After two rotator cuff operations in 2002, Chris Thatcher, a carpenter for Schulte Restorations in Hopewell, was not positive about his abilities to ever do anything athletic again, such as the ice hockey he had been playing in men’s leagues. He had not played golf since his teenage years but on a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, a couple of years ago, his passion for the sport was rekindled.

On the golf course that day Thatcher, a Hopewell resident, was awful. “Every single shot I hit was awful, except for the last two, and that’s how I got hooked again. So, the following two years were spent working as little as possible so I could play as much golf as possible,” he adds, laughing.

Thatcher, 41, started attending classes at Four Winds Yoga in Pennington two years ago, at the behest of his wife, Micole, a graphic designer in the office of communications at Princeton University, who insisted he attend an intro to yoga class. Now he’s a total convert and attends classes four times a week. “It just makes everything better. Our breath is the most powerful medicinal tool we have to use for ourselves, and it is absolutely astounding the transformation that can occur by just learning how to breathe properly. It’s made my job easier; I’m much stronger and more flexible. Everything I do phyically I enjoy more. I feel better now than I did 10 years ago.”

When Michael Brantl, co-owner of Four Winds with his wife, Jill Gutowski, started talking about a yoga for golf program, it caught Thatcher’s attention. “I could immediately see the benefit it could have on my game. I was really having a lot of trouble with my down swing,” says Thatcher. “I have a nice take-away and a lot of power, it was just that I was losing it on my down swing. My problem was that my core strength was just not what it should be. After Mike’s classes, I have found it is easier to hold my swing together. Now I’m just rifling down on that same swing plane, and the shoulder strength makes a difference. Yoga has provided me with a framework for breathing and moving that has improved my mental discipline, and it’s also increased my club head speed almost 15 miles per hour from the mid 90s to 110 mph. I feel like I am locked in over the ball and centered, which creates much more power and consistency in my swing.”

Most experienced golfers will tell you golf is a Zen-like pursuit. One rarely plays the perfect round. Even exceptional rounds are marred by bad shots here and there, a short putt that lips out of the cup or one too many shots getting out of a sand trap.

Can yoga can improve your game? “Golf just goes along with a yoga philosophy — a steadiness of practice and a focus and letting go all at the same time,” says Brantl. “In golf you have to let go of the result of a shot and get ready for the next one. Otherwise you might be two holes back in your mind. The one thing you don’t want to end up doing in golf is thinking about some bad shot you hit three holes ago. Keeping your head together on the golf course is important, but the physical benefits golfers receive from yoga are tremendous. If you become more flexible you can move faster, be more in control, and you can be more consistent in your shot making.”

Brantl, who recently became recertified as a personal trainer by the American Council of Exercise, and is a certified golf conditioning specialist and certified yoga instructor, is offering a fitness yoga for golfers workshop at Four Winds Yoga on Saturday, March 25, and a six-week series of fitness yoga for golfers classes, Tuesday evenings, March 28 to May 2.

Brantl’s forthcoming self-produced DVD, “Fitness Yoga for Golfers,” and his yoga for golfers classes stress core strength abdominal exercises, shoulder openers, and lower back strengtheners. The Tuesday night series will focus on different areas of emphasis each week, including hips, shoulders, back and abdomen strengtheners, and lunging poses. It is purposely structured to be beneficial for both drop-ins who can only make one or two Tuesday evenings, and for those who can commit to all six weeks of the class. “The course is designed so that people can drop in for a class or two and learn something they can utilize on and off the golf course,” says Brantl.

The classes use classical yoga postures, or asanas, specifically designed to work the traditional problem areas in golfers that are tight or weak, says Brantl. “Golfers tend to have tight hips, hip flexers, bad lower backs, and they tend to have wrist or shoulder tightness or injuries. We get the legs totally involved with standing poses and floor poses,” says Brantl, adding that the classes help increase your energy, strength, flexibility, focus, and concentration, as well as help lower your handicap and prevent injuries.

Brute strength that is not backed up by flexibility doesn’t amount to much on a golf course, Brantl says. “Someone like Tiger Woods has the ability to generate power and stay in balance to create an accurate shot. The everyday player, just by being more flexible and turning his shoulders a bit more, can maintain balance through impact. That will result in straighter, more accurate shots with a distance gain.”

Like many other longtime, dedicated golfers, Brantl’s interest in golf was sparked through his father. “I developed an interest in golf at a really young age,” says the Yardley native. “Golf just wasn’t that widely accepted as a sport when I was growing up, but my father was an avid golfer and we had a putting green in the backyard. I learned to chip and putt and later worked as a caddy when I was a kid.” He and his father, who worked for the federal government as a compliance officer for the state of New Jersey, would frequently play 54 holes in a day. Brantl says that he played other competitive sports for some time — basketball, football, baseball, ultimate Frisbee, and swimming — and didn’t really pick up golf again until his mid-20s, at Yardley Country Club. “I got hooked right away.” His mother worked in a clerical capacity for New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance.

Brantl earned a BS in psychology at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania in 1983, then went back to school at age 30, in 1990, to the College of New Jersey, where he earned a second bachelors in corporate fitness. His major focus there was on the kinesiology of the golf swing. As part of his curriculum at TCNJ, Brantl took a yoga class. He was training for a marathon at the time and says, “my class was usually a time of the day after my marathon training. I was very intrigued by the relaxation benefits I received from the yoga. I knew there was something there.” After graduation, he became a personal trainer, and he began studying yoga in 1996. He has worked as a personal trainer and fitness coach for 15 years.

