Yoga for athletes
Local yoga instructor in new digs discusses yoga’s athletic applications
Rex Stromness, the owner of the newly opened Yoga Center of Chico, recently met with the CN&R to discuss his new yoga studio, but the conversation quickly turned to the perhaps underestimated athletic applications of practicing yoga.
While Stromness and this reporter covered some of yoga’s more well-established health benefits—stress and anxiety reduction, increased focus and improved posture, for example—we found common ground in that we both believe yoga is a great addition to an athlete’s training regime. Stromness, a 61-year-old yoga instructor and part-time massage therapist who cycles, plays tennis and golf, and hikes, said he considers yoga the foundation of his athletic pursuits.
Between playing baseball and ultimate disc, cycling, skiing and weightlifting, I’m also fairly active, but I hadn’t tried yoga until venturing into an In Motion Fitness yoga class a couple of months ago. I’ve enjoyed the physical challenge of practicing motions and positions simply not expected of one’s body on an everyday basis. More difficult still is syncing those motions with deliberate breathing patterns; I’ve found that while holding the most demanding poses, the natural reflex is to hold your breath as well.
“Most people think they know how to breathe,” Stromness said with a laugh. “We’re doing it all the time, but most people are breathing with a very small portion of their capacity. During physical activity, when your body is demanding it, you breathe deeply. In yoga, we practice it sitting still.”
After a couple of months of regular practice, the potential health benefits of making yoga a habit are readily apparent. Immediately after a yoga class, I feel loose, well-rested and focused on my plans for the day. And maybe it’s my imagination, but I already feel more balanced and flexible while chasing after a baseball or Frisbee disc.
Stromness said that the physicality of practicing yoga and its potential role in the training regimens of serious athletes often go missed.
“Whatever you do, [yoga]’s a great complement,” he said. “Yoga prepares your body to do that activity to the fullest. You develop core strength, you’re extremely flexible, and your joints are looser, so you’re a lot less susceptible to injury.”
About 40 years ago, when Stromness was “a ski bum,” the lifelong athlete was immediately drawn to the physical challenge of practicing yoga.
“My friend and I, we had a lot of free time, and we found a book on yoga,” he said. “We just started practicing some of the stuff we found in the book. This was very early on—yoga was not yet mainstream.”
Stromness didn’t get serious about the discipline until he went to Sonoma State College (now Sonoma State University) and took a yoga class through what was then “an experimental psychology department.”
“It was just that it was a physical practice—you’re very focused on the body,” he said of why he found yoga initially appealing. “But it was also a way to get to know ourselves; it was the first thing I’d found that felt like a spiritual practice to me. I found value in quieting my mind and getting away from the external world.”
A little more than three months have passed since Stromness and Tom Hess, another well-known local yoga instructor, decided to open the Yoga Center of Chico. About a week before settling on the location for their yoga center, the pair agreed that they were ready to “leave the sports clubs,” after years of teaching at Chico Sports Club, In Motion Fitness and the Wildcat Recreation Center (WREC) at Chico State.
“It was a big decision; it was scary to start a new business not knowing what would happen, but it’s already turned out great,” Stromness said. “People have been coming and we’ve been blown away by the support.”
The center, opened last month, is simple but well-lit and beautiful, comprising a front lobby area, a small side office for one-on-one therapy, and a studio toward the back of the building complete with hardwood floors personally installed by Stromness and Hess. It all aligns with the pair’s vision for a space dedicated to yoga and meditation alone, rather a club offering many different exercise classes.
Prior to opening Yoga Center of Chico, Stromness twice led the Chico State men’s basketball team in 1 1/2 months of yoga practice, helping the players develop flexibility, core strength and balance—things that “really translate well to the basketball court,” head basketball coach Greg Clink said during an interview earlier this year.
“It’s incredible, the benefit the [players] get from it,” Stromness said.
Unfortunately, for all their potential to help athletes, yoga classes typically aren’t well attended by men, Stromness acknowledged.
“I’ve often had classes where it’s 25 women and me [teaching],” he said. “Men have this idea that [yoga is] more of a fluffy women’s thing, having never tried it, but most men who come and try it are [surprised] by how difficult it is and how good it is for you.”
However, Stromness believes yoga’s reputation as a “fluffy” activity may be changing among college-age men, noting that classes he used to teach at the WREC had a noticeably higher ratio of men to women than other gyms in town. And once men try yoga, Stromness said, they’re likely to get hooked.
“As soon as men come and experience it, they know.”