How yoga can be easily adapted and self-styled by athletes for that crucial edge
As a yoga teacher, I was surprised to see some athletes in a tight spot while doing asanas. A cricketer was rendered breathless and exhausted while doing Suryanamaskar. It was then that I realised that training for a particular sports discipline can be lopsided. It is, therefore, not surprising that yoga is being used by athletes and trainers all over the world in adapted forms to supplement their training.
Yoga is being resorted to because it aligns head, heart and hand for optimal performance and to see that the athlete is not hassled and jostled when passion, aggression and heated moments run high. Below are three practices which I’ve given as part of a holistic practice for any sportsperson. However, without the practice of relaxation like Shavasana, Yoga Nidra and some pranayamas listed below, it will be an incomplete package for any sportsperson. Also, depending on the discipline and the personality of the sportsperson, an expert can tweak the asanas. Suryanamaskar, however, can be universally applied for all sports, including chess.
Naukasana ( Boat pose)
If you are a sportsperson, it stimulates the muscular system, which is alternately tensed and then relaxed. This removes lethargy and nervous tension before a match by bringing about deep relaxation. Concomitantly, it stimulates the digestive and hormonal systems. When practised by holding the breath throughout without coming back to the starting position, it is particularly helpful for athletes to build resilience against injuries, which is a nightmare of all sportspersons. It builds up core muscles and firms up the spine.
· Lie down on your back with head and spine aligned. Relax your whole body.
· Keep your eyes open throughout. This is for maintaining balance, especially initially.
· Take a deep breath and hold the breath inside till you return to the base position.
· After full inhalation, raise your legs, hands, head, shoulders and trunk off the mat.
· The legs and shoulders should be about 15 cm off the floor with fingers pointing towards the toes, palms facing downward and body balanced on the buttocks with the spine straight.
· You should look at the toes.
· Hold the final position for a count of five seconds or longer if comfortably possible.
· Return to the base position and then breathe out.
· Relax the whole body. This is important.
· This is one round. Do three rounds initially, then build up to five rounds.
It is important to practise relaxation between each round. After the full cycle of five rounds, practise shavasana with abdominal breathing. This ensures that the stomach muscles are relaxed.
Supta Udarakarshasana (Spine twist)
The health of the spine is crucial for any sport. Suryanamaskar factors in much forward and backward manipulation of the spine but not twisting. Therefore, in addition to Suryanamaskar, this twisting practice will ensure a supple, strong spine which is instrumental for quick reflexes. The nerves and muscles along the spine work in high precision as a communication link between brain, nerves, muscles and limbs of the person.
· Lie down on your back with head and spine aligned and the whole body relaxed.
· Fold your knees and place the soles of both feet close to the buttocks.
· Keep knees and feet together.
· Interlock fingers and place the palms under the back of the head.
· Keep elbows along the shoulders and flat on the floor.
· Inhale deeply and as you exhale, begin to drop the knees to the right while simultaneously turning your head to the left. The right foot is touching the floor while the left is on top. Knees and feet remain together and elbows remain flat on the floor.
· The final position executes a twist to the spine, stomach and neck area, thus creating a full body twist. Remain in this position with breath held out for 3-5 seconds or whatever is comfortably possible.
· Inhale and get back to the centre and with exhalation execute a similar twist on the left side.
· Both sides twisting makes one round. Do five rounds.
Variations: While practising, one can manipulate the different sections of the spine, depending on how close or far from the buttocks you place your feet. When they are a little away from the hips, then the lower back is twisted maximum. As you move the feet closer, you manipulate the mid-section and finally when they are closest, the cervical section of the spine is most impacted.
Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation)
This is a full body practice which can be tweaked in several ways to suit the needs of a particular sport and the physique of a sportsperson. For almost all sports, the spine, joints and muscles are called upon to perform at their peak. Suryanamaskar brings into action all the joints and muscles in the arms, legs and works on the spine. The movements, synced with breathing, knit the muscle fibre building resilience to injury, which is a bane for many a good sport person.
Typically, all sports training fine-tune muscle memory through repeated practice for certain actions and reactions required for that sport. Because of the very nature of such training, the body and, therefore, the mind is skewed or lopsided. It is to correct this lack in sports regimen that yoga has been brought in to remove imbalances and target all other systems like the digestive, the nervous system and hormonal to maximise the chance of the athlete to achieve the psycho- physiological state called “the flow” or the “second wind.”
Along with these asanas, pranayamas like Bhastrika, Nadi Shodhan and Kumbhak will elevate the athlete’s performance.
· Yoga nidra must be part of a daily training regime or at least some days before the sporting event. Most of our achievements start as a thought or a vision in our mind. Herein Yoga Nidra works wonders by firming up your resolve, your goal. The athlete is brought into a complete relaxed state akin to deep sleep, then told to repeat his resolve, his goal, three times to himself. Part of the practice is mental rehearsal of the game, the scenario, the sight, the smell, the venue, competitors. The practitioner is made to visualise all of the key aspects of an event and bring all the five senses into play. The effect of this practice works on deep psychological, the unconscious and subconscious parts of the athlete’s mind.
Sadly, while the rest of the world has moved far ahead than India in branding and using yoga, India needs to use its own ancient wisdom to bring home the medals.
(Kamini Bobde is a Kundalini practitioner who follows the Swami Satyananda Saraswati tradition of yoga. She is the author of Kundalini Yoga for All: Unlock the Power of Your Body and Brain. Published by Penguin)