Yoga for Athletes: Meditations To Unlock Your Athletic Potential
By Mara Abbott,
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
My last column covered some of the mental benefits of a regular yoga practice. Here, I take the study of yoga for athletes to a level deeper and offer a few of the ways that the philosophical origins of yoga have influenced my athletic career. I do not intend in any way to say that sports should be equated with a spiritual experience, but I do know that in my experience, there was wisdom and faith beyond physiology and tactics that supported me. Much of that wisdom I learned from my teacher, Shannon Paige, while sitting on my yoga mat.
Another of my teachers, Gina Caputo, often asks students to follow her cues and her sequence’s progression precisely rather than taking variations or impatiently diving into fancy peak postures that she hasn’t introduced. Her classes are structured intentionally to awaken our bodies and create learning through a specific evolution of challenges, and she doesn’t want us to miss that experience because we reflexively jump back to our habits. I offer you the same idea of trying on some new ideas here, and as Gina says, “If you don’t like it, tomorrow you can go back to your old way – I promise.”
Postures will come. But first:
The final word of the Yoga Sutras is the Sanskrit “iti” which can be translated as “again”, thus referring the reader back to the beginning of the text. The first word of the Sutras, is “atha”, or “now”. So: “Now… begin again.” Studying the Sutras, like understanding and living your experience in the world, is not a process that you complete – it is a cycle of evolutionary re-learning. In the sports realm, completing a training cycle, achieving a goal, or winning a race are each transitory and don’t signify the end of growth. The process of self-improvement is continual: each morning, “Now… begin again.” This is the rhythm of anyone trying to explore his or her potential. Each moment, workout, or competition is an opportunity to learn. Whether an opportunity is passed over or fully reaped, the next moment invites and impels us to release the past and begin again.
The first time I noticed yoga infiltrating my competitive experience was at the Tour of Montreal in 2008. Montreal was a stage race with technical circuits, frequently scheduled for late afternoon, which is when the thunderstorms came. To say that pack riding did not come intuitively to me as a beginning cyclist is an extreme understatement. I found it terrifying. When I looked at the riders around me, I saw mostly chaos and danger. I certainly did not see the holes and pathways my teammates could so lithely slither through to get to the front of the pack – a failing that was particularly upsetting to them when it was their role to deliver me there.
One of the concepts I learned early in my life as a yoga practitioner was that of drishti – a practice of fixing your gaze on an abstract focal point (rather than on the clock, your neighbor, the window, the chip in your nail polish, the dry skin on your knee, and then the clock again). With drishti, you focus your eyes on a point in space in a certain direction. You still see everything in your peripheral vision and can still process it, but it becomes auxiliary, rather than critical, information. The first evening stage that year in Montreal, I suddenly found myself practicing my drishti while riding in the pack. I recognized the riders around me, without subjecting myself to the information onslaught of staring at each of them individually while we rounded corners at 40kph. The focus of my gaze became a spot in the pack or on the road that I wanted to get to, or perhaps the jersey of a generous teammate-sherpa as we moved to the front. Good mountain bikers might notice this technique is similar to the strategy of not staring directly at a rock if you do not wish to hit the rock. I am a rather poor mountain biker, so I will leave that at that.
The mindset of drishti can be applied to the way we process information in general. Drishti is a practice of calmly focusing on your own single focal point, and letting other distractions and pressures fade – not ignored, but set aside – into the periphery.
I spoke in my last column about the idea of krama – stages of evolution. You see krama clearly in families of yoga postures that maintain the same key action while moving in advancing degrees of complexity. To use two familiar postures, a restorative child’s pose readily mirrors the actions in a more active downward facing dog. The wise practitioner does not skip krama and thus builds a strong foundation, understanding a posture in and out before complicating it further.
Following a slow progression as you develop your body’s strength outside of yoga is equally important. I experienced the challenge of learning tactics and technical skills on the fly as a cyclist whose physical endurance earned me racing opportunities I was not entirely otherwise prepared for. I’m learning now, as I attempt running for a retirement project, that residual cardiovascular strength does not necessarily mirror structural endurance. Patience, and investing curiosity in learning about your own capabilities throughout the process will pay dividends with longevity and a broad array of skills that you will deftly be able to call on in competition.
Pratyahara is the fourth of the sage Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. A simplistic definition might describe turning inward with mental and emotional control over external influences and stimuli. It is a process of being so concentrated on your inner experience that what is going on in the outside world diminishes in importance. On some level, looking back on my racing career, I confess I always identified with pratyahara a bit as a description of the elite athlete lifestyle – for better or worse.
Yet as Shannon has described to me, it is actually far more than that. “Prati-” can be translated as turning toward a challenge, or as Shannon reminds us, “turn toward the overwhelm.” It is a practice of facing, rather than working around, that which is difficult. It is much more comfortable to find fault, things that are lacking, or opportunities for improvement in the external world. The challenge presented by pratyahara is to look unflinchingly at only ourselves for a solution. You can only control you – inward resilience is the type will endure in both life and competition.
In fact asana – the physical practice of postures of yoga that most of us are familiar with – is only another one of those eight limbs. Movement is relatively small part of the entire yoga practice, and it is actually intended as a way to prepare the body to sit comfortably in meditation.
I suspect I am not the only one here who finds seated self-contemplation much more intimidating than exertion.
The sum of experiences, thoughts, and actions during your lifetime create your unique samskara – impressions on your psyche. These then influence your perceptions, expectations, self-worth and choices in the future. The trouble is adhering so strongly and specifically with your current self-identification closes you off to evolution and expansion. Our samskara show up in our daily tendencies and habits – when we tell ourselves we cannot accomplish a dream, when we stay in a relationship or other situation that no longer fits, or when we continue to make the small daily choices that sabotage or contradict our greater goals.
In contrast, our svarupa is our greatest potential condition. To get there requires correct perception, insight, reinforcement, and for us to be balanced and honest with ourselves. On whatever level it might make sense to you, whether physical or spiritual, consider:
What is stronger? Your intention or your habit?
Pranayama is a practice of controlling your breath – the length of inhales and exhales, their retention, and whether you are using your mouth or your nose. It’s considered to be a way of enhancing the practitioner’s prana, or vital energy. Depending on the prescribed pattern, pranayama can be a form of meditation, can soothe or activate, and can cultivate strength, discipline or peace. In competition, control of your breath (and familiarity with it) may help you to reset in a critical moment. Pranayama can enhance focus, confidence, motivation and personal insight when practiced regularly.
Pranayama is too big of a concept to describe in full detail here, but given the importance of oxygen to any endurance athlete, I will offer some wisdom from Shan: “You are going to breathe. It is up to you how.”
Perhaps some of these ideas resonate with you. If so, I encourage you to take them forward, learn about them in greater depth and see if you can adopt them into your life and your training. Perhaps they seem oblique, the product of someone who has spent one too many hours upside down, contemplating her toenails – and that’s a fair reaction, too. Take what you need and leave the rest.
Now… begin again.
Awesome article. Love the way you connected these tenets of yoga with being an endurance athlete. As an executive coach, I’ll add that these concepts often are transformational when carried over into work and life.
Now. . . begin again.
Thanks for the reminder! It doesn’t get simpler than that. 🙂