Yoga for Athletes : From the Mat to the Court

Yoga for Athletes

Taking Your Practice from the Mat to the Court


 

Last Thursday I was gifted the opportunity to meet with about 50 high school basketball players through West Coast Elite San Diego . WCE is directed by one of the top basketball coaches in the country, Sterling Jones. Sterling trained my son Tommy from the time he was in middle school, and continues to work with him when he is home on break from Harvard. 

Tommy McCarthy of Harvard VS. University of Kansas

I’ve seen through my children, as well as through my own experience, the kind of camaraderie that forms through the challenges of training. Trust and intimacy evolve naturally as teammates (and coaches) witness one another breaking through mental and physical barriers. You gain a deep respect, and often adoration, for those you see grow, and for those who see you grow through the process.

 

Paired with camaraderie, however, is often a big dose of competition, extreme rigor and pressure to excel, leaving many athletes overly sore, burnt out, or full of anxiety (which all translate into an impaired game). This is why I’ve found it so important for athletes to supplement their intense training with practices that offer balance, and an opportunity to work – alone or as a team – in a less goal oriented, high pressure way.

Yoga, I’ve found, is the perfect supplement.

So, let’s go back to Thursday when I met with dozens of young, high energy, tight, sore, and rigorous athletes… I came out to help these boys develop greater muscular balance in the body and learn how to discipline their mind through focus and concentration. 

They were all attentive, respectful, and along for the ride. There was also an element of hilarity as they were moaning and groaning with every stretch… But, this just confirmed it even more! Athletes, who are so used to go-go-going strong all the time, need the practice of slowing down and listening.

The result of a balanced approach to training is agility, calmness during stressful situations, ability to move and react quickly, intuitive efficiency, and stronger teamwork!

 

The boys were extremely receptive to the lessons, and I can’t wait to see how they apply what they learned in their game.

 

If you are a yoga teacher working with athletes, or an athlete doing your own practice, take these thoughts into consideration:

1. Use Your Breath First : Athletes are often used to moving from their “outer” body first, without much consideration for the feeling or deep rooted cause of the action. In yoga, the movement comes as a result of the breath, so each posture is formed from the inside-out. With long, deep, full breaths you can move deeper into a stretch in a safe way. In most sports the breath speeds up, but in yoga the breath stays slow, even and rhythmic.

2. Find Your Edge : In yoga, “the edge” is the place where you’re working at the top of your body’s ability on any given day. If you worked any less, you’d be slacking off; any more, and you’d be risking injury. Only you know where your edge is, so take the time to listen carefully to what your body is saying from pose to pose. Practicing “the edge” helps athletes struggling to balance ambition in their lives, and can be a potent remedy to the perfectionist mentality.

3. Change The Mental State : Many athletes deal with judgment, competitiveness and criticism on a regular basis. This can facilitate and contribute to stress. The yoga practice helps to counter this type of training, as it is deeply personal and should be self enhancing. Yoga is a time to let go of being a goal-oriented competitor and just be present in the process of where you are today.

4. Use Everything, Overuse Nothing : Yoga teaches a balance between Strength and Surrender- both mentally and physically. In the body, for example, notice how you can contract an opposing muscle from the one being stretched, by pulling it closer to the bone. i.e.: contract and lift the kneecap and quadriceps toward the top of the thigh and inward toward the femur to open the hamstrings.

5. Don’t Envy Flexibility / Show Compassion : Flexibility comes to people in varying rates. Some athletes experience a steep learning curve in increasing flexibility. A focused practice of utilizing the breath while stretching muscles may be brand new. These athletes need to be reassured that it takes time and consistent effort to get results. Be careful not to compare flexibility. For many it takes years to achieve a supple, flexible body. It is not easy to be flexible if you train. Training makes you tight! You have to work hard to get tight, so don’t be embarrassed by it.

 

Whatever you play and however you train, I hope you are able to apply these yogic lessons to your practice. There is value in intense training, and value in slowing down. Ultimately, work for balance in your life so that you can play at your highest potential.

 

Happy practicing!

Stacy

 

Don’t Skip Savasana!

Don’t Skip Savasana!! (And other ways you should actively Chill Out)…

When’s the last time you took a deep breath that soothed your entire being? The last time you slowed down on purpose? The last time you remember feeling fully restored?

