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The Power of Breath for Yogis & Olympians Alike

By Mindfulness, Yoga, Yoga for Athletes

How athletes mentally and physically prepare for a competition varies between individuals, depending on their chosen sport. For great Olympians like American gymnast, Simone Biles and competitive swimmer, Michael Phelps, their routines may differ from how professional basketball star, Dwyane Wade or tennis legend, Serena Williams prepares to step onto their respective courts. These elitists spend years undergoing endurance drills, weighted workouts, multiple practices per day, and neurological training to prepare their brains and bodies for battle. However, they all harbor their most useful superpower of all: their breath. 

The way we breathe has the power to impact how we think, what we feel, and the way we move, which is why training the breath is top of mind for some of the most decorated challengers in the game. All athletes use their breath differently within their events, yet they all have the same purpose or goal: to win a title, gold medal, or recognition for their efforts. To examine these superior players, here’s a breakdown of how athletes uniquely use their breath before, during, and after a competition. 

Before Competition

At the onset of a yoga class, the instructor generally will guide you through a meditation to bring attention towards the breath. They may ask you to first observe your breath in its natural state without manipulation or judgment before leading you through breathing exercises designed to calm the mind and focus your concentration inward. Similarly, athletes use this technique before participating in a tournament or a competition – they mentally rehearse using relaxation, imagery, and breathing exercises in preparation for the event.

According to the book Mental Training for Peak Performance: Top Athletes Reveal the Mind Exercises They Use to Excel by Steven Ungerleider, mental training has adapted into many professional training programs. It centers the spotlight not only on improving your physical strength and agility, but also on the psychological components. When 1984 Summer Olympics gold medalist Mary Lou Retton obtained her victory for the gold, she used mental rehearsal and visualization methods before her big win by imagining herself performing her routine perfectly. And legendary basketball player Michael Jordan credits his 1989 playoff win with the Chicago Bulls to his mindfulness practice, something many of his teammates fostered. These pre-game rituals became essential for these athletes to feel fully prepared to compete, proving the power mental training has on overall performance.

During Competition

Just like when your yoga instructor encourages slow, focused breathing throughout your practice, how a professional athlete breathes during a competition is vital to the event’s outcome. Improper breathing promotes tension and immobility within the body, increasing your back, neck, and shoulder injury risk. Breath training is what exercise physiologist and physiotherapist James Fletcher focused on when he worked with Olympic swimmer Cameron McEvoy leading up to the 2018 Commonwealth games. His theory (that any yogi would also agree) is that proper breathing techniques can improve exercise performance and reduce anxiety. In his training with McEvoy, he improved the Australian swimmer’s inspiratory flow rate allowing him to take a faster breath, which reduced the amount of time his head turned during his race. Fletcher also trained with Ryan Hipwood, a WSL Big Wave surfer, helping him control his anxiety in between big waves by practicing breathing techniques. He claimed that “by strength training the breath, we give patients great control over their physiology, which has an instant impact on these conditions.” 

After Competition

The moment an athlete crosses the finish line, or the sound of the game’s final buzzer, is equivalent to the practice of Savasana for a yogi. It’s the moment at the end of your practice where you can slow your breath and heart rate, reconnecting with your mind and body. When we can accept and surrender ourselves onto the mat both physically and mentally. In fact, many athletes turn towards yoga as a means of an active (and passive) post-game recovery. 

Experts recommend that athletes practice active recovery to help restore their muscles after vigorous exercise. By performing a low-intensity activity, blood continues to flow within the body, allowing your muscles to recover and rebuild faster. Practicing tai-chi or yoga after an intense physical workout assists in stretching sore muscles, increases flexibility, and can reduce stress and inflammation. It’s the perfect reward to thank your hardworking muscles after a competition.

Although we may not embody the traits of a celebrated Olympian or a famed tennis star, we can understand part of their training methods that have helped them attain their victories. Athletes can utilize their breath in various ways to manipulate their mental and physical performance while all are working towards the same triumphant goals.

Inside the Mindset of an Olympian (It’s Similar to Yogis)

By Meditation, Mindfulness, Yoga for Athletes

Being an Olympic athlete is one of the most demanding physical challenges that a competitor could endure. The years of training and molding the body to encompass near superpower abilities is an accomplishment that outranks a fraction of the world. Not to mention the mental toll that competing at such a prestigious level can have on a person often at a young age. The bar is raised even higher for an Olympian as they have one opportunity to prove their devotion to the game. A major hurdle compared to an entire season that professional athletes have to perfect their craft. And if you’re a yogi, an entire lifetime. But these extraordinary human beings have one thing in common with the average yogi: they put great emphasis on the mindset. Below is a dissection of the mindset of an Olympian compared to that of a yogi with insight from Dr. Matt Brown, Mental Trainer, and Counsellor at Edge School in Calgary, Canada. 

