Before you annihilate your fellow man with sheer will and pure unadulterated violence, you really need to center yourself and find your inner calm.
Mike Daniels is a beast. But it’s not enough to work on the force that your muscles can inflict. When you’re an NFL defensive stalwart, you need to maintain your muscle’s longevity.
The 31-year-old lineman is coming off a return-to-form season after playing in nine games in 2019. His most recent campaign is now officially but a steppingstone as he will reportedly return to the Cincinnati Bengals on a one-year deal worth $2.5 million.
Missing games is the norm in the brutal reality of the NFL. What guys need to do to stay on the field is a diverse array of exercises to placate the mind, live in the moment, and stretch the body to its limits.
Normally the last concept is relegated to lifting ungodly sums of weight or getting your body to traverse 40 yards in several blinks of an eye.
But the modern athlete in the know has a cheat code. People like Daniels are more than willing to share that code with the rest of his fellow athletes.
“Yoga truly helped me open my body up in a way to where I was able to do a lot of things that I wasn't able to do even when I was in college,” Daniels tells En Fuego. “Yoga really helped me grow to be a bigger, better Mike.”
That’s a scary thought because Mike was already pretty damn good to begin with.
The former Iowa Hawkeye defensive captain saw his tackles and sacks increase markedly each season throughout his career in the Big Ten conference. His senior year he led the team with tackles for a loss, had 67 tackles and nine sacks. By the time he was done, he was selected for the second team All-Big Ten squad.
He was taken in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers, a team that was enamored with his quickness and speed.
By 2016, Daniels met a yoga instructor through fellow human battering-ram B.J. Raji. The tackle had spent the previous five seasons showcasing his grit and tenacity but had to miss the entire 2014 season thanks to a torn bicep. The 2011 Pro Bowl selection and a defensive mainstay who regularly played in 14 or more games was going to sit things out. It was a moment for reflection. How could he take his fitness and ensure some measure of elasticity for his muscles?
Twisting was just not in his arsenal. A 2015 USA Today profile by Ryan Wood explored Raji’s discovery of yoga.
As Wood explains, that very lack of flexibility is what Raji credits with tearing his muscle. And it was yoga that he credited with getting him back to the field.
“I consider this part of my preparation,” Raji told USA Today in 2015. “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.”
It’s that kind of muscle elasticity that others like Daniels wanted to incorporate into their own game.
As Daniels embraced the nuances and the demands of yoga, he quickly found that his body wasn’t just responding, it was excelling.
Pretty soon, this six-foot, 310-pound lineman was stretched to his limit. He was doing the splits. “Yoga is gonna make you reach new thresholds,” he tells me with a smile. “Before you know it, I’m doing something I didn’t think was possible.”
Beating back the stigma of a slender yogi contorting into uncomfortable positions is outdated. And the guys beating it back into obsolescence are the mountains that are doing the splits, showing that muscles don’t just need to be pumped to their limits, they need to be stretched.
A few years later and Daniels is paying it forward, ensuring that any young player that wants to has an opportunity to glean the strength and mindfulness that comes from yoga.
“Off the field, it’s definitely something to pass on; whether I go to a new team and teach a rookie the importance of it or I'm passing it down to my kids, or if I'm training high school kids, whatever, the importance of flexibility, the connection of the mental and the physical.”
New League, New Mindset
There is a shift in the idea of what it takes to be at your most fit. Decades ago that may mean endurance and strength. Missing for so many athletes was what practices like yoga could add in balance and flexibility. The secret is thankfully out.
“I've been to two different teams now since I left Green Bay and I got asked by three different guys for three different yoga instructors,” Daniels said.
“Everybody is taking a more professional approach to taking care of the body,” he continued. “There's no longer a stigma towards things like yoga and Pilates or even ballet that says it's not masculine or things like that.”
Talking about stigma, it’s easy to forget that Phil Jackson’s belief that an athlete and team needed a shared balance was so unorthodox that he was referred to as the Zen master.
Guys like John Salley touting the benefits of the practice were unique and noteworthy. But recent years have seen the buy-in precisely because things like yoga can take you to that next level.
And it’s not just something that will lengthen your career. It’s going to help the most important weapon in any athlete’s arsenal.
“Your mind and your body have to be faster,” Daniels said of the benefits off the field. “Same thing with life. Life's fast. So your mind's got to be sharp. And yoga really helps put you in a place where your brain's going to be very on point, you're not going to miss any of the fine details of life.”
Daniels has a couple of shouts outs for poses that he finds beneficial; ones that even a novice can pull off and glean some benefit. If you are considering incorporating yoga poses into your own fitness regimen, these are a great start.
Daniels says, “lift your back leg up and rotate it as well as your front leg. It's actually really hard. (It’s) super good for opening your hips and getting your hip flexors fired up.”
Taking the 9090 into a bit more meditative state and you have the pigeon pose, which Daniels explains is particularly apropos:
“[Pigeon Pose] targets so many areas that the average person is going to have shut off if you sit in a chair all day; hip flexors are turned off, your glutes are turned off, and now when you stand up, your glutes aren't firing, your hip flexors aren’t activating too much, and now your lower back is going to start bothering you. Then you try to go for a jog and now your hamstring hurts. Right? So when you do pigeon pose, that really gets that whole hip glute lower back area hamstring area, just gets the blood there, gets opened up. I think that’s a real good pose for anybody."
There is much more left in the tank for Daniels. Prior to the news that he would re-sign with the Bengals, the tackle was hopeful that he had many more games left to play.
“For as long as I can, as long as they let me play," Daniels told AllBengals back in December. "I’m going to keep going. I really love the game of football, I have a lot to offer and that’s what I’m here to do."
However many games he suits up will be a credit to the work he puts in on the field but also the hours he has incorporated into his regimen on the mat.
Daniels is generous in his wisdom. He’s seen how it has changed the trajectory of his career and he just wants to speak its praises to the universe.
When it comes to yoga, the clientele that is benefiting from it is as diverse as it’s ever been. One of yoga’s greatest proponents is here to implore those of you on the fence. Yoga is for everyone. And the benefits aren’t just for guys getting paid the big bucks to stay healthy.
“Everybody should do it. Everybody should be able to benefit from feeling that boost of energy.”