- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — Describing the physique of Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa in one word is easy: stocky. Espinosa is a well-muscled infielder who draws comments for his bone-breaking handshake and who awed his manager in 2011 with his weight-room routine.

But at home this offseason in California, the usually bulky Espinosa added a new layer to his workouts: Bikram yoga. The intent was to increase his flexibility and rid himself of some of the tightness that seemed to plague him during the season. The hope was increased flexibility would pay dividends, chief among them helping to stave off injury.

“I came into spring and I wasn’t stiff,” Espinosa said. “I didn’t have range-of-motion problems, my arms weren’t tight, my legs weren’t tight. I was like ‘This is an unbelievable feeling.’ “

Espinosa, who can now sit with his legs flat on the ground in front of him and fold his body in half so that his chest rests directly on his thighs, started taking the classes this winter at the urging of an old coach and fitness instructor in Southern California.

But he’s hardly alone in the Nationals’ clubhouse.

Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and Bryce Harper also are among yoga devotees, with Harper and Storen big believers in Espinosa’s preferred Bikram yoga — a class that’s held in a room kept at 115 degrees.

Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Steve Lombardozzi also participated in a once-weekly class at Nationals Park this offseason with strength and conditioning coach John Philbin and a private instructor.

In a casual poll of the clubhouse, plenty more players said they’ve either tried it a few times or were at least intrigued.

“It’s very challenging if you’ve never done it before,” said Philbin, who has taken Bikram yoga classes with Storen this spring and usually tests out any new workouts the players bring to him to ensure they’re not doing something that could be injurious.

The players go through flexibility exercises each day during the team stretch, but that doesn’t necessarily ensure they’re paying as much attention to that aspect of their conditioning as they should. Adding yoga to the picture increases that likelihood.

“They get into some very, very challenging positions that would challenge any athlete at any level,” Philbin said. “But I think the biggest benefit is that they’re actually working on flexibility, which is critical.”

Not everyone is a believer. One Nationals player, when asked this week if he’d ever tried yoga, shook his head defiantly and said he’d go with the response he once heard from ESPN’s Colin Cowherd: “If yoga had been invented in Ohio, they’d call it stretching.”

But even if it’s not yoga specifically, the general trend of players taking steps on their own to add flexibility work to their offseason routines is a positive sign.

Strasburg said he felt the added flexibility would help him recovery quicker between starts and after lifting sessions.

Espinosa noted the leanness he feels now — a feeling that first had him worried he was losing weight before realizing he felt skinnier simply because he was more limber.

And Harper, who began doing it with his father, Ron, to help loosen the hamstrings and quad muscles that seemed constantly tight after his years as a catcher in high school and college, highlighted the attention it’s helped him pay to his breathing.

“I think that’s the biggest thing that people don’t really know, especially when you’re doing the Bikram,” said Harper, who would do it three or four times a week in the offseason. “You’ve got to focus on your breathing, and it really helps you out when you’re playing. … I saw major improvements in my flexibility. I felt a little faster, more limber, it was pretty cool.”

And that leg tightness?

“Gone,” Harper said. “I love it.”

Notes: The Nationals had their only off day of the spring Monday. The team will return to action Tuesday night with Stephen Strasburg on the mound in Port St. Lucie against the New York Mets.

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