Conscious Yoga for Athletes
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Our first entry on Yoga for Athletes was published two years ago now. Since this is a topic poorly covered elsewhere and often dismissed with too much of an emphasis on the physical side of things, we thought a second entry was in order. The depth of the psychological, spiritual, emotional and physical benefits this ancient methodology has to offer also to professional athletes must be properly understood. So, if you happen to be an athlete or coach that doesn’t incorporate Yoga yet as part of your training routine, the lines below are intended to provide you with some interesting food for thought. Still, even if you're already using Yoga as part of your training, the idea is for you to reassess how you're using it and what you're using it for.
Not Just Another Flexibility Practice
Indeed, first on the list of aspects about Yoga to debunk is this practice's predominant physical nature. While a great part of the Yoga styles that people can access in studios today have a clearly physical orientation ––people mainly join asana classes that make them sweat a lot and work on strength and flexibility–– this doesn't have much to do with actual Yoga. That's right!
Traditional yogic scriptures say it loud and clear: we can do asana every day of our lives and never become an actual yogi; yet, we can become one having never done any asana. How can this be so? The answer is quite simple: because what the modern Western world has come to call 'Yoga' is but one of the two main preparatory stages for 'actual Yoga' ––the other one being pranayama or yogic breathing. Yoga per se, real Yoga, begins only when one is able to sit for a prolonged period of time to successfully meditate; and we write 'successfully' here because meditation only happens once the fluctuations of the mind entirely dissipate. Now, why would 'actual Yoga' then be of use to athletes? The answers are manifold.
A Matter of Balance
To begin with, Yogic physical postures or asanas do help correct imbalances in the body, strengthen weak areas, and grant greater flexibility and stability to our overall structure. So that much is actually good and true. As a case in point Jonas himself, who used to be a supper stiff sprinter when he first started practicing Yoga several years ago and suffered from a much tighter right body section. Since then, he has gained greater flexibility and mobility, overall strength and, higher on the priority list, a properly balanced facial network.
If you're new to fascia, feel free to check out our earlier post about it here. The main thing to remember about it is that our fascia is a body-wide network and that it is highly innervated ––it has a lot of nerve cells, nerve endings, and receptors. This network spans the entirety of our body from the eyebrow ridges to the toes or fingertips, through the diaphragm, holding all of our vital organs in place. It's like a magic highway of sorts!
Our fascia needs movement to stay fresh and juicy and be able to flush out a variety of waste products that can prevent it from properly gliding and transmitting information. These movements should ideally be multidimensional (movements in all directions) and produced alongside conscious breathing. But to function properly, our fascia needs a balanced level of tension; and by this we mean that all parts or sides of a body must showcase equal amounts of healthy fascial tension. For example, if you have a lot of tension in the front of the body, but much less tension in your backline, you'll be prone to rounding of the shoulders.
As mentioned earlier, practicing asana increases both an athlete's flexibility and strength, and this alone is great. But symmetrical fascial balance ––a big issue for most athletes–– requires something 'extra.' Indeed, high performance sports require a high level of specialisation; which means that, in most cases, athletes learn to develop certain very specialised movements to a very high standard and, as a result, some muscles and structures become stronger and more flexible than others. These we call movement patterns. Ironically, however, it is those lesser muscles and structures ––the ones that are not so strong or flexible–– that contribute to maintaining a fully balanced fascial network ––aka, fresh and juicy! And so, for starters, Yoga reveals itself as a great tool to break free from the asymmetrical movement patterns usual to highly specialised movement, elevating athletes of different disciplines onto a more solid and overall balanced physical foundation.
A Bridge Beyond the Physical Body
Yet, our facial network has also sometimes been regarded as a sort of 'sixth sense organ,' one that helps with the navigation of our body through life. It alerts us about the location of our bodies in space, the quality and effects of our movements, and also to their resulting emotional states (what's known both as proprioception and interoception). For instance, have you ever closed your eyes and lifted one arm up? We presume that, if you have, you would have realised that, somehow, you still had a very good idea of where your hand was at and how it felt. That's so because of our fascia, since many of the above mentioned receptors are sensitive to pressure, i.e. push and pull.
Hence, a healthy and juicy fascial network proves key not only in attaining balanced-tension, but also greater proprioception and interception; and these three qualities put together (balanced tension, proprioception, and interception) are key when trying to help an athlete become more in tune with her body. They increase movement efficiency, allow for quicker regeneration times, and reduce the risk of injury, to name just a few of their benefits.
Unfortunately, many coaches and athletes out there still opt for the more dynamic and intense styles of yoga (such as Vinyasa, for example); the kind that are more flowy and require more physical prowress. They do so out of habit, in a way, assuming that Yoga is another workout or training program. However, flowing from one asana to the next without proper attention to the breath or time to pause in between poses and reassess doesn’t allow for any actual 'experiencing.' And it is for higher experiencing that Yoga was actually developed.
