Bringing your mind to focus on the present moment is an invaluable tool in improving your athletic performance. It also amplifies Yoga benefits and can help you progress faster. Let’s talk about mindfulness in Yoga.
Mindfulness in Yoga and Sports
In the last blog, we explained that mindfulness means being fully present in the moment, aware of your bodily sensations, thoughts, breath, and the environment, being open to what is, accepting it and not judging. It makes you more aware, less stressed, more in control of your emotions and reactions, and can improve many aspects of your life.
Mindfulness in Yoga is also key to progressing in your practice and athletic endeavors. Your body can do amazing things but it’s often the mind that gets in the way. Prime examples are balance positions – your body can probably do the shape and hold you there but if you are thinking about falling or what your colleague told you at work, you may not be able to hold your balance. If you are present in the moment, noticing what’s happening in your body, checking your alignment, and have a focus point in front of you, your balance will be better. And it’s the same in sports – science shows that mindfulness training improves your performance and movement precision.
Mindfulness in Yoga helps you be a better athlete
Training your mind to be focused on the ‘here and now’ has been used as a very effective tool in many sports. Athletes practicing mindfulness are less held back by negative emotions or thoughts and are more focused on their performance, which makes them progress faster and be more precise in their movements.
In one study, practicing mindfulness reduced performance anxiety, pessimism and increased the experience of flow – when you’re fully absorbed by what you’re doing and immune to distractions. Another study complemented these findings by showing that mindfulness reduced pain catastrophizing in athletes – meaning that experiencing slight pain that’s normal in training (as opposed to injury) won’t hold you back more than it should, and you won’t give up so easily.
A study of tennis players revealed that mindfulness practice improved their performance, and concentration, and reduced anxiety, and stress.
Research also suggests that mindfulness practice makes you less likely to injure yourself. And it makes sense – being more aware of the state of your body on a particular day makes you better able to judge your abilities, and being more focused on your goal helps to improve movement precision.
Mindfulness in your practice
So how do you bring more mindfulness into your training? Before you start, sit or stand for a few minutes, focus on your breathing and take stock of the state of your body – are you tense, does anything hurt, do you feel hot/cold or tired? Keep breathing. Then notice your thoughts – are you worried, stressed or relaxed? Just notice, don’t engage with the thoughts. Keep breathing. You’re checking-in with yourself before your training so you know what you’re working with that day. Try to accept things as they are – it means you get the most of your training. Some days you can push yourself further and other days you may risk injury if you do that so it’s best to adapt your workout accordingly. You can also visualize what you want to achieve in your training, and focus on just that for a few moments.
No doubts or what-ifs, just imagine yourself reaching your goal. It will help you get in the right mindset.
During training, stay focused on what you’re doing and listen to your body so you don’t miss any warning signs – or perhaps you notice you can go further than you thought! The simple advice is to keep bringing your mind into the present moment and not engage with thoughts or judgements that keep popping up.
Mindfulness in training helps you get the best results from your particular situation. It will make you progress much better than if you ignore your body’s signals or fuel your doubts and fears.
Mindfulness on the Yoga mat
Mindfulness is an integral part of Yoga practice – ideally, you should be mindful throughout the whole session. Your mind will wander, and that’s normal, but keep bringing it back. After all, yoga is training both your body and mind at the same time. Some say it’s a moving meditation. You will be rewarded with a clearer mind, calmer and more positive outlook, and you will be able to physically go further, too.
However, all this is easier said than done. Luckily, there are several tools that make it easier for us:
- Make a quiet space for yourself – mute your phone, shut the door and give yourself permission to take the time for yourself – everything else can wait until you’re done with your practice.
- Set an intention – at the start of your practice, take a few minutes to fully arrive on the mat, start breathing deep belly breaths and set an intention for the practice. It can be simple such as ‘I’ll be fully present throughout this practice’ or ‘Me, here, now’ to remind yourself what to focus on. You can keep coming back to your intention throughout the Yoga session to stay focused.
