Teaching Yoga to Rutgers University’s Athletic Teams

Holgate's Emily Bowker has a new job that involves both the lotus position and the referee's position
By JON COEN | Nov 29, 2017
Courtesy of: Bowker Emily Bowker, of Holgate, is now the official yoga instructor for Rutgers University athletics.

From the outside, yoga and wrestling would seem to have about zero in common. But for Holgate’s Emily Bowker, the two very different pastimes are about to become intrinsically connected, along with a few other sports. Bowker was just hired as the yoga instructor for Rutgers Athletics. She may be teaching Savansana to the 7th nationally ranked wrestling team.

Bowker, of the Bowker’s South Beach Deli family, graduated from the University of Indiana in 2014. After some amazing life experiences, she’s been home for a year, teaching yoga and applying for sports-related jobs in New Jersey. Last spring she got certified in “Power Yoga for Sports and Ways of a Mindful Athlete,” under the instruction of Gwen Lawrence, the yoga instructor for the New York Giants and New York Yankees. That led to working with some high school sports teams.

While looking for work, Bowker called an old acquaintance, Rutgers’ field hockey head coach Meredith Long, to see if the school had filled a vacant assistant coaching position.

“The university had filled the position the week before. To this day I am not sure if Mer heard straight defeat in my voice, but she ended up saying shortly after that they were seriously looking for a yoga instructor and that a few other teams were on the search as well.”

The next week, Bowker was driving up to Rutgers University to work a session with the field hockey team after a pre-season session. She is now the yoga instructor for Rutgers field hockey, women’s cross country, women’s and men’s lacrosse, and wrestling teams.

Bowker is a graduate of Southern Regional High School, where she played field hockey “under the amazing Kathy Snyder,” as she put it. She then left behind the beloved Atlantic Ocean to become a Hoosiers field hockey player. During her sophomore year, her coach incorporated some yoga into their routine. Bowker wasn’t into it.

“But with time, I began to see some real benefits mentally and physically in my game and in my life as a whole,” she said.

She took a job at the desk of a yoga studio in Indiana and got certified. That spring when she graduated, she came home and took a yoga teaching job at Yoga Bohemia in North Beach Haven. Without many field hockey coaching jobs available, she was offered an opportunity to play field hockey and complete a master’s degree in sports management in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where she studied, taught yoga and surfed in the land of her Irish ancestors. Then it was off to Indonesia, where she worked with Project Clean Water Uluwatu.

Most recently, Bowker was teaching yoga at Hot or Not Yoga in Manahawkin, but the new job now has her in New Brunswick, working with college athletes at the highest level.

“Yoga and competitive sports are 100 percent different. Yoga is about you, your body, and your mind on any given day or any given yoga class or practice. Yoga is not competitive – or it shouldn’t be, at least,” she explained. “Yoga is mindfulness and recognizing there are much bigger things happening than just what we personally have going on.

“That’s exactly why I believe yoga is one of the most beneficial things an athlete and a team will ever incorporate into their sport and into their lives. It teaches athletes to respect their body more and to also be in tune with what they are feeling, whether it is soreness, tightness, or a serious injury that could be developing. Yoga also teaches them to be aware of how they breathe in certain circumstances in their given sport. It also begins to help them stay present. Pre-game anxiety is real, and so many other mental aspects are evident in athletes. With breathing and meditation techniques that pull from yoga, we can begin to be on a completely different level.”

Her vision of incorporating yoga into Scarlet Knights sports is very much mentally based; she feels if an athlete focuses on the individual journey and works as hard as they can, the team’s journey will fall into place more easily.

“Before I begin working with each team, I put in some serious hours and research on what the most common injuries are in that given sport. My mom is an athletic trainer at the high school and Olympic level ,and we have had so much fun learning new things from each other with my new job.

“I also check in with the coaches before our session each week to see how they are feeling and what they have done so far leading up to their yoga session. Even more importantly, the first five minutes of each session is me just checking in with the athletes before we begin. Yoga is a journey and I believe that is the most important thing to remember when beginning to work with each team. We start slow and we build on things as we go. Some teams move quicker, and some teams are overall just more drawn to yoga. Some even love headstands.”

It’s interesting that the connection between yoga and these competitive sports isn’t purely physical. Yoga teaches athletes not only how to breathe in certain situations, but also how to be mindful of their breath. It can help them deal with the anxiety of competition. It can also help team cohesion.

As of April, Bowker will also be working with the men’s basketball team, which plays in the Big Ten Conference. She hasn’t discussed yoga with Rutgers Football Coach Chris Ash (that might be a conversation to have after their lackluster season), but she has plans to approach him.

“Flexibility in a lineman is more important than most probably think. Flexibility would help them get off the line faster, which in turn helps protect their quarterback. It is a tool that no doubt has benefits, but it takes commitment, just like strength, speed, or anything else.”

She’s already envisioning getting the offensive line in for a few sessions of yoga each week.

“The most important aspect of this journey for me is staying present and realizing yoga is a process for them and for me teaching them. I will grow, each athlete will grow, and each team will grow when they are ready. Even though I am the teacher in the situation, these athletes and teams have challenged me and have taught me so much each time I see them.”

In her short time at Rutgers, she’s already seen a yoga culture developing up “On the Banks.”

joncoen@thesandpaper.net

Local yoga instructor, Emily Bowker. (Photo by: @Allie.Snaps)
The Rutgers wrestling team, ranked 7seventh in the nation, in the Savasana pose. (Courtesy of: Bowker)
Bowker is helping out all the sports teams with yoga. (Courtesy of: Bowker)
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