Illini players strike a pose through yoga

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois left tackle Jeff Allen is no stranger to the two-point stance, the three-point stance and even the four-point stance.

The warrior stance took a bit more time to master.

Same with the tree pose and downward facing dog.

Allen and several of his Fighting Illini teammates learned those positions and many more during a series of yoga classes they took this summer. The weekly classes were designed to help Illinois players improve their flexibility, balance and core strength.

At times, yoga made two-a-days at Camp Rantoul seem like a day at the beach.

"I didn't know yoga was so tough," Allen said.

This marked the second straight summer that Illinois incorporated yoga into its offseason conditioning program. Last year, Kia Locksley, the wife of former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, introduced the yoga classes to a handful of players.

The Locksleys have since left Illinois for the University of New Mexico, where Mike is now head coach, but the yoga classes continued under the direction of Peggy Prichard, a close friend of Kia Locksley's who taught yoga with her at a fitness center in Champaign. Prichard has taught group fitness for the last seven years and yoga for the last four.

Along with Illinois strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez, Prichard customized training sessions for the players.

"I tailored it toward what I thought they could do and their ability," Prichard said."They're obviously extremely muscular, extremely strong, and not extremely flexible at first. We worked on stretching out the hips, the quads, the glutes, working on some core, mainly balance and flexibility."

Six to eight players showed up for the first session, but the response grew over time and players from several position groups participated. Quarterbacks Juice Williams and Eddie McGee were among those in attendance. Players did plank poses to improve their core strength and stood on one leg to develop better balance.

Though Prichard avoided inversions, headstands and other positions that brought greater risk of injury, she had the players hold the poses for some time to improve their focus and body awareness.

"It was all based off your body weight," Allen said. "You were holding yourself up, and I'm a big guy, so it was pretty tough. Everybody had to do the same things. There were no exceptions. Even if you were a big guy, you had to do the same things as the little guys."

At 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, Allen and his fellow linemen were challenged the most by yoga. But they also had the potential for the biggest rewards.

"What I thought would help them the most is the offensive linemen, they're kind of crouched down and moving forward, just to open up the hip flexors and the hips and prevent injury," Prichard said. "That's what yoga does. You get into a pose and you hold it and you focus, and it really helps you have more body awareness.

"They really progressed. It was amazing."

Players also learned breathing and relaxation techniques, one of which required them to lie on their backs with their eyes closed.

"Sometimes, they fell asleep," Prichard said.

Prichard also expanded the players' musical horizons.

"I brought yoga music," she said. "They usually listen to all kinds of rap, so we got the good music going."

Don't expect "Garden of Serenity II" to replace "Crank Dat" in the Illinois locker room before games this fall. And Allen probably won't greet trash-talking opposing defensive linemen with, "Namaste."

But Prichard's yoga training will come in handy on the field. Players made major gains in their flexibility by the end of the six-week session, and Prichard and Hernandez are talking about scheduling more classes during the season.

"My hip flexibility is much better, I can move laterally much better," Allen said. "It helped a lot."