How two seemingly opposed activities can complement each other.
Training programs among sports teams have recently begun including yoga to gain the benefits of the Indian practice for their athletes. Though yoga has had a generally feminine image for several decades, it is gaining a measure of acceptance in the testosterone-driven, high-energy field of sports.
Goal Oriented vs. Process Oriented
Plainly put, much of sports is about winning. It’s a competition, either against others or against oneself. It focuses on results, and much of what athletes do serves the end goal of winning a game or achieving some goal. Yoga takes a more process-oriented approach. For example, in an active vinyasa class, we would be asked to time our movements with the breath—each movement lasts as long as an inhale or an exhale, or longer holds means becoming aware of how we breathe in each pose. It’s not about getting into a pose quickly.
The Zen philosopher Alan Watts many times said—to paraphrase—that dancing isn’t a race where the dancers’ goal is to reach a certain point on the dance floor in a certain position. The point is to go through all the steps in time with the music, and any pleasure we derive is from enjoying the process and its inherent playfulness. The same applies to yoga: we focus on the experience of going through the poses, exploring the limits and strengths of our bodies, all in time with the breath. With regular practice, we can cultivate a steady, focused attention on the present moment experience, which gives us a break from racing toward some end goal, trying to beat the clock. We become more present to our experiences and ourselves.
It’s also possible to focus on both goals and the process. Ken Katich, a yoga instructor known to work with basketball players like Kevin Love, told Slam Online in a 2015 interview: “In my opinion, yoga is a way to connect with yourself, to become more aware It entails stretching, breathing, really getting in touch with your body, and really understanding what your limitations are. From a physical level, it’s stretching and breathing. From an emotional level, it’s an inner awareness as to how you’re operating, what you may be feeling internally. That’s the basics.”
In the same interview, Katich connects all this with Love’s personal goals for weight and body fat loss, increase in flexibility and mobility, and strength gains. You could infer that his achieving these goals came with his attunement with his body and mental and emotional states.
Peak Performance vs. Optimal Health
Sports requires peak performance. This means athletes train extensively to condition themselves for a game. This would involve a training schedule, a diet, even relaxation regimens, all in the name of preparation. By the time the event rolls in, their bodies are ready to meet the challenges ahead.
Of course, there are times when conditioning and training tip over into overtraining. This leads to changes in resting heart rate, extended muscle soreness, insomnia, even depression, loss of concentration, and injury. To be fair, overtraining isn’t confined to sports; yoga has its fair share of overtrained practitioners and injuries. What’s more, yoga injuries are usually small, almost unnoticeable changes that build up until one day, the body just gives in.
What’s different is that the yoga paradigm includes practices that go beyond the physical postures and choreographed sequences on the mat. Some yoga teachers—usually while recovering from injuries—can be heard saying, “I’m on my off-mat practice these days.” The other aspects include moral and ethical restraints like non-violence, truthfulness, self-inquiry, and temperance. Injured or not, some practice breathing techniques and meditation to complement the physical aspect.
These other practices can complement sports training regimens by getting athletes in touch with the principles they value and providing a framework for self-awareness. But all this comes with a regular and consistent practice. Katich says, “I start with the physical because that’s what they’re familiar with. If something is going on in their bodies, we have to address it. Ultimately though when I work with guys if it’s long enough, it evolves into a little more mental, a little more emotional, a little more spiritual if you will.”
Thus the approach to peak performance and optimal health goes beyond sporting events and takes on a more holistic quality.
Expectation vs. Intention
“What can I do to win this game?” is a question that gets answered in terms of training, teamwork, and strategy. With precise numbers—weight lost or gained; increases in strength, flexibility, and endurance; or the hours of sleep spent for recovery—winning can be easily assured. Of course, winning a game doesn’t mean winning a tournament, and winning a tournament won’t guarantee satisfaction. For many, they keep pursuing the next goal.
To invite a sense of satisfaction, an athlete would have to step outside the confines of winning or losing and the pursuit of specific results. Through a yoga framework, athletes can instead ask themselves, “What kind of person do I want to become?” This goes beyond expectations and instead shifts the focus on our intentions. This is what Katich hinted at when he mentioned that a yoga practice can evolve into something more internal.
The paradox of this is that enlarging an athlete’s focus beyond the scope of a sport may actually improve performance in a game. Expectations can limit options, especially when athletes are attached to certain strategies in training and gameplay. With regular practice, yoga can help soften the belief that a set strategy is the only one that will work. Athletes can open their eyes to other options—even in the heat of a game—and can come up with innovative strategies and perform with spontaneity. The performance of the Seattle Seahawks—2013 Super Bowl champions, and 2005 and 2014 Super Bowl runners-up—can attest to this, thanks to coach Pete Carroll’s inclusion of yoga and Zen meditation in the team’s training program.
This helps athletes expand their awareness beyond the polarity of winning and losing. Sports becomes less about competition and more about its original intention: playfulness. Thus they have the mental and emotional space to show dignity in loss, graciousness in victory, and a sense of fun however a game pans out.