It started in 2016 when Jessica Huneycutt went on a yoga retreat. She was in the process of getting divorced and found herself thinking about the life that she wanted for herself and her son. After living in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York, among other cities, she suddenly knew she needed to go back to New Orleans, a place that had immediately felt like home to her when she moved there in her late teens.
She kept contemplating how she could make it work. After completing three different 200-hour teacher trainings, Huneycutt had worked as a yoga teacher for the last six years. In addition to her work in a local studio, she spent time teaching yoga to students in an after-school program in Philadelphia. As a single mom, she needed a dependable income.
A light bulb went off. “I just had this crazy idea that I was going to move back to New Orleans, and I was going to be the yoga instructor for the Saints,” she says. Even though Huneycutt had a personal background in other sports, including as a junior Olympic swimmer and a martial arts practitioner, she had never been the yoga teacher for a professional sports team. That didn’t deter her.
Landing the Job
Immediately upon her return home, she read up on Dan Dalrymple, the strength and conditioning for the Saints at the time, and wrote a PowerPoint for him titled “Yoga for Elite Athletes.” In her report, she detailed the benefits of the practice and identified four other professional sports teams that offered yoga to their players.
Huneycutt, who was still living in Philadelphia, gave herself a week to make her goal a reality, starting by hopping on a flight to her desired home. She literally stood in the Saints’ lobby for hours at a time, waiting to speak to Dalrymple. Eventually, on the fourth day of waiting, the front desk staffer emailed Dalrymple to inform him Huneycutt wasn’t leaving. She presented her report to him, explaining how yoga could help prevent injuries to his athletes and save the team money.
“He was just like, ‘Thank you for the information. There’s really no precedent for yoga in the NFL—but stay in touch,’” says Huneycutt. Dalrymple’s hesitation at the time didn’t stop her from making the leap to Louisiana. She and her son moved to New Orleans, even though Huneycutt hadn’t landed the gig. Six months after her move and no word from Dalrymple, she was considering applying for a job at Whole Foods when she spotted an article about NFL players practicing yoga. She emailed it to Dalrymple.
It worked. She finally got a text from him, asking her to come by the training facility that Friday. When she arrived, she quickly realized this wasn’t a typical second-round interview. There were 90 guys on the indoor practice field when she arrived—and she was told she had 15 minutes to warm them up.
“I just literally popped them in a squat,” she says. “And I was just like, ‘Hi guys. My name’s Jessica. I was a junior Olympic swimmer. I’m trained in yoga, martial arts, Russian kettlebells, and natural movement. I’m here to keep you guys injury-free. Fold forward and touch your toes.”
That was her first session. She returned the following week. Seven seasons later, she’s still with the team.
Teaching Yoga to NFL Players
Starting each July, Huneycutt spends two to three days each week at the facility until the team is eliminated before or during the playoffs, which begin in January. By the time the players opt to head to her station in the afternoon, they’ve already weight lifted, practiced, and worked out for the day. They’re in need of a stretch.
She classifies what she teaches as “yoga for athletic recovery.” While, yes, the students she works with are professional athletes, they range in experiences—and mobility— when it comes to yoga. Because of that, her practice needs to be inclusive and accessible.
The team’s schedule usually includes a couple hours for her “yoga station,” where anywhere between 10 and 30 players pass through looking for a quick 5-minute individual session or a deeper hour-long practice. Unlike typical yoga classes in which a teacher prepares a single sequence, Huneycutt works off of the requests of the players. One player may come over wanting to stretch out his hamstrings for five minutes, while another may want to spend 20 minutes on his quads. She’s teaching different practices to multiple students at one time—jumping between players as she guides them from pose to pose. That’s the hardest part of her job.
“I’ll have three linebackers come in…and they want 10 minutes of a gentle stretch,” she says. “But I’m already working with a quarterback who wants to do an hour of power yoga.” It’s a constant challenge. Luckily, her long-standing relationships with the players has helped make cueing and leading different practices a little easier. “I can look at their feet, and they’ll immediately fix their foot posture,” she says.
Typically, most of the poses she moves the players through include lying on their backs or prone, targeting the feet, ankles, and hips. The most common pose she leads them through is Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose). Marjaryasana (Cat Pose) and Bitilasana (Cow Pose) are two other go-tos.
She also takes into consideration a player’s position. “If you’re a kicker, and you’re constantly kicking with your right foot, we’re going to work to counterbalance that,” she says.
More Than Stretching
As with teaching yoga in any situation, the ability to adapt to the needs of each individual student is key. “With some of the players, I’m using Sanskrit and talking about [philosophy], and then the other guys just want to stretch out for a few minutes,” says Huneycutt.
“I remember the first time that Drew Brees came over, and I was so nervous,” she says. After he experienced one of the biggest injuries of his career—five fractured ribs and a collapsed lung—she continued to work with him on mindfulness and breathwork techniques. The two studied James Nester’s latest book, Breath, and Brees dove deeper into breathwork.
The team, in turn, has supported Huneycutt through one of the more challenging periods of her life: her two breast cancer diagnoses. “I’m no stranger to adversity, and the team and my yoga practice with them kept me going,” says Huneycutt. She credits the young men practicing yoga and meditation with switching roles and becoming her teacher in her time of need. They provided reassurance and constant support.
All of the yoga sessions are voluntary for players. That makes their decision to engage with yoga that much more meaningful, Huneycutt says. Some players just need to stop moving for a few minutes—a responsibility Huneycutt takes seriously.
“Most of them need to have their eyes closed for a few minutes and not have their phones—and not have to worry,” she says. “They all have agents, business, foundations, wives, and kids.” It’s often their chance in the day to take a deep breath. Because even professional athletes need to find a moment of peace and quiet—just like us.