By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
In the new year, my number one fitness goal is to recommit to a yoga practice. It’s hard to believe this is necessary – I’ve been through four teacher trainings, and when I was racing, the only reason I went to one yoga class a day instead of two or three was because Coach Dean caught on and banned the habit in season (this may have been justified.)
Yet my teachers dispersed, I didn’t have a strong practice community anymore, prices went up and then I moved to a new state and took a full-time job. Now, I’m averaging about one complete online class a week.
Because the shift took place over time, I didn’t notice all of the impacts immediately. In fact, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t missing anything until I had some free time and found some new classes and practiced three days in a row.
Then I remembered: I breathed more slowly throughout the day. I felt like there was more space between my brain and my skull and like there were pauses between the thoughts flying through my head. My shoulders relaxed down out of my ears and my lower back moved more freely. I felt better when I got out of bed in the morning.
I had forgotten that I used to feel like that all the time.
Then, I had a busy week at work. I’ll let you guess what happened: Even old beloved habits are hard to remake.
I’ve said it before and clearly, if my own experience is any indication, it’s time to say it again. Yoga will make you a better athlete and a healthier, happier human being. It doesn’t take a three-class a day commitment, just fifteen minutes a day can make a huge impact, and add up to almost two hours of practice each week.
Not near a good yoga studio? For better or worse, it’s easier than ever to practice yoga in a virtual studio. Some of my favorite services include yogadownload.com, gaia.com and yogaglo.com. All of them offer a free introductory period so play around, spend a week or two with each, and see which suits you the best.
Move with intention:
In yoga, the focus should not be on what a pose looks like, or pretzel level you can or cannot achieve. That happens in some classes, but it isn’t the essence and it isn’t the goal of your practice.
The focus is on intention, and placing your hand, or your foot, or your thoughts, in a specific way, and then noticing how that feels. The more I practiced yoga, the more I was able to bring that intention and thoughtfulness to my racing. When I panicked in the pack or couldn’t push any harder in an interval, I discovered I was able to pause and impartially identify my reaction to the situation. This was an invaluable skill – I even found myself using it post-racing career when I had to get my wisdom teeth out.
What’s more, we are athletes because we love to move. Allow yourself to fully experience the sensations of that movement.
Many people talk about yoga and injury prevention with relation to stretching and strengthening. That’s important, but I also think that the more you do yoga, the more you become aware of all of the tiny muscles in your body, how they are connected, and what it feels like when they move.
The more aware you can become of what it feels like to move within your own skin, the more you will be able to be aware when something changes or is amiss.
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When I trained or competed, I found myself focused on the physiological mandate: I must do this.
When I practiced yoga, it was a question: Can I do this? What would that be like?
My near inability to touch my toes eliminated the idea that I could impress anyone, so yoga was a creative and playful experience. If you are curious about your experience as an athlete, you will be less likely to judge yourself if you fall short of expectations, and you might even find that you are capable of achievements or attracted to a path that you never even considered.
An hour-long yoga class in a studio is a luxury. It won’t always happen. But can you find ten minutes or fifteen minutes in your day and a quiet corner?
A big part of yoga for me is the ability to be present. Even after a short – but focused – practice, I find that I move more slowly. I often practice right before a meal, and I will chop with intention and be more aware of the experience of cooking. This mindset is something I had taken for granted when I was hooked on my daily practice, and it is something I want to allow myself to experience again.
Don’t worry about finding the perfect space or the perfect time. I’ve been known to create private space for yoga in an airport by facing the wall – if I can’t see them, maybe they can’t see me. Find the best space you can, and then embrace it.
Learning to use your full lung capacity holds obvious benefits for any endurance athlete – that’s evident. Yet to make the most of your efforts and training, you also must make the most of your recovery. If you can use breath to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and place your body into a state of relaxation, you can make the most of training – and be more present to experience life.
It is hard to overstate how good it feels to take a full and conscious breath.
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