April 22, 2012

Teaching Yoga to Super Bowl Winning New York Giants.

(Photo: Ex-NY Giants Amani Toomer & Gwen Lawrence)

An Interview with Gwen Lawrence.

“I am not trying to make athletes into Yogis, I am going into their world and I become the athlete. I learn the game and I understand exactly the job of every position of every sport and design the most time efficient routines for them to keep them injury free on the field longer and more symmetrical.”

Gwen Lawrence, it turns out, is probably one of the most powerful and influential yoga instructors in the Universe. You see, I’d only just asked the Universe to send me an amazing woman who can laugh and be tough with me, read me in minutes and who’s willing to answer questions without drama. Bam! The Universe delivered to me an interview, via email, with Gwen.

I thought it would be just another interview with a yoga instructor. (And yes, I know there’s no such thing). Next thing I discover is that the yoga instructor I’ve got to have this exchange with, teaches yoga to professional athletes, actors, and all sorts of major celebrities. Oooohmmmm… oh boy. She’s also the Super Yogi yoga teacher for the Superbowl Winning New York Giants Football Team… and the New York Yankees. And, and, and… Sheesh. How does a beginner yoga dude ask questions of someone like this?

Gwen turned out to be truly friendly, kind, and generous with both her time and her willingness to reveal what it’s like to teach yoga to the most famous, highest paid, toughest, best, strongest, most talented—you get the idea—professional athletes in America.

Fair Warning: Before you dive in, you might want to click here for some amazing photos of Gwen & the Pros in action. 

And watch them flex it:


James Knowles: How did you come by your extraordinary ability to read bodies?

Gwen Lawrence: I think it is definitely the culmination of years of work in several fields and much self teaching, thinking and seeing. I started as a dancer from the age of three, through college. Who is more in tune with their bodies (and almost to a fault) than a dancer, especially a ballet dancer? From weigh-ins to routine perfection you are constantly scrutinized even on the good stuff.

I was also an art major in college and was fascinated by my figure drawing classes and the human form. From college I went on to study Massage Therapy in the Swedish institute of Allied Health Sciences in NYC and I was captivated by anatomy; I couldn’t get enough.

All along this journey, I was dating my now husband, who at the time was being scouted by professional baseball. I was at every game watching him grow to pro. I also experienced a sidelining injury he suffered and went to surgery, rehab and re-emerged into the MLB. I learned, watched, and asked tons of questions.

I started to put together (I now see in hindsight), the journey of the athlete to get to the next level and the workings of the human body. I noticed things and started to tie in my thoughts and studies to my training of people. It was the grand design, universe, God, fate whatever you want to call it.

Now all I see is imbalance and asymmetry in people as I walk innocently down the street. {Ha ha…}

James Knowles: How did you get started training pro athletes? Who was your first pro ever?

Gwen Lawrence: I started working with celebrities first. I massaged and trained people from the Rockefellers, Glenn Close at home and on location, David Letterman, members of the Bush family, Regis Philbin and many others.

So even though that was fun, it was my destiny to get into the athlete world, but having worked with many high profile people it was slightly easier for me to gain the trust of athletes, and I can’t really remember but I believe the New York Giants is where I started—first, as a massage therapist and then by talking to them about how if they started and continued Yoga they would need less massage.

When I was in massage school, the first day, they went around the room and asked what everybody’s goals were. Many had noble expectations of working with cancer patients and rehab facilities, but I proudly said I was going to work with professional athletes. I will never forget the feeling of all of them laughing at me. The rest is history.

James Knowles: Do most pro athletes take to yoga more naturally than the average person or are they sometimes as intimidated by it as non-pros of similar age who have never done it before?

Gwen Lawrence: It is easier now than it was for me 12 years ago, trying to get them to appreciate the difficulty and the benefits they will receive by practicing yoga.

But I get all reactions, from spoiled gifted athletes thinking they are above and beyond the need for it, since they are 22 years old and have always been blessed without body problems—duh, they are 22!—to the veteran athlete devotee who wouldn’t miss a session.

I still have to be tough with them and constantly explain why they are doing yoga and how it relates to their sport.

I am not trying to make athletes into Yogis, I am going into their world and I become the athlete.

I learn the game and I understand exactly the job of every position of every sport and design the most time efficient routines for them to keep them injury free on the field longer and more symmetrical.

