Nicole Doherty, American Athlete’s yoga columnist.
The fact that American Athlete has decided to include a regular yoga column says a great deal about how popular the practice has become in the United States and in athletics in general. As a long-time practitioner, teacher, and entrepreneur, it is my mission—including now for AA!—to demystify the practice of yoga and break down the barriers that people place between themselves and what is unfamiliar to them. In the context of my role as a columnist here, that means illustrating how beneficial and healthful yoga is for athletes of all sports and levels.
What’s true of all sports is also true of yoga: Getting better at it requires practice. It’s during practice that gymnasts, for example, master a particular move or basketball players improve their free throws. That’s because repetition conditions the mind to experience success while also building muscle memory so movements or skill sets can be duplicated with regularity—without having to think so hard about it. The same is true of yoga, which, as a fundamental fitness building block, enhances the mental and physical aspects of all sports. But an added benefit of yoga is that as one practices more, and for increasingly extended periods, it evolves beyond a physical form of exercise. Yoga offers what the editors of AA are finding to be universal for all athletes when they get to higher levels of experience: a uniting of mind, body, and spirit.
Most professional athletes will attest that it takes a lot more than just physical prowess to succeed at high levels. And although they may not be aware of what’s going on inside them, or even be able to articulate what is occurring when they describe being “in the zone,” athletes are typically transcending the body and working with other aspects of their being, including the mind and ultimately the spirit. Examining the practice of yoga within the context of American Athlete’s slogan of “Mind, Body, and Spirit” is a perfect way for athletes to learn more about the practice and get started.
Many athletes turn to yoga as a form of active physical exercise to enhance their training. Proven benefits include building strength, gaining flexibility, releasing tension, accessing better balance, improving endurance, preventing injury, and recovery. Yoga is also highly adaptable and customizable to any athlete’s needs: a restorative and resting practice, a fast-pasted energy and endurance method, or something in between.
The regular practice of yoga can help calm the mind, induce relaxation, and reduce tension through the release of muscle tightness and the adoption of proper breathing technique. Yoga also helps athletes develop the connection between the body and the mind through increased awareness and concentration, improving the ability to focus and stay safe while training. The mind is a fabulous tool that, when calm, can interpret and assimilate information about the body to keep it healthy and heal it. Most athletes find that yoga helps to access a healthy balance of will power, resolve, and drive.
The spirit is that indescribable and unshakeable aspect of being that sparks passion, energy, intuition, and inspiration. In making the distinction between good and great athletes, coaches and commentators often refer to an athlete’s “intangibles”; and this is nothing more than a different way of referring to an athlete’s spirit—her ability to be in the moment and aware of the entire game around her all at once. Athletes who regularly practice yoga find that it augments such energies, including creative ones, through the detoxification and balance of their body and mind.
When the three aspects of mind, body, and spirit are in tandem, there is an elevation in one’s game, so to speak, and this “brilliance” often flows to an athlete’s life off the field. Balance leads to happiness, which can extend to the communities and people around practitioners of yoga. So the practice becomes not just about the individual; it becomes about the collective consciousness. Individual life transforms; this is witnessed by the whole, and the transformation becomes a model that is admired, appreciated, and ultimately the source of inspiration.
I am honored to be able to bring you some valuable information about the practice, science, and art of yoga as a part of a holistic methodology for athletes. I will end my first column by saying “Namaste.” Namaste (pronounced NUM-ah-stay ) is a spoken greeting or salutation originating from India and Nepal. This Hindu salutation means, “The divine (light/spirit/love) in me honors the divine in you.” The expression is used on meeting or parting and is accompanied by a slight bow made with the palms of the hands pressed together, fingers pointing upward, in front of the heart. While that sounds religious, yoga is not, in fact, a religion. It is a science that is accessible to everyone—and not something just for “hippies” or “spiritual types.” Hold that thought, because it’s the subject of my next column.
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