PHOENIX — When the A's break camp on Wednesday, each player will be making room in his carry-on bag for a DVD.
It won't be a memento of the Cactus League. The DVD will be a baseball-specific program of yoga stretches put together by Phoenix-based yoga instructor Katherine Roberts.
“It's not your mom's yoga,” said Roberts, who is in her third spring training leading the A's in yoga stretches.
It's not typical for baseball teams to go in heavily for yoga, Roberts said, although some players do it on their own. But a handful of teams have incorporated yoga into their pregame stretching program, and many of the A's players swear by it.
“Yoga is awesome,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “And the way Katherine helps us use it is great. As a catcher, I have to squat and get into all kinds of compromising positions during a game. With yoga, it's easier for me to get loose and to stay flexible. I tried it a little three years ago when I was with Tampa Bay, but after doing it here, it's something I do all the time.”
Even manager Bob Melvin is a fan. He was an active participant last year, and “I would be out there now,” he said, but for his ongoing back pain.
Reliever Sean Doolittle said the A's use of yoga the last few seasons was one of the things that made his move from hitter to pitcher go as flawlessly and quickly as it did.
“I love it all; it's all about getting to know your body,” Doolittle said. “I probably don't need the DVD, though. Katherine's been with us for a few years now, and I know a lot of the exercises by heart.”
Doolittle says he practices some form of yoga a couple days a week in the offseason and does some form of it most days during the baseball calendar.
That's not to say the A's have personal yoga mats and are styling yoga wear. That's not the way Roberts wants them to approach an exercise for which she is an advocate in over 30 countries through her company, Yoga For Golfers.
The A's line up in rows of six or eight, and the no-nonsense Roberts walks up and down alternating the stretches in an encouraging voice. Before and after the sessions, she sips coffee and talks with the players about their specific needs.
“These guys are athletes; they don't need to do everything yoga,” she said. “I'm one of the spokes in the wheel for them to getting their conditioning right. I believe that they are looser and more flexible because of what we do, and I think it cuts down on injuries.”
Doolittle and Vogt agree that yoga cuts down on injuries, but the evidence is more anecdotal than statistical.
“My object in working with them is to create as much body symmetry and balance as I can,” Roberts said. “When you look at pitchers, throwing a baseball the way they do is one of the least symmetrical things an athlete can do. But with the balance that they can get from yoga, they build strength.”
Roberts has worked with many pro golfers, as her company's name suggests, as well as NBA players and coaches. She also worked with the San Diego Padres before being recruited to the A's by the team's strength and conditioning coach, Mike Henriques.
Not all the A's completely buy into yoga. Center fielder Coco Crisp says, “It's fine; I don't see how it could hurt anything. But I'm flexible enough for a ballplayer.”
More are like Doolittle and starter Jesse Chavez, who work together on yoga during the season and in the winter. Chavez has the Roberts' DVD on his iPad.
Starter Dan Straily was doing yoga before he ever joined the A's organization.
“It's like anything else, you get as much or as little as you want out of it,” Straily said. “For me, I think it's a useful tool, especially with all the time that pitchers are expected to spend in the weight room.”
Straily's concern with lifting weights is that getting too muscular would take away from the flexibility a pitcher needs. His time with yoga has allowed him to add the strength while keeping the flexibility.
“Katherine is real good about knowing what we each need as pitchers and players,” Straily said. “Not every exercise is relevant to what we do. But she helps us understands the ones that are.”
Roberts said that the spirituality normally connected with yoga practitioners can be incorporated by the players if they want it, but that's not the goal.
“It's not about the lotus position and mats with these guys,” she said. “But yoga does help baseball players, and these guys know what helps makes them better players.”