(Photo: Gwen Lawrence)

James Knowles: Would you say pro athletes are more or less flexible than non-pros who are just getting into yoga?

Gwen Lawrence: I cannot generalize that because every sport is different. It also depends on what position they are playing.

While some athletes may be tighter because they have learned to build their bulk and muscle without enough flexibility training, the pros certainly have something extra that makes them committed to train hard and get better.

It is never my intention to get them into a split—unless they are a first basemen—but it is my intention to make them better than they are the first day I meet them.

James Knowles: Do you find that many pro athletes who have been lifting weights and doing other traditional workouts are seeing incremental or tremendous improvements in their athletic abilities after practicing yoga?

Gwen Lawrence: Absolutely. You see the philosophy of Power Yoga for Sports is “strength + flexibility = power” on the field of play. If you have a bow and arrow and the bow string is so strong it doesn’t break but so tight you cannot draw the bow back beyond your ear, you let go of the arrow and splat—the arrow barely flies and may not even reach the target. But when the bow string is strong and flexible, you can pull it way back and when the arrow is released, it soars.

It is the same with your body. To generate power you need full range of motion. Just look at a gymnast, the amount of energy their bodies can create is extraordinary! Can you see it?

James Knowles: How many times a week does the typical pro athlete practice yoga? How long is the typical yoga session for most pros?

Gwen Lawrence: Unfortunately, most only practice when they are pushed by me. A special few are self motivated to practice and use my DVDs as well. When I’m instructing them we typically get 45 minutes in.

James Knowles: What indicators of learning and growth do you look for as milestones in a pro athlete’s yoga practice? And in a “normal” person? What is the primary difference?

Gwen Lawrence: I just look at what they were on day one, observe their weaknesses and imbalances, and watch them improve. There is no difference between  a Pro vs. a Normal person, except the desire for quicker results.

James Knowles: Do pro athletes immediately comprehend the benefits of yoga? In other words, does it just make sense to them? Or do they sometimes resist it at first? If they are ever skeptical at first, how long before they are convinced? What does it take to convince them?

Gwen Lawrence: Many are definitely skeptics. However, one hour with me, and they walk away feeling better and understanding a little more about how their body works and how to tune in to their personal needs and weaknesses. I hear all the time from pros how they wish they started yoga earlier.

So it is my goal and intention to get to more high school and collegiate athletes to be aware of the benefits of yoga. More and more the kids coming in to Giants camp are telling me they did yoga in college, which is a great help to me. I give them a few analogies to help them in understanding their body as their tool and machine, give them a few yoga tricks and they are on board!

(Photo: Gwen Lawrence)

James Vincent Knowles: I’m guessing many pro athletes are particularly happy to find that yoga aids them in preventing hamstring injuries, a seemingly common injury for many pros in most sports. Are there other common pro-injuries, which yoga seems not only best at preventing, but also best at healing?

Gwen Lawrence: I work very extensively to open the hips of my athletes in all directions. Studies have been done that prove that hips that are open and supple in all directions protect the knees and show a significantly less incident of knee injury.

If you think about it, if your hips are cemented tight and you are cutting and showing agility on the field of play, you are creating energy. The potential energy you create with moving and cutting around the field has to go somewhere, if your hips are unable to absorb it then it goes to the most vulnerable area which is always a complex knee. So that is a huge focus.

Although each sport has a different point of interest to focus on. Tennis would be chest and shoulders; running—hips, legs and ankles; golf would be spin and hips; baseball would be hips and spine-chest; and if you are a pitcher it is more complicated… the list goes on and on.

James Knowles: Which sport has the most yoga-friendly players overall? Baseball or football?

Gwen Lawrence: Most definitely my NY Giants all the way! Willing to learn, hard workers, they listen and try to improve every day. It is great because the Giants train as a team and create camaraderie and team connection and it shows, all the way to the Super Bowl.

James Knowles: Do pro athletes get into the yoga lingo or do they keep it simple? You know, do they ever say stuff like, “let’s do that up-dog, down-dog and that one that looks like Jerry Rice trying to catch a touchdown pass behind his back?” Or do they memorize the correct names of all the poses with zeal?

Gwen Lawrence: They know the names… I’m not going to go as far to say that they know Sanskrit names but they for sure know up dog, down dog , pigeon, frog, hero’s, and much, much more. They are smart guys. I do not have to reinvent the wheel for them.

