Areturning Olympic athlete came into my ‘Yoga for Athletes & Everyone’ class recently, as they tend to do around here. They had very limited yoga experience, but managed to follow the poses in the class competently, seeming to pay attention all the way through, putting effort into attempting the poses and using their breath as directed.
In my opinion as a Yoga for Athletes’ instructor, I would say they did really well. However when I inquired afterwards about their experience they made a comment I often hear from athletes – they said ‘I’m no good at yoga’.
I’ve heard athletes make this comment time and time again – often enough to make me stop and consider why people say this and what they actually mean. When an athlete says ‘I’m no good at yoga’, often what they are really saying is ‘My body feels tight and stiff, and I find it challenging to move into the poses’. This is NOT the same as being ‘no good at yoga’.
It concerns me when I hear athletes say this, because the statement; ‘I’m no good at yoga’ is a judgment, and a negative one. Athletes who train hard at their sport are generally used to feeling like they ARE good at using their bodies in the way they want to, so telling themselves they ARE NOT good at something can make them feel like they have failed.
For some people this may be enough to put them off continuing to try. But it’s not a failure to find yoga challenging. It’s often a lot more challenging than people expect, and this can certainly be confronting – especially for someone who is used to feeling really good at something. Yoga can be very beneficial for athletes, so it’s a missed opportunity to feel defeated and give up on it.
To get over this judgmental feeling of being ‘no good at yoga’, it helps to put things into perspective. It’s important to acknowledge why your athletic body is the way it is, and why certain yoga poses may feel fairly accessible to you while others will seem impossible. An athletic body is trained to be very good at very specific types of movement. For example, a cyclist’s body is used to being tucked up with the spine curving forwards over the bike and handlebars, and the legs pumping up and down – for thousands upon thousands of repetitions. Cumulative time spent in this position impacts the body’s form.
The training helps the person become a better cyclist, which they are aiming for. But it also makes it harder for them to move in the opposite way i.e. opening the front of the body in hip extensions, back bends and shoulder openers.
So if you are a serious cyclist you should not be coming to yoga and comparing yourself with others in the room who may be moving into deep back bends (actually, you shouldn’t be comparing yourself with anyone at all). Trying to do this yourself would be a bad idea, and usually one driven by the ego. It does not reflect a deeper awareness or intelligent approach to yoga.
However, being a good cyclist (or any other type of athlete) doesn’t mean you can’t be good at yoga.
What does being ‘good at yoga’ mean, or not mean?
Many people mistakenly equate being ‘good at yoga’ with ‘being flexible’. But this is a misguided concept. You don’t have to be flexible to be good at yoga, and it’s certainly not a flexibility contest. It’s more helpful to think of flexibility as one of the results of doing yoga.
Yoga is truly a discipline that brings the body and mind together. Being ‘good at yoga’ is about developing awareness and becoming present in each moment. It’s about quietening down the chatter in your busy mind, and tuning in to how you use your breath and move your body, gradually progressing from tightness and imbalance, to creating balance and better movement.
The benefits of yoga for athletes include a more sustainable and functional balance of strength (stability) and range of motion (flexibility) in the body. More flexibility can lead to improved efficiency of movement, and enhanced performance, as well as reducing your chances of injury.
Most often athletes don’t need to be extremely flexible. What you should be looking for is a healthy balance – you don’t want to be a ‘brick’ (too tight), or a noodle (too loose). Somewhere nicely in the middle will serve you well.
Don’t let feeling like you are ‘no good at yoga’, or ‘not flexible enough’ stop you from practising it and reaping the benefits.
So, how do you become ‘good at yoga’?
Three words: Acceptance. Patience. Practice.
The first step is to accept yourself and your body as it is. Yoga philosophy has a concept called Santosha. It means contentment. Finding contentment requires you to accept your body the way it is, and learning to be accepting of yourself completely. For athletes this means recognising your body’s form, range, abilities and limitations within the context of your athletic training. Santosha means not viewing your limitations as a sign of weakness, but as a reflection of your training, dedication and skills as an athlete.
Progress takes time. Patience means adopting a mental approach to yoga that will be conducive to progress. Because yoga is a mind and body practice, to really progress you need to take a patient, gentle mental approach. This can sometimes be the biggest challenge, especially if you are used to pushing your limits, toughing it out and going ‘higher, faster, stronger’. Learning mental and physical patience will not only help you progress in yoga, but can help you develop mental skills that can benefit your athletic performance as well.
Practise. Practise. Practise. Unlike in sports where we talk about ‘training’, in yoga we talk about ‘practise’. With a dedicated approach to yoga, you will see progress. And this simply comes with practise. It’s just like other forms of training in that results may be seen very quickly at the beginning, and then you will travel through various phases of progress and plateaus. It is all part of the process.
Developing a yoga practise is like peeling an endless onion. You’ll find layers start to peel away, taking you deeper and deeper; uncovering aspects within your body and mind you were previously unaware of. With practise, poses that you found inaccessible at first will become easier; but new challenges will then surface. This is what keeps yoga so interesting.
By simply practising with a sense of acceptance and patience, you will progress. Your body will become more open and balanced, your mind will learn to be focused and present. You will learn how to work with the breath to help deepen your practice. By committing to a practice with awareness, acceptance and patience, you are likely to discover that actually, you ARE ‘good at yoga’.