Flexibility, core strength can improve swing, lessen one’s risk of injury

By Anne Aurand / article from The Bulletin in Bend, OR

Published: May 31, 2012 / 4:00AM PST

Balancing Stick Pose - Bob Garza

Balancing Stick Pose – Bob Garza

Golf pro Bob Garza demonstrates balancing stick pose with his golf club at Lost Tracks Golf Club in Bend. Garza says yoga has helped his golf swing and protects his lower back from injury.

When Bob Garza was in high school and college, yoga was not considered a man’s activity or a particularly athletic thing to do.

The 53-year-old pro golfer is thankful things have changed.

“Top athletes do it,” said Garza, who teaches at Lost Tracks Golf Club in Bend.

Garza is a regular at Bikram Yoga in Bend. He says his yoga practice helps protect his back from injury and improves his game.

Yoga has loosened his hamstrings — tight hamstrings can lead to lower-back problems. He has had sciatic nerve problems that prevented him from swinging a club a few times. But, “since I started yoga that rarely happens,” he said.

Yoga has also improved his core strength, which is helpful since the whole midsection is involved in the golf swing. A strong core lets you rotate the torso faster, he said.

Garza started doing yoga about four years ago, as his age started to affect his flexibility. He has more time for yoga in the winter when he’s not so busy on the golf course, but he keeps it up as much as possible during the golf season. Practicing all winter helps him when golf fires up in the spring. Before he started yoga, he used to come back in the spring feeling tight. He said it took longer to get his swing back.

“Now I don’t feel like that happens. Staying in a yoga routine (all winter), I don’t lose flexibility or speed. I also think it helps me mentally. I don’t feel like I’m playing catch up,” he said.

Garza prefers Bikram-style yoga. Bikram classes are 90 minutes long, include a set series of 26 poses and are practiced in a 105-degree room. “I’ve tried other yogas and I like the intensity of this. For me, it’s a good fit,” Garza said.

But any type of yoga would be helpful for a golfer, said Chris Cooper, a physical therapist at Therapeutic Associates and a golf fitness instructor certified through the Titleist Performance Institute, an international organization created in 2004 to help golfers improve their game by understanding their bodies.

If someone feels intimated or uncertain about yoga, Cooper suggests starting with an introductory-level yoga class or going to a therapeutic yoga instructor. There’s a healthy number of yoga studios in Bend and most gyms and athletic clubs offer yoga classes.

A golfer needs strength, stability, flexibility and balance to hit a golf ball, Cooper said. Holding yoga poses and moving through series of poses improves those things. Without regular movement, bodies degenerate as they age, losing muscle, balance and flexibility, Cooper said. Yoga, like many recreational activities, can improve overall fitness. But more specifically, yoga moves the body in multiple planes at the same time, as does golf. Both yogis and golfers might bend to the side and twist the torso at the same time.

Golfers often come to Cooper with lower-back problems, he said. But, improving the stability and flexibility of the hips and back can protect a golfer from some injuries.

In many yoga poses, a person’s feet are planted on the ground, their lower body stable, while their torso is rotating. Same thing happens in golf.

“One reason (golfers) see me for low back pain is because their stability segment is trying to be a mobility segment, because their midback and hip sockets don’t move,” Cooper said. “It matters if your hip joints can move, if your midback can move,” Cooper said.

Coupled with good golf instruction, yoga just might improve someone’s back swing, too, he said. “You can turn further, create more coil and potential energy to uncoil toward the ball,” he said. That makes the ball fly farther.

There’s one more component, Cooper said: breathing. Yoga brings awareness to one’s breath. A focus on the breath can help a golfer in the game.

“A lot of golf is mental. Breathing can let some tension go that will create an injury,” he said. “It will remind the body to calm down.”

— Reporter: Anne Aurand / 541-383-0304 / [email protected]