The England rugby team is having a hard time in South Africa.
The Springboks have already won the test series and are 2-0 up, with the Lions playing purely for pride in the final encounter this Saturday at Newlands.
In fact, England are in the grip of the worst test run in four years and have slipped to sixth in the world rankings. The media is circling, sniffing the blood of players and coach alike and many commentators are saying that now is the time for the team to go “back to basics” and that the players have “completely lost their confidence”.
South Africa, on the other hand, is playing with directness and a desire that only comes when confidence levels are sky high, so, for England, now is the time for grit, determination and self-respect.
Or is now the time for yoga.
There was a time when if you mentioned the words yoga and rugby in the same sentence it would have been met with quizzical looks, but that has all changed in recent years. In the last decade, many influential top-level coaches and human performance experts have realised that the dense muscle that rugby players carry is notoriously inflexible and this was restricting them from playing at their optimum level, as well as leaving them more open to injury.
England fullback Mike Brown and flanker Chris Robshaw, who will both be on the field in Cape Town this Saturday, both practice and any followers of Robshaw on Instagram would have seen him holding Crow Pose, which is no mean feat for a man who stands 6ft 2” and weighs in at around 16 stone.
In fact, the players’ Human Performance coach at Harlequins, John Dams, has gone on the record saying that yoga is, “not part of some elaborate team-bonding initiation, but a critical component of their strength and conditioning routine. The overall goal is to increase their active range of movement and these therapy sessions develop improved motor patterns and mobility.”
This is critical, especially now that the battering ram rugby of old has been replaced by the fast, fluid and explosive modern game that requires players to be more athletic and to rely on functional fitness rather than just strength and brutality. Yoga-style stretching can add centimetres of flexibility to tight areas, like hamstrings, and yoga is now widely accepted as having a part to play in a team’s build up to each game.
Which is why, if you’re lucky enough to be in Cape Town this Saturday to see the teams go through their pre-game warm-ups you will notice that every movement is mirrored by a yoga asana. The entire warm-up will be structured around hatha yoga positions, the only difference being that players will be performing the movements dynamically.
However, yoga is not just about the physical and it’s here that we return to the chasm in confidence between the two teams on the pitch because the same influencers who first identified how yoga can improve a rugby player’s physical performance don’t seem to have realised how it can also help with the mental side of the game; and that includes the confidence so lacking in the England team right now.
The headline-grabbing inclusion of Danny Cipriani in the England team for this Saturday is all about trying to force some confidence back into the team because in his 14 minute cameo from the last game, Cipriani had the confidence to go and make things happen.
However, as players move through yoga and build a practice they will achieve successes, which feed self-confidence and emotional control. From finding perfect balance in Eagle Pose to nailing what is many yogis’ favourite confidence-builder – Crow Pose. Just ask Chris Robshaw, who will be hoping that his practice will make all the difference when he takes on the South Africans on Saturday.
The only criticism that embattled coach Eddie Jones has publicly levelled at his players so far on the tour is that they, “don’t have emotional control at the right moments in games.” This emotional control is exactly what yoga can deliver to a rugby player at every level and is surely the next step in the evolution of yoga with the sport.
We would like to credit @chrisrobshawrugby, Palatinate Online, Men's Health and the Telegraph for the images used in this article.