Yogis of the Fairways

A few poses could add a few yards

By Lee Pace

The thought of twisting one’s self into a pretzel while wearing leotards and listening to wind chimes and Tibetan cymbals would send most macho golfers into a rubber room. Downward facing dogs? Just some birdies with a side of fries, ma’am.  

“One of my biggest challenges early on was fighting the perception that in yoga, you sit with one leg behind your head, staring into a candle while chanting,” says Katherine Roberts. “I set out to bring yoga to a demographic of people who otherwise would never step foot in a yoga studio.”

Roberts was living in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1998 when she first took a yoga class and soon quit her job with a Fortune 500 company to teach yoga full-time. She was a 16-handicap golfer when the light bulb popped, illuminating the connections between yoga and golf. And thus the concept of “Yoga for Golfers” was hatched. Today her methodology is taught in 20 countries around the world, and she has co-authored a book with noted golf instructor Hank Haney called Swing Flaws and Fitness Fixes. She appears on Haney’s syndicated radio show each Friday to talk about melding golf and yoga.

“Gary Player, Tiger Woods and David Duval were the only people in the late ’90s in golf talking about fitness or yoga being beneficial to your game,” Roberts says. “People looked at me like,  ‘Are you crazy?’”

Breathing, flexibility and core strength are among the building blocks to a yoga practice that can apply not only to golf but other sports as well. Roberts has developed a niche in Major League Baseball and has been a consultant with the Chicago Cubs, including during their 2016 World Championship season.

“It all starts in the feet and travels up the through the torso, hips and shoulders and arms and out to a club or a ball or a bat,” Roberts says. “The methodologies are very similar. All great athletes, whether it’s a Major League Baseball player or a golfer, understand how to use the ground. It starts with the feet and feeling the connection to the ground.

“Breath is so important for all elite athletes. If you’ve got 70,000 people in the stands, you need to breathe. We teach how to use the breath to bring your mind to what is called ‘one point of concentration.’ You focus on that one shot, one pitch, one breath.”

On a January afternoon in Pinehurst, Robyn Humphrey could be seen taking the tenets Roberts organized into her “Yoga For Golfers” program and applying them to a group of Pinehurst Country Club members. Certified in Roberts’ protocol, she has been teaching her golf-oriented yoga class since 2016. It meets twice a week and the studio can hold 14 people.

Humphrey began practicing yoga about a dozen years ago while living in the District of Columbia area to help her recover from injuries sustained in her career as an elite distance runner — she has run in multiple New York and Boston Marathons and won frequently in Mid-Atlantic competitions. She enjoyed the practice of yoga and its benefits and then began teaching it to others.

“There’s no better way to improve your skills in something than by teaching it,” she says. “You’re forced to break it down to the basics to help someone else understand it and master it. That can only help you.”

Humphrey and her husband, Chris, and son Michael moved to the Sandhills in 2014 and joined the club at Pinehurst. She found the nine courses and all of the golfers in town motivation to improve her own game. It made sense in a golf-centric town to take her yoga teachings geared toward runners and redirect them toward golfers.

“I can’t tell you how strong some of these people have gotten,” Humphreys says. “Some came in with no core strength at all. Now their balance is better and they can turn into positions they couldn’t reach before. Imagine how that translates to their golf game.”

Among the exercises she puts the class through are “crescent poses” where the yogi stands in a split stance, then balances on the forward leg and moves the other leg forward slowly and into a right-angle with the standing body. Another routine evolves from that same split stance with the yogi leaning forward and rotating the upper body first to one side and then the other. Floor work involves core strengthening and stabilization and more flexibility circuits. Hip flexibility and stability is important in the golf swing, and one way to address that is to hit the ground in a “table-top” position and, with both hands and one knee on the ground, rotate the other leg slowly and fully in clockwise and then counterclockwise directions.

“First and foremost, you think flexibility,” Humphrey says. “Almost everyone can use more. You build on that. You build strength. When you’re doing standing yoga postures, you’re developing a lot of lower body strength. You need lower body strength to generate power in the golf swing.”

Humphrey was a mid-30s handicap when she moved to Pinehurst and now is close to a 20-handicap and plays four times a week. “I actually have an OK swing and I’m pain-free and take very good care of myself, so I should play golf for quite some time,” she says. “My students identify with me. I have the same ups and downs in golf they have.”

So she understands, for example, how the kind of breathing that is bedrock to yoga can also help on the golf course — long, slow, deep nasal breaths.

“Many of my clients tell me they’ve gotten good results from thinking about the breath over the ball,” she says. “You inhale slowly in the backswing and then exhale, and that force that comes from the core when you make that exhale can actually add power to your swing.

“I make enough parallels like that that they feel really comfortable that they are in a class that’s especially for them. Because I think that gets people in a yoga room that normally wouldn’t come into a yoga room.”

One of Roberts’ most gratifying stories is of a 67-year-old doctor in Scottsdale who lamented his own doctor telling him to quit golf because his back was so bad.

“I did some basic testing and saw he had a lack of mobility in all his muscles and no strength in his core,” she says. “I gave him some exercises to do, and he did them religiously five days a week. In three and a half months, he was playing golf pain free.

“So many of my clients come back and say, ‘My back’s not hurting on the 14th hole,’ or ‘I’m more focused’ or ‘I’m hitting the ball farther.’”

Katherine and Robyn both came to yoga because it improved their overall health, both physical and mental, and now have found their niches in golf — Roberts on an international stage and Humphrey in the Sandhills.

“Golf is a mind-body sport and everything starts in the mind,” Roberts says. “If the body can’t perform the way you need it to perform, you’re not going to enjoy the game as much. Yoga touches your mind, your body and your breath and brings them all together.”

Humphrey enjoys a reciprocal relationship with her students — she helps them with balance and flexibility and they help her with the nuances of learning the swing and course management.

“I came to Pinehurst as a runner, but now I’m playing more golf than I ever have,” she says. “If you come to Pinehurst, you have to play golf, right? It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have a great appreciation for the challenge.

“What I’m trying to do through yoga is make it maybe a little bit easier — for me and my students.”  PS

Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace never set foot in a yoga studio until January 2018 and has found his decidedly unlimber body and cluttered mind benefit from the experience.

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