Ryan Giggs: How yoga has stretched the career of very private Ryan

He is surrounded by boy wonders and they've brought the best out of him. James Corrigan talks to a wing commander in the form of his life
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The man from the tabloids licked his lips. "Ryan Giggs in a leotard - the office will love this one," he said, his imagination running somewhere it really shouldn't. "D'you think we'd get away with saying he does it with Keano? He did tell us that a few of the old boys go to yoga with him, after all."

The man from the tabloids licked his lips. "Ryan Giggs in a leotard - the office will love this one," he said, his imagination running somewhere it really shouldn't. "D'you think we'd get away with saying he does it with Keano? He did tell us that a few of the old boys go to yoga with him, after all."

Giggs had indeed confessed that, along with a few of his more "senior" Manchester United team-mates, he does frequent yoga classes every week, but as soon as he said it, you could tell he wished he hadn't. Experience has warned this most reluctant of superstars to deny everything he might later regret, especially pursuits that go on behind steamed-up windows involving plenty of sweat, grunts and contorted body positions. But Private Ryan is nothing if not honest, and when asked why he is seemingly in the form of his life, he could only pinpoint one major factor.

"One of the reasons, I think, is that I've had such a good run without major injury, something I've never really enjoyed since the start of my career. I've been doing yoga for two years now and I don't think it's any coincidence that I've not had to miss many games in this period. It's definitely helped my hamstrings and my back," he said, working himself into a position which seemed - to the two sceptics in front of him, at any rate - more hocus-pocus than Lotus.

"There's a couple of us who do it down a club every week. Yeah, I have my own trainer, but regardless of whatever the public might think, yoga's just stretching really, getting into the right positions to strengthen my back and my hamstrings. It's been absolutely great for me." And absolutely great for United, who will be looking to flex their muscles still further at Manchester City this afternoon to continue their own particular stretch that has brought them 38 points from a possible 42 and made the conclusion of the Premiership "for deciding" rather than "foregone".

Giggs and Mikaël Silvestre are the only players to have appeared in every League match so far this term, a statistic United could not have dared hope for in years gone by. For instance, in their treble-winning season of 1998-99, Giggs, beset by hamstring problems, managed to start only 20 of the 38 League games. Last season he appeared in 33; the season before, when he took up yoga, 36. Perhaps the ancient spiritual discipline has something to it after all.

Wales might not necessarily agree. The irony was that a few hours after Giggs had revealed the secret of his recent excess in a Cardiff hotel he pulled out of Wednesday's friendly with Hungary. His reason? That damned hamstring. The magic of yoga? Pull the other leg, say his countrymen. They can be forgiven their cynicism. Giggs has appeared in five of the 33 friendlies Wales have played since his debut in 1991, an attendance record that would make certain United shareholders blush.

For once, however, there were no whispers of anything premeditated about the Giggs withdrawal. The 31-year-old was set to celebrate winning his 50th cap by being made John Toshack's first captain, a moment Giggs claimed, "I will cherish forever". Indeed, Toshack himself later hinted at an agreement with Sir Alex Ferguson to let Giggs walk at the merest suggestion of a twinge, a modus operandi that has become the accepted way on the Carrington treatment table.

"There were games when I was young when I'd feel my hamstring and I'd still go ahead and play, knowing I wasn't 100 per cent. But now if I feel it, I just tell the manager and he leaves me out, as simple as that. He's been brilliant in that respect. It's probably saved me a few lengthy injuries, but I just put it down to experience and getting to know the injury better as I get older." In fact, Wales should be grateful for such caution on Giggs's behalf, as without it he might well have joined that ever-growing trend in sacrificing country for club. He confessed to almost doing just that when Mark Hughes resigned in the autumn. "Yeah, I can sympathise with Paul [Scholes] and [Alan] Shearer and a few of the other lads, because it's something that you have to consider nowadays. It's not the actual number of games you are asked to play so much as the intensity of those games.