A moment or two of stillness between poses can help us feel into the effects of a pose and develop a real connection with whatever the muscles, tendons, and emotions that have been mobilised and worked on. We are speaking of being able to answer questions like: What was the impact that holding this pose for 3 minutes had on both my body and my mind? How did it feel energetically to hold my hands in this position while breathing at such a pace? How was my breathing during the dynamic part of the practice and where was I inside my head?
In Yoga, time spent in introspection both after and during the asana part of a yogic routine is time well spent, for it is time that allows the athlete to bond closely with his or her body and establish a highly individualized and very nuanced connection.
Beyond What the Eye Can See
Now, speaking about the mind or the effects of certain poses or breaths on the mind is more or less accepted territory. There's been plenty of studies and research done on such topics attesting to their scientific value. Referring to something like the 'energy body,' however, can be something of a sensitive topic particularly amongst athletes and coaches. Granted, one should choose his language according to his audience. Hence, especially at the beginning, things like the energetic body, the chakras, mantra, advanced meditation Kriyas, or any of the more esoteric-spiritual aspects of this practice should maybe not be mentioned to athletes. When practiced under proper supervision and with a teacher that really knows what he's doing, Yoga still has more than enough to offer to boost athletic performance without referring to these more taboo notions.
Still, there is much to be gained in learning to read between the lines and work on both physical AND mental flexibility ––and we're here speaking of remaining open to 'new and weird sounding stuff'! Indeed, there's a growing body of scientific evidence proving that everything around us is made up of 'vibration,' of sound, which is in a nutshell Yoga's ultimate prerogative. So, whether or not we choose to believe on the existence of so-called Yogic nadis or energetic pathways (something akin to TCM meridians), or chakras, or on the power of intention to affect both body and mind, the point is that Yoga is always already working beyond the body, and always already beyond the mind. It is, after all, a time-tested methodology with more than 5000 years of history expounding some of the most thorough and exhaustive diaries of first-person experimentation you can find! And this methodology clearly states that only a balanced body can lead to a balanced mind, and only a balanced mind can know itself and thus attain self-realization. But, why is that important for athletes?
Meditation, Balance, and Self-Realization
High performance athletes are some of the most physically and psychologically stressed people you can find. They train a lot, often juggling as well numerous other roles. For any athlete, the more balanced she is, the faster her entire system can bounce back to optimal form after an injury, a competition, or simply a few stressful days. And what is Pro sports training after all about? It is all about bouncing back to homeostasis as quickly as possible. The more factors keeping an athlete out of balance, the longer this will take.
Now, for those curious to dig deeper into the 'esoterics of Yoga,' this practice has a lot of interesting pearls of wisdom to offer. To begin with, for example, how asana is just a means to actually shape and direct our breath in very specific ways. Indeed, our breath is a bridge connecting the physical and mental planes. By voluntarily shaping the breath in particular ways, we can impact our nervous system and, as a result of this, also our mind. Which is how, with a little bit of practice and a mere few moments of conscious voluntary breathing, we can create the desired outcome to, for instance, calm down our body and mind and jumpstart the regeneration process even faster.
Once our mind is quiet, meditation can start. For those not so familiar with meditation, we can say that meditation is equivalent to concentration ––concentration on a certain object. The object we choose to concentrate upon can be a physical object (such as a picture), a mantra, a concept, or a Kriya (a progression of certain internal movements and experiences). There are many different meditation 'programs' and each has specific benefits, benefits a teacher would weigh in order to address a specific student's needs.
There're meditations to work on the transformation of insecurity and uncertainty; meditations for general or specific healing; meditations to balance a person's subtle energies… you name it. Still, all of them have one thing in common: focus and the quieting of the mind. Master Yogi and teacher Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the head of the Himalayan Institute, often says: "a scattered mind is unfit for any path," and this we believe is true both of Yoga and of any other pursuit, including high level sports. To be successful in whatever we do, we must be able to completely immerse ourselves into it; and in scenarios where fractions of a second or millimetres can make all the difference, this becomes even more important.
Still, far beyond the aspects already mentioned, Yoga has also the ability to answer and help with athletes psychological, emotional, and often spiritual questions too. Things like: Am I really ready for this competition? Do I really want to sign this contract? Should I stay with this coach/club? The truth is that Yoga, when properly understood, becomes a very profound and useful toolbox, one enabling us to become better acquainted with our true inner self, more in tune with what it is we deeply feel and want, and thus, better able to make informed decisions about our career and life. All of these are qualities that most athletes can profit from in order to navigate the frequent ups and downs of a highly demanding and relatively ephemeral sports career. To know who we are even when we can't compete or our career is over; to be able to keep in our mind's eye the larger picture even at times of extreme injury or suffering; to be able to make a tough decision with a conscious and tranquil mind... These are Yoga's bylines. That's what it really means to self-realize.