The Yoga Master Who Might Be Chelsea’s Secret Weapon

LONDON – Vinay Menon’s path to the Premier League started with a request from a former client in Dubai. Would Menon, a wellness consultant, travel to England to share his breathing and relaxation techniques with the man’s daughter and her husband, a wealthy Russian living in London.

Of course, Menon replied, even though he had never been to Britain. He met with the Russian and his wife at their home in West London, where the couple asked about Menon’s work, his background and the years he had spent studying and teaching yoga in his native India. Then they asked him if he would like to join them at a soccer game.

“I told them I didn’t have a ticket,” Menon said.

That would not be a problem, he was assured. Menon and his prospective employers made the short walk to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium, where they were quickly ushered to the suite level. It was only then, after they emerged into the owner’s box and their faces appeared on the arena’s giant video screen, that things clicked into place for Menon: His host was not merely a wealthy Russian soccer fan. He was Roman Abramovich.

“I literally had no idea who he was,” Menon said. “I just knew him as Dasha’s husband.”

Menon struggles to contain his laughter as he retells the story. Now in his 11th season at Stamford Bridge, Menon, 45, occasionally surprises himself when he stops to think about how a chance meeting has led to a decade in professional soccer – a sport he knew next to nothing about when he made that first trip to London – and to his becoming a fixture in the locker room of one of the world’s richest teams and a valued confidant of some of the world’s best players.

“Roman Abramovich changed my life,” Menon said. For some players, he has changed theirs, too.

Many roads have led to the Premier League, of course. Players from 114 nations have turned out for its teams, and its ownership groups include not only Russian oligarchs like Abramovich but Chinese property companies and Middle Eastern royal families. But Vinay Menon’s path from an island village in the southern Indian state of Kerala – where his ambition once extended no further than becoming a police officer – to the inner sanctum of Chelsea FC, where stars from Didier Drogba to Eden Hazard have embraced his teachings, is among the least likely of all.

While the Premier League is a global business, in many ways it can be deeply parochial. Players and coaches are bound by routines and schedules that can sometimes make the smallest changes seem seismic. To mitigate the shock, and aware that some might perceive him as “an alien from Mars,” Menon kept things simple, he said, when he was first introduced to the Chelsea team: He described his work in simple language. He made a point of not forcing relationships, of watching from the sideline and explaining only to the players and coaches who asked what the yoga methods he espoused could do for them. (His sessions remain optional for Chelsea players.)

“In this world of European football they would have been thinking, Who is this guy?” Menon said. “Initially, they think I’m doing voodoo or something.”

Menon determined early on that he would let his work do the talking, convinced that once the players experienced his one-on-one sessions, the benefits would be obvious. So when he wasn’t traveling with Abramovich, Menon took to visiting Chelsea’s Cobham training ground on the days the team practiced. It was there, while sitting in the largely empty staff canteen one day, that Drogba, then the team’s star forward and a leader in the dressing room, popped in for lunch. Drogba and Menon struck up a conversation. Menon explained what he did, and that he had worked with influential figures at a retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas, where wealthy clients arrived by helicopter, and at a luxury hotel in Dubai.

Drogba said he would give it a try. “That one trial,” Menon said, “took me to the world of football.”

His work with Drogba led to a session with another player open to his ideas. Then another. Then a few more.

“To be fair, when I saw him the first time, I said to myself: ‘Who is this guy? Why is he there? ‘”Hazard said.

For seven seasons until he left for Real Madrid last summer, Hazard had been a Chelsea mainstay whose attacking talent helped bring half a dozen trophies to Stamford Bridge. Throughout that time, he worked regularly with Menon.

Menon won over Hazard by telling him he could help him relax. “Football is all about stress, you got pressure,” Hazard said. “So I said, ‘Let me try.'”

A typical session with Menon isn’t strictly yoga. A more accurate description, he said, would be something called Adhyatma Vidya, or the science of the self. It is the very last part of yoga, which at its most powerful can lead to a trancelike state.

It is part of a program Menon has developed called ARFA, an acronym that he says stands for awareness, recovery, focus and achievement – a strategy that he believes can help elite athletes in any sport. During his sessions, a subject spends 45 minutes being directed by Menon.

“I just help them to follow their own path,” he said. “I’m like a mediator.” Menon talks but mostly listens, guiding his athletes to try to rid themselves of negative thoughts or worries that may be inhibiting their performance. He has been described as a “guru,” but dislikes the term, which he rejects as lazy and rooted in cliché.

“These are very successful people,” Menon said. “The stress level is so high. If they’re not performing, or out of the team, at the end of the day they are human, their levels of expectation can be emotional. ”

Hazard, whose individual performance will often determine whether his team wins or loses, became one of the players who would seek out Menon. Sipping a cappuccino on a drizzly afternoon during a recent trip to Belgium, he tried to describe the effects.

“You do one hour session and you feel like…,” he said, pausing to find the right words before puffing his cheeks and letting out a burst of air: “WHOOOOSH.”

“It’s just to evacuate the pressure,” he continued. “And for one hour, you relax.” Hazard repeated the last word – “relax” – almost as if he were back with Menon in a darkened room, listening to the soothing words of the man from Kerala who became a secret weapon in the Chelsea arsenal, the man who is definitely not a guru.

In the hypercompetitive world of elite soccer, every little advantage counts, Hazard said.

“In football, if you can change results, if you change the game, change something just to improve, you do it,” he said. “And this kind of thing can improve a small part, maybe not even 1 percent, but you do it.”

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