James Knowles: Have you taught any female athletes who weren’t into yoga already? If so, have you noticed any difference between female and male pro athletes in terms of attitude or approach to doing yoga?

Gwen Lawrence: I have taught females as well. The biggest difference—although I hate to admit it—is that the females don’t have the strength, although they do have overall better flexibility. But, like I mentioned before, the equation for power yoga for sports is strength plus flexibility plus power, so if I’m working with more flexible girls, I would bring my attention to increasing their strength with different yoga moves.

James Knowles: One would think yoga is quite different from most pro athlete’s training programs. Do pro athletes arrive with more or less humility or humbleness when they first begin doing yoga? In other words, do they ever get a little nervous or are they just pretty sure of themselves right from the beginning? And if they arrive supremely confident, does yoga seem to teach them a little more humility or is it like ducks to water?

Gwen Lawrence: I hear a lot that yoga is the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do and they call me the Yoga Ninja. That said, I just relieve them of any insecurity by reassuring them. Yeah sure, I can do all these fancy poses but I cannot catch an 80 yard touch down pass in the super bowl.

We all have our strengths and, as I mentioned, I am not interested in getting their legs behind their head. I am interested in getting them to be more productive on the field of play, increase longevity, decrease injury and improve their weaknesses. It’s synergistic and supportive; power yoga for sports may teach athletes, but it is not a competition.

James Knowles: What would you say is the biggest difference, if any, between pro athlete yoga beginners and non-pro yoga beginners?

Gwen Lawrence: The biggest difference is that the pros are usually in superior shape to begin with, and they have an enormous drive to succeed, this makes for a ripe teaching situation for me.

James Knowles: What sort of feedback do you get from pro athletes? Do they enjoy yoga or is just another form of exercise to them?

Gwen Lawrence: They complain and moan a lot, mostly because they are already training to the max, but I take their cues, train them appropriately, and design programs that keep them interested, motivated and constantly feeling better and making progress. This way, they learn to love coming to yoga to feel better.

James Knowles: Has there been an increasing hubbub out there of the benefits of yoga amongst pro athletes? Do pros start sounding and looking like yogis after awhile or do they keep their inner yogi quiet and on the down low?

Gwen Lawrence: Pro athletes are a different breed. I am not interested in “converting” them to omming machines. Their outlook on Yoga is slightly different. It is not unheard of to get a guy or girl hooked, but mostly it is to compliment their already crammed, intense, training regimen and not to change them. I enhance what they do and make them more efficient at it.

On the whole, they are secure people who are already very confident in themselves or else they would not be where they are. Most likely, were one of them particularly interested in furthering their yoga studies, I do not believe it would be on the down low. Especially if they are successful in their job.

James Knowles: What is the funniest thing a pro athlete has ever said (or done) during a yoga training session?

Gwen Lawrence: Fart… {Hahaha!} Seriously, they make me laugh all the time, so I can’t think of one thing specifically. You forget that pro athletes are young, fun guys. Somewhere, somehow, I became older than pro athletes, I don’t know how that happened, they keep me young.

James Knowles: As word gets around that more and more pros are doing yoga, do you believe yoga will start to become more popular exponentially, thanks to the pros?

Gwen Lawrence: One can only hope that more and more gifted yogis will get the word out and get it to be more the norm.



Gwen’s unique combination of dance, massage and yoga training experience, coupled with her extensive knowledge of anatomy, and nutrition, provide her clients with overwhelming benefits. Gwen is the yoga instructor for five Pro teams in NY. Her writing appears in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Fitness Magazine, Shape Magazine, Yoga Journal, Details and shape.comespn.com.   She makes regular appearances on NBC TODAY show, Good Day NY . She was featured in June ESPN Magazine at the “Best innovation in Sports Medicine” as well she is a featured teacher for Gaiam DVD’s and Ads.

Connect with Gwen:  GwenLawrence.com / Power Yoga for Sports / Facebook / Twitter




A bow to Gwen Lawrence from elephant journal for sharing her insight, wisdom and experience with us and our readers.

A journalistic high five to James Knowles for practicing the Art of Asking.

A warm and heartfelt thank you to Sharon Pingitore, the “Culture Mamaste”, for making this interview possible.


Editor: Andrea B.


~ Like elephant yoga & elephant culture on Facebook. ~

Read 6 Comments and Reply

Read 6 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

James Vincent Knowles  |  Contribution: 400