"Look at the past few weeks. On the Tuesday it was Arsenal, on the Saturday it was Birmingham, where you're still a bit tired, both physically and mentally. Then it's the internationals on Wednesday and it starts all over again with the derby against City, followed by the Cup match with Everton and then Europe restarts a few days after that. It's some schedule.

"I've been playing in the Champions' League for 10 years and internationally for 14 years, and that's a long time to be doing it at this intensity. But, generally, the problems I've had with my hamstring I've managed to get over, and I feel as fit as I ever have. As long as this keeps happening I want to carry on playing for Wales."

And, intriguingly, Ferguson wants him to as well. Giggs insists Ferguson was instrumental in his decision to continue his international career. The Scot is known to be in the "if-it-ain't-broke" school, and the one thing that even his most vehement critic can't say at the moment is that Giggs in any way needs fixing. "Is this the best I've ever played? I don't know, all I do know is that every time I do go through a spell of playing well, people always ask me that. I think, the way I play the game, that my form is prone to go high and low. It's just the way it's been. It's been 14 years of praise, criticism, praise and then criticism again. No one likes criticism, but what happens is that you become more experienced and are ready to handle it so much better than you did a long time ago."

What no amount of experience readied him for, however, was the club he joined as a 16-year-old trainee refusing to extend his contract by any more than a year, a slight Giggs was known to have taken to that Red heart of his. Ferguson's intervention is one reason why a two-year deal is now understood to be on its way to the table, although his integral part in the three Rs - Ryan, Ronaldo and Rooney - who have been so critical in United's rapid education this season also forced the board's wizened hand. The two boy wonders have breathed former life into the original boy wonder, as he is quick to acknowledge.

"They do all the running for me, so it has helped, yes," he joked. "I think the system that we've been playing over the last few months has definitely suited the three of us, the way we can interchange with each other and can keep the opposition guessing. But I also think that the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo do inspire other players, and that even includes me, Roy [Keane] and Paul. It's their enthusiasm. They're so young and so confident that it's almost impossible not to be inspired by them no matter how old or experienced you are."

Ruud van Nistelrooy's imminent return will provide an interesting dilemma for Ferguson, although it seems inconceivable he will not keep the terrorising triumvirate in some shape or formation, especially against ponderous Premiership defences that have failed miserably of late to contain their pace, invention and trickery. Together with the re-emergence of Keane as the perpetual engine and Scholes as the effortless gear-changer, the new attacking thrust has given United a momentum that more than the odd dreamer in M16 can envisage taking them past Jose Mourinho's men by May.

"We've had a terrific run of form - championship-winning form, even - but you've got to give credit to Chelsea, they've come up with results, and despite our streak we've not been able to bridge the gap. Last weekend we managed to do it when City nicked that draw at the Bridge, and we've got to pray for a few more like that. Hopefully, then we'll be a bit closer than we are now when it comes to the game at Old Trafford in April.

"The major factor is that we've been there before, Arsenal have been there before and Chelsea haven't. But then again, we've been saying that all season, haven't we? All we can do is look to put the pressure on in the last couple of months and you never know - strange things happen in title races. We've been caught by teams in the run-in and we've caught teams, so it's a journey we know all about."

First there's the short, but highly uncomfortable, trip across the city today, a journey Giggs also knows all about, having appeared in 16 Manchester derbies, though that hamstring is very likely to keep him out. "They're always massive, but this one seems more so. City have done well against the big teams this year, so we appreciate how difficult it will be. They'll be looking to take back last weekend's favour and they gave us a doing at their place last year. Let's hope we can stop them from going on a run.

"In a way our run doesn't count for much at all, because it might be an old cliché that form goes out the window in derbies, but it's true. Absolutely anything can happen. The whole emotion surrounding the rivalry and the build-up makes it special and yes, unique." Giggs is in an envious position to say so, as "unique" is a word often applied to the Welshman at Old Trafford. His name has become synonymous with the place - his class, his fame, his loyalty, his medals. And now there is a new facet to his folklore. Because with yoga in his armoury, no one can bend it like Giggsy.