When Sarah Hansen first found out that she and her teammates on the UAA ski team were going to do yoga, she thought she knew what to expect.
The senior Nordic skier from Wasilla had never actually twisted herself into any of the positions yoga requires. But, heck, she had seen a video at least.
“Two years ago, my roommate had this yoga tape that was still in its wrapper. After we unwrapped it and put it in the VCR, we never left the couch,” Hansen said. “We just put it in and watched.”
So when the UAA coaches brought up the yoga class she flashed back to the tape. Hansen had visions of comfy mats, soothing music and relaxing stretching running through her mind.
She thought yoga would provide a break after the rigors of interval training. But instead of taking it easy on Hansen, yoga kicked her butt.
“I thought it would be a nice, relaxing stretch afterwards,” Hansen said. “But it was like a whole other workout itself.”
Hansen and her teammates were experiencing ashtanga yoga in a class taught by volunteer Alice Sullivan, a yoga instructor at Dimond Athletic Club. The ashtanga method of yoga involves synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of postures. The process produces intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, a light and strong body and a calm mind.
“It’s an all-body workout,” Sullivan said.
The stereotypical image of yoga that Hansen had in her head left her feeling a bit strange when she realized she was getting a workout.
“It’s kind of weird sweating when you’re standing still,” she said.
The Business Education Building is not a place you would expect to witness a yoga class. But twice a week in a classroom next to the computer lab, the Seawolf Nordic and alpine ski team got together for Sullivan’s class.
Each Monday and Wednesday afternoon, the team, coaches included, would tote their mats to the BEB from the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, their stretches drawing stares from students passing by the room’s windows.
The class came about when Sullivan, a former competitive skier and snowboarder, pitched the idea to UAA co-ski coaches Jeff Rust and Trond Flagstad. Rust and Flagstad were excited to have an opportunity to bring the Nordic and alpine athletes together in a positive way. Training is something that often keeps the two disciplines apart despite competing as one team.
Yoga gave the team a chance to meet and build camaraderie, something that is hard to develop between such different sports. Rust said some of the alpine athletes have never Nordic skied and vice versa. With eight newcomers combined between the teams that was important to Rust and Flagstad.
“It’s good for the freshman,” Rust said. “I didn’t want it to come down to January and have it be like, ‘Oh, who’s that guy? Is he on our team?’”
Rust also felt a more flexible and balanced team might stay healthy.
“You never know how many injuries training like this can prevent but hopefully you can stop at least one,” he said.
Sullivan was happy to have a chance to spread the gospel of yoga.
“Being an ex-racer myself, I wanted to turn them on to it,” she said.
Some were more into it than others. Hansen enjoyed the course but said she’ll likely return to her traditional stretching routine. She said she would hold onto her mat and use it for ab workouts and possibly a return to yoga in the future.
“Maybe if I’m pregnant or something,” Hansen said with laugh. “Yoga definitely has its place. When I look in yoga books, I think, ‘I wish could do that.’ But it’s really humbling. For now I’m into sweating by going out for a run, not standing still.”
Assistant alpine coach Meegan Lynch was somewhat surprised by the reaction the class got along the gender lines of the team.
“Our guys were more into it than our girls,” Lynch said. “Some who I didn’t expect would enjoy it really enjoyed it.”
On a team that is veritable European Union when it comes to diversity, many of the athletes had already been exposed to yoga before. Norway native Christian Ringvold, a senior alpine skier, had a yoga class before and was happy to have something break the monotony of school and training.
“I was pretty stoked,” he said. “You get to discover muscles you didn’t know you have.”
Ringvold said the mental side of yoga is important to help the team, especially the alpine skiers, learn to stay at an even keel, which is vital to the sport.
“For downhill, 90 percent of the skiing is in your head,” he said. “You’ve got to find your line. You’ve got to find a balance.”
Hansen noticed the dedication of Marius Elvrum, also an alpine skier from Norway, during the first class. Ringvold said Elvrum, his friend and roommate, is still using the breathing techniques from class.
“He got pretty into it,” Hansen said of Elvrum. “Right from the start, he was in the front row with his little bandana and a yoga mat.”
Nordic skier Benjamin Sonntag, a transfer from the University of Utah, also had yoga experience from the past. But it was the more traditional style with longer poses and tai chi breathing techniques integrated rather than the workout that is ashtanga yoga.
“It wasn’t a hard workout but I think all of us got pretty sweaty,” Sonntag said.
Sullivan put the group through flexibility tests in the first and last class to chart their progress. The least flexible at the start showed the biggest gains at the end. Sullivan didn’t know how many athletes would keep doing yoga since the class ended but that the seed has been planted for the future.
“When you’re young and flexible and you’re body is in great shape, you don’t think you need yoga,” she said. “I would bet that in five years, half of them will be doing yoga regularly.”