If lifelong health is something you’re seeking, these are important questions to ask yourself.

Getting proper rest can help you to manage and balance your energy levels, maintain mental clarity, recover after workouts, effectively reduce inflammation, transform your digestive health, and more!!

Resting properly means more than just sleeping 8 hours a night. Rest and recovery is an active process that requires deep listening and mindful attentiveness- it is the process of slowing down enough so that you actually can tune into your breath, your thoughts, and your sensations… It means staying for savasana at the end of a yoga class, taking a 10 minute meditation break during your busy work day, eating mindfully without your cellphone to distract you, and doing a few soothing yoga postures to help your body rest without tension at the end of the day.

If you’ve ever tried to slow down on purpose, you may have found that it’s actually pretty darn challenging. But like all things, with practice comes improvement.

Below you’ll find my favorite ways to Rest and Restore my Body and Mind:

1. Don’t Skip Savasana!

 We often associate working out to our max with gaining health, perfecting our bodies and getting out toxins. But rest and recovery are equally important… Resting not only helps the body and mind to be in peace, but helps both to actively recover and assimilate the benefits of your more intense physical practice… Savasana is the perfect example of active rest. After practice, we honor the work we’ve done and we allow the body to reap the rewards of our effort. It is a way to say “thank you” to the body, a way to give it time to soak in the goodness, and an opportunity to let the mind be quiet. For many, it’s the only time of their day to completely let go. So, next time you’re thinking of skipping out on savasana, don’t do it! It’s well worth the extra 5-10 minutes of your time.

2. Put Your Feet Up

Put your feet up! One of my favorite ways to relax my body after a full day of activity is to gently invert. Our feet carry much tension within them, especially after standing, walking, and even sitting all day. Putting your feet up not only helps to ease the tension of the feet and legs, but helps to regulate blood flow and the flow of lymphatic fluids. It also gives a sense of ease and serenity to the body and mind, literally making that “Ahhhhhh” feeling come alive. So, next time you’re exhausted, sore, fatigued or grumpy, put your feet up 🙂 Try Viparita Karani (legs all the way up the wall), or simply rest your feet above your hips on the couch.

Here is a more enhanced version of Legs Up The Wall Pose, or Viparita Karani. To intensify the sensation and benefit, lift your hips with a bolster and add a little weight on top of the feet. This version offers the additional benefit of lifting the hips above the line of the heart and head, giving a greater boost to your circulation and the flow of lymphatic fluids. Don’t forget the most important part: relax and breathe!

3. The Pose of A Child

 Balasana, the Pose of A Child. One of my all time favorites! This posture not only calms the nervous system and relaxes major points of tension in the hips and spine, but regulates the heart rate circulation, gently massages the internal organs and promotes full, luscious breathing. This supported version adds in relief to the neck and shoulders, and also allows those with less hip flexibility to rest in the pose with ease. Try it for 5 minutes before bed, or before your workout to begin feeling the flow of oxygen through your body. Notice how you feel before, during, and after the pose.

4. Take A Walk 

Every night, my favorite way to decompress is to take my dogi Yogi for a walk. Not only does it get his wiggles out, it soothes me completely. Being in nature satisfies our human need to connect to the Earth, and to ourselves. It offers me time to let my thoughts go as I focus on the simple things- the color of the flowers, the light shining through the trees, the crispness of the fresh sea breeze. Studies have proven that being outdoors provides a slew of health benefits, like: grounding (to receive the negative ions from the Earth- go barefoot!), improved sleep, better eyesight, and enhanced physiological and psychological wellbeing. Even just a 20 minute walk a day will do!

5. Go Within

Taking the time to go within is, I think, the most important thing one can do for herself. Over the year, it is what has kept me self aware and less affected by challenges and toxins. It is in the process of meditation  that my mind and body relax so that I can observe the habitual feelings and thoughts that arise, follow the flow of my breath in and out of my body, notice if I body wants to fidget or if I can relax completely in the process…There really is so much to observe, that it may not actually feel very relaxing at first! But over time, with patience, with ease and with respect for Self, there is a beautiful quietude that arises, almost spontaneously. It is here where the greatest rest and restoration takes place within.

With Love + Namaste,

Happy Resting, Yogis!

Stacy