Steelers fever takes new meaning with hot yoga

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For 38-year-old Sean Conley, the days of lifting weights and running sprints are over.

"I spent my whole life building strength, muscle and speed," he said of his football career in the NFL. He spends his time teaching in a 90-degree, heated yoga studio on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside, rather than at the gym or on the field. And now, Mr. Conley is spreading the benefits of yoga to his local NFL cohorts. During the fall season, Steelers players join him after game days for a round of weekly classes.

Downward dogs and rotating half-moons have replaced high-impact training for Mr. Conley, for whom a series of injuries forced him to leave the NFL after a four-year career. Inspired by his wife, Karen -- whom he met in high school in his native Erie -- he experimented with a variety of styles.

She had recently completed training with guru and founder of power vinyasa flow yoga, Baron Baptiste, who pioneered his unique style with professional athletes from the Philadelphia Eagles in 1995.

"I gravitated to it," Mr. Conley explained, "because it was really athletic."

Giving up his perfected and familiar workout routine was not easy. "It was definitely a weaning process," said Mr. Conley. The father of four, he has now given up all other forms of exercise, focusing solely on yoga. The workout, he says, is "just as good" -- without the injury potential of football.

Far from a relaxed, tranquil yoga practice, a typical 75-minute power yoga class can burn up to 700 calories.

"Yoga is a nice workout, especially if you don't need to bulk up," he said. Mr. Conley recommends vinyasa power yoga to "anyone looking to give up running or their health club membership."

"This practice is so balancing and so physical," explained Mrs. Conley, co-owner of three studios with her husband under the name Amazing Yoga, including locations in Wexford, Shadyside, and a new center in the South Side. "It fulfills the physical need of an athlete in a restorative way. It streamlines your muscles."

It can also be advantageous for those suffering from serious injuries that restrict other forms of exercise. The intense heat component in the studio decreases the chance of injury.

Mr. Conley began teaching yoga to the Steelers in the spring of 2007. He designed a specialized, therapeutic class for the athletes, as the body of a professional football player is significantly different from that of Mr. Conley's traditional clientele, and the average age of his Steelers students is only 26. Instruction this season will focus on a combination of postures and sequences designed "to gain strength and flexibility, but also cautious to avoid any injury," he said.

Detoxification benefits gained from completing the combination of sequences in high-temperature conditions are of added value to the athletes. The heat is also "addicting" said Mr. Conley, and once yogis are used to it, it's hard to go back to traditional styles.

Garrett Giemont, head strength and conditioning coach for the Steelers, who introduced yoga to the team, said that he includes yoga in his athletes' training routine as a supplement. "This is something that will always be used in my program," he said. "It helps the players with balance, pro-receptive strength and flexibility. It's also a mind break."

Participation in Mr. Conley's classes is voluntary for the football players. Though he described those who attended his first round of instruction last spring as "not so into it," the class steadily gained appreciation. Attendance increased as the players gained an interest in yoga and recognized its physical benefits.

"Every athlete is skeptical at first. The media portrays yoga as a meditative practice," said Mrs. Conley.

Mr. Giemont, who has brought yoga to all the NFL teams he has worked with previously, acknowledged that "you can't shove it down anyone's throat." But he agreed that it is important to educate his players and make available to them the option of alternative yoga training. "If some players do well with it, others will continue."

Mr. Giemont estimated that of his players who do try yoga, "about 30 percent really get into it." Another 20 percent will investigate the practice, about 10 percent will attend classes reluctantly, and the rest refuse to try it altogether.

For those willing to experiment with it, said Mr. Giemont, "the first time is used to investigate it, the second time they start to grab the concept of it, and the third time they start to understand it."

"It's such a tremendous discipline for the body and mind," he added.

Mrs. Conley emphasized the focus that yoga can provide: "We live in such a driven, competitive world that yoga can be a nice complement to all athletic endeavors."

As a teacher, Mr. Conley said he feels that it is important "to get your voice out there." He enjoys the power vinyasa practice, as it allows teachers to talk through and vary sequences and poses to create dynamic, interesting yoga classes for students each time.

"One of the most important factors of this practice is listening to your body," he said. "This practice challenges people to listen."

Abra Metz-Dworkin can be reached at or 412-263-1887.

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