- Notice your thoughts but don’t let them take over – acknowledge the thought but don’t run with it, just let it go without judgment. If you’re finding the Yoga pose difficult, you may be thinking that you just want it to be over or that you simply can’t do it. In that moment, ask yourself why is it difficult – do you need to modify your alignment or are you impatient or sabotaging yourself? By thinking about why you feel a certain way, you can find useful answers or simply that you need to work on your patience! As soon as you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts, try to flip them into positive ones – appreciate the effort you’re making, and that you are striving to better yourself, maybe even give yourself a little pep talk! If your thoughts run somewhere else, for example to what you’re going to eat afterward or that you need to clip your toenails, say to yourself that it can wait and release the thought.
- Notice your breath – breath is our greatest teacher. In Yoga, we should move with breath and make sure our breathing is deep and steady. If you notice you’re holding your breath when you’re not supposed to, or it becomes strained to the point that you start making strange noises, you’re pushing yourself too hard and need to ease off. It is a part of mindfulness to be aware of the breath or even fully focused on it.
- Don’t compete with yourself – we are our worst critics and it applies in Yoga just as much as in sports. Just because you could do something last week doesn’t mean you can do it today. You’re not failing by any means. It may be that you didn’t sleep well or you’re distracted. Try to stay present, notice what’s happening in your body and modify the pose or use a prop. Rather than strain yourself to achieve your goal or quit altogether, it’s much better to adjust your position and mindset.
- Scan your body – whenever you arrive at a resting pose such as child’s pose, downward-facing-dog, or the final relaxation in savasana, bring your focus to how your body feels and if there’s any tension you can let go of. In non-resting poses, check your alignment – your shoulders, back, neck, knees, toes. This isn’t just beneficial to your body, it helps to quieten the mind too. When your mind is busy exploring your own body, it doesn’t have time to wander.
- Don’t rush off – at the end of Yoga practice, we do the final relaxation for a reason. It helps your body and mind process what just happened and relax. At that point, your mind should be clearer and ready for meditation – you don’t need to meditate but this moment of calm at the end helps to seal the practice and quieten the mind. Simply put, it makes you feel good and makes you better prepared to face the world again afterward. Thoughts will pop up, that’s normal, the key is to not engage with them. If you skip it and rush off, you may not benefit from your Yoga practice as much.
Focus Point in Yoga
External focus is something that can support our mindfulness but it’s also a simple body-steadying technique. We’re talking about a focus point – something you fix your eyes on when you’re in a yoga pose, and it helps to keep your balance. This focus offers physical advantage but also keeps your mind present.
Focus point, in yogic terms called drishti, is an important part of yoga practice. Depending on the pose, it’s a non-moving spot usually in front of you or slightly ahead in seated poses. It can also be on your hand – in twisted or revolved poses, where you extend one arm up, your focus can be the hand that’s lifted above you. If you start in one pose, looking forward, and transition to looking behind you or upwards, find a couple of focus points along the way – moving your focus as if you were climbing stairs. How much it can help your balance will be a surprise to you!
When you’re attempting difficult poses such as headstand, being mindful, visualizing lifting up, and finding a focus point may be all you need to go all the way!
Give yourself time
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a process of bringing your mind back to the present moment. The more you train your mind to do that, the easier it will become as your brain slowly reprograms its go-to reactions. All this takes time so it’s also training your patience. Ultimately, mindful Yoga practice and Athletic training improves all aspects of your life and can help you achieve better results. It’s why so many Athletes use mindfulness techniques!
So don’t forget – focus on the present moment, notice your thoughts but don’t engage with them, don’t judge, be aware of your breath, bodily sensations and alignment, work with your body in that particular moment and don’t compare, find an external focus point to stay steady and present, replace negative monologue by inner encouragement, and don’t skip relaxation!
Mindfulness can entirely transform your training and Yoga practice, and it only requires your attention. Give it to yourself and you won’t ever look back.