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The Empire (Of Moms) Strikes Back - The Benefits Of Yoga In Recovering From A Sports-Related Back Injury (Part IV)

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Six months ago my son was complaining about persistent back pain. He ended up being diagnosed with two small fractures in his lower back at the L-3 vertabrae. The pain and startling realization finally set in that his spring and summer sports activities would not happen. I remember standing in a hospital hallway feeling like a riptide had swept over me. I could not breathe. I could not think. I was consumed with how and why this injury had occurred. My son was beside himself with grief and a fear of the unknown: would he be ready to go in the fall for his beloved sport of football?   

Back in Time

The past months have been filled with doctors, physical therapy appointments, and talking with other parents. It is amazing how much knowledge someone can amass when they are focused and driven.

As a quick recap, this is 6 months in 6 sentences:

  1. We will never know the precise cause of the injury. (Dead lifts, squats, and power lifts all probably contributed to the injury)
  2. The fractures will never completely heal; they will just become asymptomatic
  3. Whether anyone younger than 15 should be lifting weights is open to debate. (although I note that a recent international consensus statement of strength and conditioning experts does endorse resistance training for younger athletes, including the use of free weights)
  4. Tight hamstrings can cause back injuries, so if athletes stretch their hamstrings, back injuries, knee injuries and ankle injuries can be minimized!
  5. Abdominal and back core strength is the best defense an athlete can have against injury, helps in the weight room (if appropriate), and builds endurance.
  6. Everyone, regardless of age, can benefit from a long-term program of exercises to strengthen core muscle groups. 

Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi! 

By the time my son successfully completed his physical therapy regimen and was medically released, I began to sketch out a plan to help him keep up with his core exercises. We were concentrating on getting him back to football practices and working out with a strength and conditioning trainer to help him get back into shape without aggravating his back. 

My sketch became a plan, and ultimately a challenge, inspired in large part by my new mentor, Tom Shaw, an amazing trainer with an incredible resume (including Super Bowl rings!) I met while visiting the Wide World of Sports Facility at Walt Disney World in Orlando as a guest of ESPN.  I was fortunate to be able to visit Tom's gym, where he trains a Who's Who of professional athletes (including players posting 8 out of the 10 fastest NFL Combine times ever!), and listen and learn as he shared his knowledge.

Let the Wookie Win 

I have to admit, even though I have met a lot of professional athletes (some of whom I have written about for MomsTEAM, including two from my Dallas neighborhood: Detroit Lions' quarterback Matt Stafford and Cy Young-winning LA Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw), I was a bit intimidated walking into Shaw's gym. Right off the bat I was introduced to some of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were nice guys (quite an admitssion coming from a died-in-the-wool Cowboy fan).

Tom knew I was interested in training and that I had spent my summer with my son in PT. I watched a young Pittsburgh rookie go through his entire strength and conditioning regimen. The only thing I did not get to see was the famed "Sandbox" (a special workout that Shaw devised which an athlete performs in a 50-yard by 10-yard area hacked out of native scrubland and filled ankle-deep with thick, cloying sand), but this camp was all about strength, flexibility, and speed.

Either do or don't ... there is no "try" 

At the end of the session, I asked Tom and the Steelers about core strength and stretching. I commented that I had not seen a lot of "ab work" going on. Tom did not flinch. He said that there was so much to get done in his workout that the guys were on their own for core strength and stretching. Oh. I looked at the men, and asked what they did. 

The two word answer (Hot Yoga) changed my and my son's life, but I guess we're not alone: apparently Hot Yoga is a game changer for a lot of athletes. I knew that some players in the NFL have done Pilates, too, which should not come as a shock for those of us old enough to remember that, in addition to being a great running back, former UGA and Dallas Cowboy player Hershel Walker was a ballet dancer!  

Isometric exercises were the key for some back in the 80s and early 90s, before the weight room became the ultimate war room. Again, I felt the riptide take my mind out of my body with the Hot Yoga comment. I challenged the men and asked them why they did not freely share this part of their workout regimen as much as they volunteered how much they could lift in the weight room or their times in the 40-yard dash. How come they do not say how long they can hold plank? I went a little mom on them and told them many high school and middle school programs were all about strength and conditioning like the NFL and Tom Shaw's gym, but that not much time was devoted to core strength and stretching.

Looking at these incredibly gifted atheltes, I knew that they had just shared a secret.  It was as if they had given me the key to use to gain entrance into a special, private club. I knew I had to do something with the knowledge that I had just been given.  It was no longer about just my boy; the challenge was now much larger.

Space Invaders 

Within two days of my return from the Happiest Place on Earth, I called Terrie, a dear friend who is an attorney by day and yoga instructor by night, and the mom to three athletic children, one a son who is a year ahead of mine in school.  Using Terrie's knowledge of yoga, and my newfound knowledge of physical therapy and stretching exercises, we ended up developing a 30-minute workout for boys ages 12-15.

The toughest part was coming up with a name for our new workout regimen. We did not want to call it Yoga. True yoga is where the body and the mind meet. We knew that, with teenage boys, the body might not have much to meet up with these days! It wasn't so hard to pick out music to play during the session that they listen to and like. (Yes, it was rap, rock and country, in case you're wondering!)  We surveyed other moms about whether their sons would be interested. Getting positive responses, we decided to boldly go where no moms had gone before, and scheduled our first session one Sunday night at 7:30 p.m.

May the force be with you

Twelve boys came to a yoga studio to start to learn to stretch and go through core strength exercises. They were loud and, as we expected, there was a lot of gasping, giggling, and groans. The loudest and rowdiest "yoga" class that has ever been imagined was in full swing, but the amazing part was that they were actually doing the exercises!

When things threatened to get out of hand, Terrie used her courtroom voice and barked that were "out of order"! I was proud of my son! I was proud of all of them! They ended up coming up with a great name (why we didn't think of it, I haven't the foggiest): Football Yoga! True to form, they formed a huddle of sorts at the end and all chanted in unison, "Yoga on 3! One, two, three - YOGA!" It was priceless. I can only hope to see the Steelers and the rest of the NFL doing the same before a game!

After the session, I received many texts and calls from moms and dads saying that it was a good workout. The boys realized that they were "tight" and could actually see benefits from doing the exercises we developed! We are going back this Sunday. Everyone is supposed to bring a friend. We will see how far we get. I will keep you updated on the NFL YOGA Challenge! Who knows where we will be in 6 months? I, for one, never thought I would be here six months ago.


Gretchen Rose is a regular contributor to MomsTEAM and lives in Dallas.