Split seconds: Inside B.J. Raji's yoga session
There’s something startling about a 337-pound man doing the splits. It bends logic, begs for explanation. Forty minutes into his vinyasa yoga session, B.J. Raji tries the unthinkable. His right leg slides back. His left shifts forward.
Gravity does the rest.
It takes a few repetitions, but Raji’s splits stretch deeper and deeper. Down to the floor. On a black yoga mat, his white socks mark two ends of a straight line. Raji uses yoga blocks at first, then discards them. He slaps both palms on the floor, leans his barrel chest forward against his thigh and pushes his head down until his nose snuggles against his knee.
“Textbook,” instructor Ryanne Cunningham exclaims. “That is textbook.”
On a yoga mat inside Flow Yoga Studio in downtown De Pere, the Green Bay Packers defensive tackle looks like he’s leaping over skyscrapers with a single bound. A high hurdler. Cunningham’s joy is unbridled.
This, she says, is a big moment. Raji isn’t naturally blessed with freakish flexibility. One reason he missed the entire 2014 season with a torn biceps, he believes, is rigidity in his shoulders. When his right arm got caught in the mass of blockers and ball carrier during a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, his muscles didn’t have enough elasticity. So they snapped.
Sixteen months later, Raji likely will make his 13th start of the season when the Packers travel cross country for Sunday’s game in Oakland. The 29-year-old veteran is playing his best football in years, clogging the middle for the NFL’s sixth-ranked scoring defense. His body feels fresher with age, no longer breaking down. It isn’t by accident.
Inside this long, rectangular room with a hardwood floor, where “Namaste” hangs on the wall in single, block letters, Raji has transformed his body. Several Packers players do yoga in this room, but none are more loyal than Raji. He goes to work here three times a week, usually Monday, Tuesday and Friday. His yoga sessions coincide with the team’s days away from the practice field.
Each day has its own, specific purpose, Raji says. Monday is for recovery. Tuesday is for rejuvenation. On this Friday, the Packers are 48 hours from playing the Dallas Cowboys. Raji will meet one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, but not before unrolling his yoga mat.
“I consider this part of my preparation,” he says. “It gives me the confidence to play free, play loose. I’ve got a few poses here that will loosen up my muscles and elongate my muscles, the ones that I need to run and push and kind of get off blocks.
“I know that I put in the work. I know I’ve done it here. I’ve hit these angles and poses. So I have no doubt that in a game I’ll be able to take some shots and do some things.”
Raji walks through the door carrying a gallon-sized water jug. He pulls off his black hoodie, revealing a white-and-gray camouflage shirt that bears three words:
Just Do It.
He’ll need plenty of hydration through this session. Vinyasa yoga is a marriage between movement and breathing. Ballet on a yoga mat. Yes, Raji is about to get a workout.
“How are you feeling today?” Cunningham asks.
Raji has no complaints. The extended time off since the Packers’ previous game in Detroit has done his body well. This, he says, is the best he’s felt since at least the bye week. Maybe September.
Cunningham designed Raji’s yoga routine to target the weaknesses in his flexibility. Her information came directly from the Packers. Every year, Raji says, the team’s strength coaches and trainers videotape players as they undergo a series of athletic movements. The goal is to gauge which parts of a player’s body lack natural bend.
Raji took his results to Cunningham and asked her to design a program that fits his needs. He isn’t the only one. Cunningham has had yoga sessions with Packers players ranging from cornerback Casey Hayward and receiver Randall Cobb to defensive end Datone Jones, outside linebacker Andy Mulumba and Raji.
Poses don’t change much. For each player, their targeted areas are different. Receivers and cornerbacks tend to focus more on lower body, Cunningham says. Linemen loosen their upper body.
“When it comes to tailoring the yoga,” Cunningham says, “B.J. is more shoulders. More spinal twisting. He’s got to do some hamstrings too, but his is more upper-body focus.”
There is constant dialogue inside the studio. Each movement comes with verbal feedback. Cunningham prides herself in reading body language, she says. Her sessions are mapped with specific poses, but there’s always flexibility to adjust based on Raji’s needs.
The session starts at 3:02 p.m. At first, Raji and Cunningham stick to the basics. Downward-facing dog to stretch calves, hamstrings and spine. Up dog to stretch chest and abdomen. Raji alternates between the two without taking breaks. He walks his feet down from an inverted V, then lifts his chest and belly off the mat.
