Mindfulness. Is it just a big word that sounds nice? Ask any pro Athlete around you and they will tell you about the uncountable time they were able to train better, boost their performance or even secure a win by being mindful and focused. Let’s go deeper into it and see what kind of benefits can arise from being mindful and how yoga helps.

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed. We have all wanted to be more focused and mindful at some point in life but is it that easy?

So, how does mindfulness support Athleticism?

Easy. Despite how good an athlete you are, you are a human first and foremost, controlled by thoughts and emotions. Think of a day where you planned a training session in the evening with a friend. During work things just didn’t work out and on top of that, you had to stay longer in the office. In the evening your friend tells you, that he is not going and so you end up deciding to give up and console yourself for surviving the day with a really good dinner. A happy evening, right?

A mindful ‘you’ would have been able to perceive the emotional and stressful situation at work differently and might not have been drained at the end of the day, because a mindful you would respond differently to the stimuli.

Indeed, It’s not your physical ability that stops you from training effectively. It’s your mind. Practicing mindfulness teaches you to focus your mind and to respond to situations more objectively, rather than reflexively [4] Note that there is a difference between being overly optimistic, stopping unwanted thoughts, eating vegan cheesecake and the ability to accept those internal cognitive, emotional, and physiological states. [5,6,7]

Particularly, the combination of the willingness to experience internal and external states while continuing to engage in behaviors that are consistent with your goals can make you a better Athlete. [8] Several studies have shown that mindfulness practice improves Athletic performance by controlling dysfunctional thinking and facilitating flow experiences. Moreover, flow is that moment when you just catch the wave or are running the final slow-motion steps right before crossing the finish line.

In 2014, Godman et al. tested an NCAA Division I team and report after only 5 weeks of yoga training, that the participants reported greater goal-directed energy and less stress. [5] Similarly, results with athletes were shown in the study of Thompson in 2009, where the effects of a 1-year yoga intervention was tested on runners, golfers, and archers. All across the athlete groups, participants reported significant increases in the ability to act with awareness and significant decreases in task-related worries and task-irrelevant thoughts. [6]

So, maybe trust in the science or the only 5000-year-old practice of mindfulness, Yoga. Still, the best way to prove the effectiveness of being mindful is relying on your own experience.

Why is Yoga a good way to practice mindfulness ?

Yoga offers a path that teaches mindfulness from scratch with its methodological-didactic structure. You don’t have to sit down right now and start meditating an hour per day, but as we are tied up to our chairs all day long, it can be hard to take the first step.

Here are some tips on how you can start adding mindfulness to your training:

  1. Practice the Postures
  2. Don’t forget the breathing.
  3. Reflect on your thinking

Lets go into more detail about each of these points:

The pose

Do Yoga poses without expecting to reach the state of perfection. This is what keeps you working

Yoga is designed to be challenging. Imagine watching a person who has never done a deadlift in his life: He is bending the knees, they fall asymmetrically inside, his back is extremely rounded and you are simply watching him, hoping for a good ending.

undoubtedly, when you have practiced a discipline over a longer period of time you start noticing how it functions, you figure out key elements and the movement patterns your body has to apply.

Yoga is the same. But, aside from looking strong and athletic, the poses are designed to challenge your nervous system. Your ribs are floating up, while you’re lifting your arms? That’s natural. In Yoga, often, you are supposed to do the opposite. Doing Yoga poses teaches you to permanently concentrate and break with harmful movement patterns. Becoming aware of what your body automatically tends to do will teach you to be more decisive in your way of moving. But, this is just the first step.

The breath

Controlled breathing is a key element of Yoga practice. Science shows that different breathing techniques can influence internal physiological processes like blood pressure [7] and brain activity [8]. By becoming aware of processes that are normally regulated by the autonomous nervous system you learn to understand better your physiological state and might be able to change that for the better. Focusing on breathing links you to the present moment and teaches you to observe.

The Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps reports that he ”discovered how breathing techniques outside the pool could help him with mental health.”

The thoughts

Thoughts are there to stay and its important to understand the underlying reasons behind them and learn how to compartmentalize them. Through thinking you define your ego. If you want to become a better athlete you have to set the right intentions for training and take steps towards achieving your personal goals. But, at the same time, if a goal orientation comes with a judgemental self-evaluation process, it is hypothesized that ironic mental processes occur – think of a Golfer who is trying to avoid driving the ball into a water hazard but ends up trying so hard to avoid it, that the ball splashes straight into the water. [9]

Say you are in a Down-Dog pose and you are supposed to hang there for five deep, long and even breaths. It feels like your calves are exploding, your hamstrings are ripping apart and your nose tingles because of all the blood in your head. Suddenly you think of quitting. You can stretch your hamstrings differently at home. Being engaged in those thoughts would give you the option to ask yourself “Why am I thinking that way?” and if the reason is, that you don’t like failing and pain (obviously) you have the option to ask yourself what is bothering you more? Failure or pain? The experience of pain can be changed by finding a different muscular engagement or taking a short break. If it is the fear of failure bothering you the most, you might have discovered a de-constructive thinking pattern.

If you want to give some structure to the process of analyzing your thoughts maybe follow the three axioms of mindfulness Shapiro et al. pointed out: attention, attitude and intention [10]. Attention helps to facilitate the recognition and re-perceiving of internal associative processes [13] and is closely related to de-automatization [14] – for example being aware of yourself thinking about the Pizza you will have later on.

Non-judgmental attitude has shown a reasonable impact on psychological functioning in empirical studies [9,15] – don’t judge the Pizza. Last but not least there is the concept of intention as a motivational factor in the concept of sports. Intrinsically motivated people – whose motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within – are more likely to keep up with their training over a longer period of time. [11,12]

To finish off, Yoga is designed to alter and enhance the mindfulness and awareness that elite athletes are using to amp up their athletic performance. Anyone can train mindfulness in Yoga by working constantly in improving their poses, focus on breathing and reflecting on the thinking by being more present. Setting intentions that really matter to themselves is what drives people to achieve their goals.

What did you think about the blog? Are you interested in this topic and would like to know more or are you looking for something specific out of Skill Yoga’s content? We are still in our developing phase and would love to get your opinion and thoughts in the comment section below. Cheers!

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