In the summer of 1996 Brantl participated in his first formal study of yoga at a weekend teachers program. He began a daily yoga practice, which led him to the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California, where he became a certified hatha yoga instructor in 1998. He has completed several advanced trainings there as well with David Swenson in 1999 and Erich Schiffmann in 2000. In 2003 he completed a 400-hour certification training in Anusara yoga with Todd Norian. He says his greatest inspiration comes from his 14 years plus in recovery from addiction and a loving relationship with his wife, Jill.

What does Brantl say to men who are intimidated by or hesitant to take a yoga class? “Whatever brings people to yoga, eventually they stay for themselves. They come because they want to reduce stress or improve their golf game, and eventually they realized the benefits outweigh any misconception that yoga’s not for men. A lot of misconceptions are just that — misconceptions. Some people think that you have to be really flexible to do yoga. In fact the people who are less flexible get the greatest benefit. A yoga for golfers class is a good way to introduce men to yoga.”

Brantl is quite open about the fact that he has been in recovery from addiction for more than 14 years — it’s stated on the Four Winds web site. “As of last week, I have been 15 years in continuous AA.” Brantl says he was sober five to six years before he started practicing yoga. “If I hadn’t been sober, yoga would not have worked. It has had a tremendous impact on my whole life; I’m able to do the [AA] 11th step, prayer and meditation, as part of my yoga practice. Sobriety, yoga, and Jill are my greatest inspiration.” He met Jill when he was a teacher at Princeton Center for Yoga and Health and Jill was an assistant. They married in 2001.

Brantl says there are other advantages for golfers who practice yoga on a regular basis. After all, greater flexibility results in fewer injuries. “You reduce the risk of many of the more common injuries golfers suffer,” Brantl says. “Injuries of the hands and wrists, shoulders, lower back, and the hips are the most common. A steady yoga practice helps overcome those injuries, and if you’re active with your yoga practice, you’re less likely to become injured.”

Brantl swears by yoga to improve his golf and prevent injuries. “I know through my own fitness regimens, I’ve been able to go through a lot of injuries and surgeries. Yoga has been a major part of my fitness regimen, but I also lift weights a couple of times a week. Because I’m a golfer and a personal trainer and yoga instructor, I know which muscles are involved. Yoga offers every golfer the chance to be more fit and play a better game.”

Fred Harris, Mike Reis, and Lisa Westerfield are three other students who took Brantl’s yoga for golfers class in the fall, along with carpenter Chris Thatcher. All attended for different reasons, but all had one goal in common: they recognized that greater flexibility and core muscle strength is the key to lowering one’s handicap.

‘I had a lot of trouble with my balance due to some injuries I suffered 25 years ago,” says Fred Harris of Pennington, who works for the State Department of Human Services. “Yoga has really helped me with my balance. Mike and I began playing golf together at Mountain View [a Mercer County course] some time ago.” Harris says he attends Brantl’s yoga for golf classes to improve his balance, which in turn improves his ball striking abilities.

Reis, a Minnesota native — the state that has more golfers per capita than any other state — is a salesman for 3M Company, who works out of his Pennington home. His work also involves some traveling. He often takes potential customers out on the golf course. “One of the things I’ve struggled with over the years in golf was becoming stiff,” he says. Reis plays to a very respectable 7-handicap, but, like so many other golfers, has never been able to take it beyond that in the last 20 years, owing to work and family commitments.

“My problems were just being stiff in general, and not only on the golf course. I’m a pretty good golfer, and I’ve noticed yoga for golf has helped me with flexibility,” Reis says. “Since I’ve started doing yoga for golf, I’ve noticed I was just more relaxed out there and in better condition.” In addition to Brantl’s classes, Reis has taken it a step further, with a home routine of asanas (yoga poses) that he does several times a week as a break from work in the home office.

Westerfield, a Robbinsville resident, works in new business development for Schoor, DePalma, an engineering firm in Manalapan Township. She has been playing golf for a long time but did not play regularly and says she never played golf well until just a few years ago. “Last year at Schoor, DePalma, I got to play a lot of customer golf,” she says, adding that she began coming to Four Winds Yoga last September.

“Once I got going with the game, I found I lacked the distance and the power to really make it fun,” she says. “Shooting it straight but not all that far made it not so exciting for me. I like to wail it out there, and finally, toward the end of last year, my swing got better.”

Brantl says his career best round was a 71 he shot at Honey Bee, a course in Virginia Beach, Virginia. More recently, he shot 73 several times at Mountain View. How memorable was that round of 71 at Honey Bee? “It just felt real simple, real easy, and I felt really connected that day. I was hitting shots right where I was looking. It was just one of those days, and very magical.”

Yoga for Golfers, Four Winds Yoga, 114 West Franklin Avenue, Suite K-2, Pennington. Workshop, Saturday, March 25, 2 to 4 p.m., $25. Six-week series of classes, Tuesdays, March 28 to May 2, 7:15 to 8:30 p.m., $90 for entire course, or $15 per drop-in class. Visit www.fourwindsyoga or call 609-818-9888.

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