After a few minutes, the poses become more complex. With both knees on the mat, Raji dips his left shoulder and lifts his right arm, like an airplane in mid-turn. Left hand on the mat, Raji reaches for the ceiling with his right fingertips. His arms make a vertical line, stretching a couple inches taller than Cunningham’s head.
Raji dips his right shoulder after several seconds. He tucks his arm underneath his stomach so it’s between him and the floor. His triceps and forearm flow across the mat until fingertips poke through the other side of his body, pointing left. The stretch elongates Raji’s wingspan, chipping away at the rigidity.
“I’m a D-lineman,” Raji says between poses. “I’m constantly punching every play. So it’s all shoulders with me.”
Raji repeats the swinging motion with both arms. A few repetitions pass, and Cunningham increases the degree of difficulty. Instead of using his knees as a base, Raji straightens his right leg. He plops his right heel on the mat in front of him, lifts his right arm. There is less stability on the mat, creating a bigger challenge.
Cunningham helps Raji get in the correct form. Then she circles him like a vulture, hunting for imperfections. There is no slacking. No short cuts. During one pose, she notices Raji’s left kneecap isn’t precise.
“You’re tighter on your left side,” she tells him.
Raji looks up.
“The thing about yoga,” he says, “is you’ll be in a position and she’ll adjust you. And you’ll be like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t even know I was that far off.’”
For a long time, Cunningham urged Raji to become a regular student. She started as his masseuse more than three years ago and noticed tightness in his muscles. Yoga, she suggested, would make him a better player.
Raji says he "tuned her out" for a while. Looking back, he wishes he'd started sooner.
“I guess I didn’t respect yoga as much,” Raji says. “Nobody else close to me ever did it or told me about it. So I was ignorant to yoga and the benefits of how it could help me.”
Raji started attending sessions last year as soon as the Packers' medical staff cleared him after biceps surgery. Before he ever returned to the field, Raji says, he noticed a change. His range of motion was greater. With his muscles elongated, the big defensive tackle was becoming more nimble.
The poses look unnatural, but each stretch has an important purpose. Raji’s lack of natural upper-body rotation is problematic for a player in the trenches. Each snap, Raji is responsible for plugging the gap. He must fend off blockers from either side.
Twisting is required.
“At my position,” Raji says, “it’s all arms. I lift for a living. I’m lifting somebody every play.”
The marriage between movement and breathing is perfect for Raji. These yoga poses demand athleticism. Many of them are hard to hold. Raji says the stretches simulate how his body might contort on the field.
Sometimes, Raji says, movement is the easy part.
“All these poses are so intricate,” Raji says. “So I’m kind of focused on everything, and sometimes I forget to breathe.”
There is a flurry of poses during Raji’s 45-minute session. Too many to count. They periodically peel back to the downward- and upward-facing dog. The cat-cow. The puppy pose. Transitions mostly blend together.
Raji takes occasional sips from his water jug. Each stretch comes with its own degree of difficulty. When Raji starts doing the warrior pose with a twisting crescent movement, he grunts. He sweats. He feels this stretch.
Standing spread eagle, Raji’s feet are near the end of his mat. His left foot points straight. His right turns so toes point away from his side. Raji bends his right knee, dipping so his left side elongates and stretches.
At first, he reaches for the ceiling with his right fingertips, his left tapping the mat. Then he turns his elbows inward. His palms come together. Just like he’s praying.
“That’s no joke right there,” he says with some relief when it’s over.
Raji goes back to twisting and stretching. His session is almost over. Cunningham thinks of how to end this session, how to have a big moment. She has an idea.
“Do you want to see a really cool one?” she asks.
Yoga is full of attention-grabbing names for stretches. "The splits" is self-explanatory. Raji first tried it in October, and it was a noble effort. His front leg bent at a slight angle. His back leg’s bend was more pronounced. He never discarded the yoga blocks.
But there was potential.
Raji had a target date in mind. By the end of December, his goal was to do the splits. He remembers that as he slides his left leg forward, slowly letting gravity take over. Down to the floor, his instructor beside him, Raji shows just how far his flexibility has come.
He reached his goal with two weeks to spare.