programme, and her work is taken very seriously at Old Trafford. Even Wayne Rooney has been packed off to see her.
“Yeah, Wayne’s been in for sessions,” corroborates Giggs. “A lot of the younger guys don’t think they need it but they still come into the gym sometimes and watch me doing it. It plants a seed. Then they pick up an injury and they’re more interested. Sometimes I’ll see players struggling and have a quiet word — I’ve been on to Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand.”
Manchester United is not the only football club to see the potential of improving its players’ flexibility. Everton recently installed a yoga studio run by its head of medicine, Danny Donachie, where he is regularly joined by several senior players including Tim Cahill and Phil Neville.
“When Phil came to us from Manchester United, the first thing he did was ask for a yoga teacher which made me very happy,” says Donachie, whose father Willie played for Manchester City for more than a decade. “It tends to be the older guys who are most open to it. The younger ones haven’t picked up enough injuries. And often the ones who avoid it actually find it too demanding.
“It gets you more in tune in with your body, which will make you happier and more relaxed. Most people aren’t in tune with their bodies. They ignore issues, which can lead to health problems.”
Ryan Giggs: The most decorated club footballer in England
The message hasn’t always been easy to get across.
Ailon Freedman has been teaching yoga in London for 20 years and runs the Yoga Exchange, a yoga and fitnesss consultancy. He took the former England goalkeeper David James for regular lessons while he was at West Ham and was subsequently invited to work with Middlesex Cricket Club.
“I took some group sessions there and they highlighted all the male attitudes perfectly,” he remembers. “A few of them, including Andrew Strauss, were very receptive to it. As a captain you need to be calm and unflappable so maybe he used it in that respect. Others treated it as a laugh. I recall Phil Tufnell thinking it was a hoot but when we came to do some important shoulder exercises to increase flexibility he really struggled.”
Freedman was no stranger to the sort of response he received from Tuffers. He’d been dealing with it for years, to the point where he was prompted to make a DVD titled Yoga4Fellas, which sent up all the typical male attitudes using a series ofcharacters including a builder, a White Van Man and an Arsenal supporter. “It was supposed to challenge the misconception that you had to be a woman or a homosexual to do yoga,” he declares.
So we’re a bit more educated and open-minded now, but will only elite athletes feel the benefit?
“I now see a lot of male amateur sportsmen in my local sessions — cyclists, rugby players, runners, Sunday footballers. The reason they are there is because they want to carry on doing the sport they love for as long as possible,” Ramsden says.
“If you do a sport for long enough your body goes rigid in that pattern. As you age the body stiffens and movement becomes restricted, so yoga is good for everyone.”
Giggs, meanwhile, is a perfect student and a great advertisement for its benefits but he is by his own admission a long way from being a double-jointed yogi. That is not the point of Ramsden’s sessions. “They’re about limiting the damage of a very physical game. I’m not here to teach him how to sustain advanced postures perfectly for hours. In fact, I’m very wary of not pushing my students beyond their natural limits because of the potential for damage.”
Of course, yoga will never completely shed its associations. At its purist it is a way of life demanding total dedication — and, ironically, it was historically almost exclusively male. Still, there will always be the suspicion that it is full of Indian mysticism, chanting and the sort of touchy-feeliness that makes blokes run a mile — even if they’re feeling a bit stiff.
Giggs: The only man to play & score in EVERY  FA Premier League season
“I see it as my job to demystify yoga,” Freedman says. “It’s actually immensely practical and it can be approached in a very non - gimmicky way. Yes, there’s a spiritual dimension but there’s plenty to tackle before you get to that stage and it can come later, if at all.
“For example, David James came to see not just the physical benefits it has but the increased relaxation and self-control it gave him. But if you just want to be more flexible that’s fine.”
An estimated 500,000 people at present do yoga but another of the off-putting things about it is the bewildering number of styles: Ashtanga, Hatha, Bikram, Iyengar, Kundalini ... it’s enough to make you settle for a Rogan Josh instead.
“There are a lot of different disciplines; it’s like asking a whisky lover to pick a favourite,” Freedman agrees. “Don’t worry too much. Just pick a good local class and try it. It’s unlikely to be too ‘out-there’. You can experiment with different forms later.”
Taking him at his word I locate a local Bikram-style hot yoga session run by Nina Sebastiane, a former TV presenter (www.hotyogaherts.co.uk), which regularly attracts members of Saracens RFC. There are no rugby players at my session but I am pleasantly surprised to find five or six men present.
Less pleasant is the succession of contortions I have to perform that set my heart pumping and have the sweat running off me. Just as with the Ramsden/Giggs session there is nothing lightweight about it and I am perturbed to find how many positions I struggle with, especially on one side of my body compared to the other. It really is hardcore and, though I am sore for a few days, I sleep like a baby. If it works I might even go back to playing football, although I’ll struggle to match Giggs who is as good as ever.
“It’s impossible to say whether it’s totally responsible for extending my career,” he ponders, offering that characteristic frown. “I watch my diet carefully and I recuperate properly, too, but whatever it is I feel as good as I did five years ago and I reckon I can play till I’m 40. And when I do have to retire I’ll keep the yoga up because the benefits are for life.”
So there you go, I’ve bought a mat and come out now. I’m into yoga and Giggs is my guru.
Ryan Giggs is a Reebok ambassador. For more information and to buy his DVD, go to giggsfitness.com

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