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How Alecs Donovan, the international woman of Wales, helps Bristol Bears take the next level with yoga

In a Bristol team that includes Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua and will soon be adding Kyle Sinckler and Semi Radradra, much has to be described as one of the Bears’ ‘signers of the season’.

But that’s exactly the term the high-flying Gallagher Premiership outfit previously used for Alecs Donovan – the Wales Women’s international who takes Pat Lam’s players to the next level on the field by incorporating yoga into their training schedule.

The Bears are certainly an anomaly in that. In addition to her rugby career, Donovan runs a yoga studio and works weekly with Bristol during the season. In the current lockdown forced to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Lam’s players now practice yoga daily with videos by Donovan.

Alecs Donovan, Wales Women's International, has helped Bristol Bears with yoga sessions

Alecs Donovan, Wales Women’s International, has helped Bristol Bears with yoga sessions

The Seven Cap International has introduced yoga to Wales superstar George North and many of the Wales Women’s Squad, among others, and says it can be a major benefit for rugby players.

“I work with Bristol once a week during the season and twice a week during the preseason,” said Donovan.

“I’ve been working with them for about two years now. Rory Murray is the medical head there. He showed me the injuries the Bears sustained – it was things like hamstring and calf tears and he said their players had to work on their strength and flexibility.

Rory and Pat are big advocates of yoga. We now have statistics to prove that our work has contributed to a huge reduction in the team’s injury rate in terms of nicks and soft tissue injuries.

“I used to work with the Wales Sevens squad and a couple of fifteen girls come to my classes. I also worked a lot with guys like George and Sam Warburton, but those sessions were more one-on-one because they are my friends. ‘

The players have enjoyed the training methods so much that they continue them during lockdown

The players have enjoyed the training methods so much that they continue them during lockdown

The players enjoyed the training methods so much that they continued them during the lockdown

As a top athlete, Donovan knows exactly the dedication required to reach the top. She made her Wales debut against Italy at the Six Nations in Principality Stadium in March 2018.

She is now part of the Wales Women’s Sevens team, combining that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic with her Cardiff-based company The Yoga Hub.

It has proved immensely popular and while yoga continues to grow as an activity among the general population, Donovan believes it can do the same in professional rugby.

Bristol has shown the way with their director of rugby Lam, a big fan of the physical and mental benefits it can bring. That’s backed up by hard data captured by the Bears.

Yoga is definitely growing. You will never be able to completely avoid contact injuries in rugby because it is a contact sport, ‘said Donovan.

“It’s not a matter of doing more yoga, making you a better rugby player, but it can help with aspects of the sport. If yoga can help you extend your career or prevent injuries, why not do it?

Donovan's work has helped mass drop the team's niggles and soft tissue injuries

Donovan's work has helped mass drop the team's niggles and soft tissue injuries

Donovan’s work has helped mass drop the team’s niggles and soft tissue injuries

“It can have physical and mental benefits for the players. Many teams do pre-season yoga and then quit, but I think more people and teams are starting out now. ‘

She continued, “When I started Bristol, the team paid me to do the yoga sessions. That showed me the players wanted to try it and now it is funded by the club.

‘I work with a group of about 15 players and focus on the starting XV, but the players come in and out depending on whether they are injured. In rugby, the benefits of yoga are very dependent on the individual. If I talked to a player who could be mentally stressed, we would focus on that side with them. At the end we do a relaxation bit and they probably benefit the most from that.

In general, rugby players can be quite tight in terms of their muscles because they do so much physical and natural work. We work on their flexibility, but at the same time they don’t want to be hyper mobile or overly flexible. If you’re too flexible, you lose your strength, so it’s about finding that balance. Bristol buys it in, and the positives outweigh the negatives. ‘

Donovan’s partnership with Bristol sees her work with athletes of contrasting styles. Prop John Afoa – who weighs more than 19 stone – is a very different specimen from the former All Blacks full-back Piutau with jet heeled, but Donovan says yoga can be applied to anyone.

It’s her job to see how she can best help each Lam player and the results speak for themselves. It is a testament to how much Bristol players enjoy Donovan’s sessions that they continue to do it in the current lockdown. A typical week for a Bristol player right now includes shorter video yoga training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and a longer recovery session on Thursday.

“Learning about the way rugby players move and what they need makes it all pretty easy, especially since I have a background as a professional athlete myself,” said Donovan.

A typical week for a player includes three shorter sessions and a longer one on Thursday

A typical week for a player includes three shorter sessions and a longer one on Thursday

A typical week for a player includes three shorter sessions and a longer one on Thursday

“If you tell rugby players to do a meditation session, none of them will be interested, but the players don’t really realize they are taking advantage of the mental side of things.

“They’re just using a few breathing techniques to calm the body for five minutes, and we got some good feedback on that. I do hamstring work with Callum Sheedy and even if a session is for one person it can benefit others too.

A common misconception about yoga is that there is only one type, when in fact there are many different options. We’re talking about strength through range, and it’s much better to do 10 minutes every day instead of a two-hour lock every two weeks.

“I write programs for Bristol’s strength and conditioners. It is much more difficult for the players to do yoga during the season unless it is written into their program and the coaches buy into it.

“Pat is so nice. He always thanks me for working with them and when you look at the stats you can’t really argue. I would never promise to help lower injury rates because I can’t, but Bristol has kept track of who was injured and how much progress they’ve made once they’ve been in my class and they’re really happy. As a team they also do very well which is great. ‘

Donovan made her Wales debut against Italy at the Six Nations in Principality Stadium in 2018

Donovan made her Wales debut against Italy at the Six Nations in Principality Stadium in 2018

Donovan made her Wales debut against Italy at the Six Nations in Principality Stadium in 2018

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