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Pens players using JOGA to gain an edge

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Each week throughout the summer, Penguins forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon and Sam Miletic trained in the mornings with Penguins director of sports sciences Andy O'Brien in Toronto.

Except on Wednesdays, when those three - along with former Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak - would do JOGA, which is a movement system made up of the benefits of yoga combined with the biomechanics of sport, created specifically for an athlete's body and mindset.

"Jamie was the one who knew about it because he's from the Toronto area and we all train together at the same gym," Miletic said. "He's like 'Hey, do you guys want to come do this with me?' And we all tried it and really liked it."

Earlier in the summer, Aston-Reese and Miletic had visited a yoga studio they had found at random and taken a Level 2 vinyasa class, which wasn't beneficial in the slightest for them.

"They had us doing like, three-minute handstands and it was ridiculous," Miletic said. "We couldn't do half the stuff. It was the hardest workout all summer, just because we couldn't do any of it. That's not really realistic for athletes and hockey players. Compared to everyone else in there, we were a couple of big bodies. They can move in ways we can't."

Which is the exact reason why Jana Webb, the founder and creator of JOGA (the 'J' is for the first initial of her first name), started her company in the first place.

Webb played hockey growing up, and was told to go to yoga to help rehab an injury. Like Aston Reese and Miletic, she simply Googled the nearest yoga studio and took a hot yoga class - which only made her injury worse.

"The yoga teacher was going into all these crazy positions that I shouldn't have been going into, but because I was competitive, I was like 'Oh yeah, I'm doing it,'" she said with a laugh. "I ended up hurting myself severely."

But Webb continued to go back, because she was fascinated by the breathing and relaxation aspects of yoga. That led to her discovering a program in Japan that was based on individual anatomy and how everyone's body is different and requires different things - which provided the foundation for what eventually became JOGA.

Over the years, Webb has since worked with a multitude of different athletes from different sports. When this group of hockey players reached out to her about training together this summer, Webb was thrilled because she has known O'Brien for a long time and their philosophies blend well.

"Sometimes you get a group of guys and it's just about how much weight they can lift, no one is looking at how they move through three-dimensional movements," Webb said. "I know that Andy is very well-versed in that and to be honest, training them was a treat because they come from an Andy O'Brien background. He's so specific and JOGA is so specific. We look at nuanced movements in a three-dimensional plane. When they first came in I was excited because I knew that they would understand it."

The goal for their sessions was to piggyback on their training with O'Brien but also to give them the tool of parasympathetic nerve activation. As Webb explained, the players are in stress mode constantly - with their bodies impacted from sport, competition, travel and media. So they went through a lot of different relaxation and meditation techniques as well as the movement pieces. There is a lot of meditation and breathing work involved in those positions, so it was functional for them.

"It's actually a moving meditation," Webb said. "This helps them access that right brain pattern, that relaxation response, which will help them recover better. I think those athletes knew that they needed that because they're kind of all Type A and push themselves really hard. So they needed to counter that."

While they understood the strategy to the sessions, that didn't mean it wasn't difficult.

"The first week was pretty hard, it was a lot of one-legged squats and holding lunges," Miletic said. "We couldn't really do it. But as it went on we got more comfortable with it and felt better both doing the actual JOGA and on the ice, too."

While the sessions ended on Wednesday, the benefits will last them throughout the year. 

"The main goal was to give them some tools in their toolbelt for the season," Webb said. "So when they're stressed, they can rely on this when their bodies are taxed."

Photos courtesy of Johanna Carlo.

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