Looking to achieve peak physical condition? Want to enhance your athletic performance, but not sure how? As a former personal trainer and group fitness instructor and now a 500-RYT for over 15 years I’ve worked with and have seen all types of athletes from every walk of life. From professional athletes, runners, bodybuilders, CrossFit enthusiasts, to the everyday gym rat (just to name a few). They all have the same objective – each athlete wants to reach a goal. Their goals may be different depending on their area of interest, but the things that will assist in enhancing their performance are the same. It just so happens that yoga offers three tools that can be applied to strengthen your personal performance and reach your goals faster. Focus (Drishti), Breath (Pranayama), and Endurance (Mantra) can be learned and perfected upon with a regular yoga practice. These skills can then be transferred to other aspects of your athletic training.
Drishti: Finding Focus
Let’s explore focus first. Drishti is a focused gaze and is a means for developing concentrated intention. It relates to the fifth limb of yoga (pratyahara) concerning sense withdrawal, as well as the sixth limb, dharana, relating to concentration. Athletes already use drishti when they compete, without even knowing it. Running a race and keeping your focus on the finish line or playing soccer and focusing on kicking the ball through the goal are both examples of drishti. The concentrated intention, your drishti, is on reaching your goal, whatever it may be. Yoga helps athletes refine and develop their drishti by teaching them to keep their concentration through challenging asanas, by visually finding a focal point – literally keeping your eye on the ball. Being able to do this in yoga will improve your ability to do this while a crowd is cheering you on or if you are fatigued and need a bit more focus to push forward.
Breath is in my opinion one of the most important things to be aware of as an athlete. Becoming aware of the breath and body connection can up your B-game to an A-game. In yoga, we focus on pranayama, yogic breathing exercises, that can quickly increase our energy, improve mental clarity, release stress and improve overall physical health. How can the body and breath connection help an athlete? Let’s take strength training for example. Typically, when lifting weights there is a concentric and eccentric muscle contraction. A concentric contraction occurs when the muscle shortens as it acts against a resistive force. For example, during a bicep curl the biceps contracts concentrically during the lifting phase. The eccentric contraction is when the muscle lengthens while producing force, like when you lower your weight during a bicep curl. Our instinct when lifting heavy objects is to use the Valsalva maneuver and hold our breath, but exhaling with a concentric movement and inhaling with an eccentric movement will not only prevent you from passing out, but will control your blood pressure and allow you to focus. Practicing pranayama in yoga will strengthen your breath and body connection. In turn you can find the sthira (steadiness) and suhka (ease) in your athletic practice.
Last, but very not least, endurance and mantra. What you think will directly reflect what happens to you outward. Nobody comes into a competitive sport thinking; you know what, our team is going to lose today and that’s okay. Everyone comes to do their very best and wants to win, achieve their goal, break that record. But even with this positive thinking we all need a little motivation now and then as we summon up the endurance to move past our comfort zone. In yoga, we do this with mantra, repeating the same syllables over and over to quiet that mental chatter in your monkey mind. In the military, there is a traditional call and response work song sung by military personnel while running or marching called cadence. This rhythmic flow of words is like a mantra as it helps to maintain a clear mind and assists the military personnel to endure the long and sometimes grueling marches. Mantra can be used across the board as an athlete. “Steady and strong” as a cyclist or “here and now” as a swimmer, can be used to remain goal oriented and in the moment.
Integrating a regular yoga practice with your athletic training schedule will enhance your performance allowing you to reach your physical goals easier. In addition, you will get the bonus benefits of improved flexibility, increased blood flow, injury prevention and released tension, just to name a few. Incorporate drishti, pranayama and mantra into your training regimen to make yourself a better athlete. No matter what your sport yoga will enhance your physical and mental performance, while lowering your recovery time and risk of injury.