B.J. Raji turns to yoga to get back on track
It looked like a freak injury when it happened, but B.J. Raji knew better.
As one of the Green Bay Packers' few injury causalities in 2014, the defensive lineman had an entire season to reflect after tearing his right biceps muscle in the team's third preseason game against Oakland.
His season was over, but the extra time gave him a chance to evaluate where he was at this point in his career. The more he contemplated, the more he was convinced the injury wasn't simply poor luck.
He felt it had to do with attrition. His arm wasn't able to bend properly. Five NFL seasons and 85 games had left his 6-foot-2, 337-pound body "a little stiff." Raji knew he had to do something about it.
"One of things I noticed when I did my self-scout was my range of motion and my flexion," Raji said after Thursday's organized team activities. "I don't know if you remember but back in 2010, 2011 I was 1,000-snap guy, I was an 80-percent (playing time) guy.
"I guess all that wear and tear kind of stiffened my muscles. So I noticed that my range of motion and my flexion weren't as good as when I first got here in '09. And even with our tests here. Some of my numbers weren't as good as when I was a rookie."
The rehab process was tough. There was damage to "little muscles and tendons" that connect to his wrist and hands in addition to the biceps tear itself. The rehabilitation process was important, but so was developing a deeper understanding of how the injury happened and how to prevent a recurrence.
It led him to a conversation with Ryanne Cunningham, owner of Flow Yoga Studio in De Pere, where she specializes in yoga for athletes. She started as Raji's masseuse about three years ago. It was during those deep-tissue massages that she could feel tightness in his muscles and suggested he try yoga.
Raji, like many pro athletes, was hesitant at first. But then he saw how it benefited teammate Tramon Williams and decided to give it a shot. However, it wasn't until after he tore his biceps last summer that Raji fully invested in yoga.
"When something happens, then you finally listen," Raji said with a smile.
Cunningham has a rotation of seven to 10 Packers she works with, sometimes as a group or individually. She leaves it up to the player to decide how often he stops by, but suggests attending two or-three sessions a week to get the full benefit.
Once he was cleared from surgery, Raji started working one-on-one with Cunningham five days a week. She'd close the curtains at her downtown De Pere studio, and they'd do poses and sequences together specifically for linemen.
Raji immediately started to see a difference from the one-hour sessions. His flexibility and mobility increased. He could squat deeper during his lifts and made improvements in his running.
"He, himself, could see his own progression and how fast his flexibility is coming and how much better he was getting at a lot of the poses," Cunningham said. "He recognized himself and his coaches, too, the change in his body and his ways. Everything is much smoother. He's focused. I will say definitely it's been a huge change and a great change for him."
"I'm really proud of him for making that effort."
Cunningham encouraged Raji to continue his yoga routine after the season when he returned to New Jersey for his offseason training. She also referred him to one of her mentors, Gwen Lawrence, a New York-based yoga coach who works with the Giants.
After working with Lawrence and training at Joe Carini's House of Iron, Raji felt revitalized when he returned for the start of the offseason program. Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac has taken notice. He commends Raji not only for his physical conditioning, but also how he handled the disappointment of last season.
Instead of stewing over the lost season, Raji asserted himself more in Trgovac's room. He worked with younger players like undrafted rookie Mike Pennel and increased his knowledge of Dom Capers' evolving defense.
"There were two ways he could go," Trgovac said. "He could either sulk about it and he chose the other path where he stayed here and was totally engaged in everything we did football-wise. He was totally engaged with helping our young guys and he got a whole different perspective I think of looking at football from the outside.
"I was happy he took that path because I've seen guys go the other way. They get hurt and they're down, they're bummed and they spend that year off and they don't learn anything. He chose not to do that."
Raji re-signed with the Packers in March on a one-year deal that's heavy with playing-time incentives. He'll turn 29 this summer, so a big return will be needed to secure a long-term contract.
He's off to a good start. Raji was a full participant during Thursday's first practice of organized team activities that was open to the media.
It's Raji's second consecutive one-year deal with the Packers. He reached a similar agreement after a disappointing 2013 season with the understanding Green Bay would move him back to nose tackle in the 3-4 base defense.
Those plans haven't changed despite how well Letroy Guion played in Raji's place last season, though Trgovac cautions that both players will see action at that spot because of how many lineman are needed during a 60-minute game.
The idea of getting Raji and Guion on the field at the same time remains enticing for the league's 23rd-ranked run defense, especially when paired with blossoming pass-rusher Mike Daniels. The Packers teased that formation Thursday with Raji in the middle, and Guion and Daniels lining up at end.
"B.J. is going to be a nose. (Letroy) is going to be a nose," Trgovac said. "There's going to be times when you're going to have both of them on the field. All three of them on the field. There's not just one group of starters out there. You take five guys into the game as a defensive line and you use all five of them or whatever Mike (McCarthy) takes into the game."
Raji said he doesn't just want to pick up where he left off at the time of his injury last season — he wants to improve from that mark. Will he revert to his 2010 form when he registered a career-high 61/2 sacks? Time will tell.
Right now, Raji feels good and able to do everything that's asked of him. When he eventually steps back onto the field on game day, he's confident the work he's put in over the past eight months will help keep him there.
"I think everything happens the way it's supposed to happen," Raji said. "There's some things I had to learn from a professional and personal standpoint, but other than that, the guys upstairs talked with my people and we have an idea of what we want to happen.
"Now, it's up to me to help this team and do the best we can. I think everything will work out.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod