|Pittsburgh Penguins' forward Georges Laraque has
incorportated yoga into his weekly training regimen.
So, it would be easy to assume the Pittsburgh Penguins' right wing spends his days on the bench press every free moment he gets. But nothing would be further from the truth for the 31-year-old Montreal native. Hard work has helped Laraque develop bulging biceps and tree-trunk thighs, but he also adheres to an alternative method of exercise -- yoga -- picking up the ancient practice of meditation in Edmonton from Canadian Olympic champion figure skaters David Pelletier and Jamie Sale.
Four years later, Laraque credits yoga for sharpening his competitive edge against the younger, bigger foes trying to make a heavyweight name for themselves in the NHL.
"Most guys that fight use the weights, weights, and weights, and they're so big in their bodies that the muscle doesn't matter," Laraque said. "Yoga helps your core strength and that is way better than weights. I'm not the strongest guy weight-wise with enforcers in the NHL, but I'm strong, but not because I bench press six plates. If you do yoga, you don't need to do weights that much because it's like a weight exercise, but instead of using weights, you're using your body."
Laraque's current practice of yoga is called Vinyasa, which he endures in sweltering heats of 100 degrees. Vinyasa is a form of yoga that denotes a flowing dynamic form of poses with synchronized breaths creating movement mediation. Laraque simply calls it "power yoga." It's more difficult and rewarding than his previous practice of Hatha yoga, which he had practiced often with friend and former Edmonton Oilers' teammate Shawn Horcoff.
Though Laraque admits he's not very graceful, he tries his hardest while attending a local Pittsburgh yoga studio on his day off from hockey -- at least once a week -- and has come a long way from initially struggling to just bend over and touch his toes.
Unlike hockey, where Laraque is most comfortable, with yoga, he finds he is in a vulnerable position -- literally -- as tiny women in leotards evoke movements so easily it humbles the pro athlete at times to embarrassment.
"I almost feel bad sometimes because I always go in the back of the class because I know that they're going to come and assist me," Laraque admits. "Most of the people in the class are women and are really good at it, and I need a lot of assistance. So when they come and help me it's even harder for me because they put you in that last position and it hurts even more. You feel so good after it's done, but when you do it and actually apply it, it's a really, really hard practice. I would say that it's harder than a hockey game."
Two positions that give the tough guy a tough time is the bridge pose and the sitting crawl pose.
"I can't do the bridge pose where you put your head on the ground and you lift up, and the crawl pose, where you have to hold your body up on two hands," he says. "Pretty much all the girls can do it, but I can't do that. But it's not a competition or anything. You just try to get better every day. You're doing this for yourself and to meet your goals."
Laraque, whose Penguins are vying for first in the Atlantic Division with 73 points, leads the team with 102 penalty minutes and ranks fourth in hits (66). The bruising forward has been on the receiving end of a steep physical toll since being drafted by Edmonton in the second round (31st overall) in the 1995 Entry Draft. Pulled and strained muscles, bruises, and even more serious injuries can occur when you're Georges Laraque.
"As a player when you fight, (yoga) helps you a lot. The more flexible you are, the easier it is to do your job," Laraque says. "So when you work on your flexibility it makes you less prone to injuries. It's a great workout also for your conditioning and it's a fun way to stretch."
When skating, Laraque has seen a difference in his mobility and quickness too. He's also noticed his conditioning has improved between shifts, and he doesn't find he's as stiff in the joints as he used to be.
|"It is really something that will help young athletes get stronger and improve their core. It can help them become better athletes." -- Georges Laraque
And yoga also has helped Laraque's asthma -- a tremendous physical obstacle in an athletic lifestyle. Before and after every yoga session, Laraque takes his asthma medication to help him get through the rigorous, yet rewarding, practice. But by withstanding the breathing exercises involved in Vinyasa, Laraque doesn't need to pull out his inhaler as much. It wasn't long ago that he was using it twice a day.
"Because I have asthma, yoga has helped me a lot," he says. "Now, I rarely use the inhaler and because of that I'm really happy."
As physically beneficial as yoga has been for Laraque, he also believes the meditation -- and the ancient spiritual practice as a whole -- brings him to a peaceful plane.
"The game can be stressful on your body and on you mentally," he says. "You go there and it's just really relaxing. It's really quiet and it's hard to explain but you don't think of any problems or anything else. It's so good and relaxing and purifying.
Though Pittsburgh teammate Ty Conklin has gone with Laraque to a yoga session this season, it's been tougher convincing his other teammates to practice yoga with him on their only day off. But that's not to say that the practice isn't being embraced by others in the NHL. Chicago's Martin Havlat and Montreal's Mike Komisarek and Christopher Higgins take part in yoga.
"There are guys on the team that have said they do it in the summer," Laraque says. "It's not uncommon. It's just trying to get the guys to come during the season is difficult because when you see them at practice they work so hard that when they have a day off they just want to relax. They know how hard it is."
Yoga classes are a common site in neighborhood gyms, but not incorporated as a regular practice in professional sports. Laraque was happy to hear that the Edmonton organization is slowly adding yoga in its gym.
Maybe this yoga thing is finally catching on -- in hockey.
"It is really something that will help young athletes get stronger and improve their core," says Laraque. "It can help them become better athletes."