Both can ignore outside influences 

When the world locked down nearly 15 months ago at the height of the pandemic, athletes had to develop a new form of training, while also holding their focus and concentration for their sport. “None of them get to live and train in a vacuum,” said Dr. Brown whose responsibility is to guide his athletes through difficult roadblocks, including an unforeseen health crisis. While the rate of athletes dealing with anxiety and depression has increased, Dr. Brown strives to help his athletes understand that their feelings were triggered by an event. “Once you understand that, you know that [your anxiety and depression] is a normal response.” 

To cope with these anxious thoughts, Dr. Brown encourages practicing yoga and meditation to alleviate the symptoms. However, he points out that treatment methods vary for each individual depending on their circumstance. “Every person is kind of like their own jigsaw puzzle.” Daily movement practice and yogic breathwork have been proven to reduce anxiety and allow you to focus your attention inward and ignore outside influences. According to Dr. Brown, an athlete’s mindset is very similar. “Most Olympic athletes and prospects get training in a competitive bubble. Most would say that that’s their happy place. They’re not distracted, it’s their quiet place in between.”  

They’re trained to focus on the present moment

The differences between the competitive nature of an athlete and the mindfulness that yoga students possess are very distinct. Athletes are used to going head to head with their opponents, testing their limits, while those who practice yoga thrive in the low-intensity, quiet and calming environment that the practice offers. As yoga students, we rely more on the stillness and responses from within to gain our physical and mental strength, rather than the rigorous workouts and drills that Olympians may require in their days. This is why many athletes turn to yoga for a more well-rounded approach to their training. “Yoga has a lot to offer all athletes, especially the lead athletes,” agreed Dr. Brown. “It’s not just about being present, but about acceptance and surrendering.” 

In addition to his efforts at the Alberta private school, Dr. Brown also works with the Calgary Flames, their AHL Affiliate (Stockton Heat), the Calgary Hitmen, and has hands-on experience with Olympians, professional athletes, coaches, and other high-stature competitors, so he’s seen the progression of many great sports enthusiasts both within the mind and body. “I’m increasingly of the belief that [athlete’s] focus is as much congenital as it is taught,” admits Dr. Brown. “It is trainable, yes, but the best, they’re just wired that way. Like yoga, [the sport] demands your attention.” Although many athletes’ talents stem from birth, their evolution throughout the game is treated as a journey. Similarly to mastering a challenging yoga pose, there is no shortcut to greatness. This is where the practice of slow movements and meditation benefits players as a tool to remain in the present moment, which is imperative to keep their heads in the game.

“When people think of meditation, they think of the traditional sit on a pillow and say ‘OM.’ Any activity where in essence you’re focusing on a task so you’re freed in the moment, in my mind, counts as meditation.”  

They need to be in perfect balance to succeed

Olympians are trained throughout their professional careers how to focus on the task at hand, eliminating the chatter around them, which is often why a stadium full of spectators does not faze their abilities to perform. Those of us who practice yoga comprehend that its purpose is to quiet our anxious thoughts, clearing our minds of all that can hinder our focus. However, unlike on the mat, where we’re deterred from pushing our bodies beyond our day’s limits, for the athlete, it is encouraged. “You need a voice in your head that says that’s not good enough,” explained Dr. Brown, revealing that to succeed, athletes must find that perfect balance between confidence and pressure. “Of all the Olympic athletes that I’ve worked with in the past, I don’t think any of them aren’t self-critical.” 

Olympians are indeed their biggest competition. Battling their minds and abilities motivates them to take it up a notch, constantly striving to improve. While yogis have a different method to their practice, we do foster the same beliefs, drawing our attention towards our practice and not that of others. Dr. Brown mentioned this as the main reason more high-level athletes are turning to yoga.

“I try to draw their attention to: ‘can you shut off that critical voice and just allow your body to give what it gives that day?’ If they’re able to do that, that last step can be the very difference between the podium and 12th place.”      

The mindset of an Olympian holds similarities to the everyday yogi in various forms. Although athletes are competitive with an overall goal to win, much of their strategy is taken from yogic practices. Just as Olympians can ignore outside influences, remain in the present moment, and find the perfect balance in their thinking, it was the practice of yoga that instilled these teachings all along.