6/2/2023 0 Comments
Do This Simple Breathing Exercise Anywhere to Regulate Emotions and Train Smarter
You’re on a crowded session with the music blaring, and no one seems to be paying attention.
You are stressed over schoolwork and are starting a new job this weekend, too.
You just really, really wanted to work on your lutz (single, double, or triple?) this session, but a beginner keeps spinning in the lutz corner and a group of teens is full-on procrastination via socialization in the other.
When you finally spot an opening to put a jump up, you’re already so agitated that the attempt turns into a massive flop.
You need a quick exercise to get you back on track before trying again. Sure, a jump drill sometimes helps redirect your thoughts, but this agitation you’re feeling at this moment isn’t technical.
It’s physiological…. Tightness in the chest, shallow breathing, tense shoulders, legs on the ready.
Like a cat ready to pounce on its prey, you are ready to pounce into the opening in the traffic for that jump.
Except… you are attempting a very technical skill that requires full-body coordination. And you must land on an ice knife with beauty and precision.
Skating should be your happy place, not the source of your stress!
There are simply too many stimuli!
If only you could just block out the chatter, slow the breath, relax the shoulders, and calm the racing thoughts.
The Bee’s Breath (Bhramari) technique - can help.
We are figure skaters because we love figure skating, but very often we do things that steal the joy from our experience. We focus on our competitors, badmouth ourselves, beat ourselves up over both big and small mistakes, make excuses for bad habits that we have the power to change, fixate on the things we don’t like about our image (because societal pressure tells us we should look a certain way), spend countless hours scrolling social, and then stay up way too late because we are ruminating over the negative things we’ve experienced throughout the day.
It’s not our fault–we are biologically programmed to remember negative information and experiences more easily than positive ones. This is called the negativity bias, and it’s pretty powerful.
Just because we have a biological negativity bias doesn’t mean we can’t overcome the negative, though. It’s not easy–some studies estimate that we need at least 5-7 times the positive input for each negative one. The more ingrained the negative experience, the harder it is to change. We are figure skaters, though… we were born ready to tackle the hard!
Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can rewire connections in the brain not just in childhood, but well into adulthood, too.
First, we have to become aware of our habits, then practice replacing them with more positive and productive habits, and finally, surround ourselves with tools and like-minded people to help us in the process.
Yoga can be a big help in this process for several reasons.
First, studies show what yogis already know–a regular practice of yoga that includes asana, meditation, and breathwork protects and strengthens the brain .
In other words, yoga and neuroplasticity go hand in hand.
Second, as I’ve written about many times, the purpose of yoga is to guide us on a path to a fulfilling, happy life, and the entire framework of the 8 limbs is designed for this purpose. (See image below)
The mechanism of yoga teaches us to pause and still the mind, which helps us slow down long enough to recognize and observe our habits. And since the first tenet of the 8-limbed path of yoga is ahimsa-non-harm, it makes sense that we would work to stop the harmful habits, thoughts, and behaviors.
Then, being honest with ourselves (satya) enough to avoid the consumption of negative energies and ideas (saucha) and direct our energy toward helpful thoughts and behaviors (brahmacharya) with fervor (tapas), we can change our habits.
Let’s start by eliminating these three harmful habits that I often see in skating.
Yoga is perhaps the most important component of off-ice training for a well-balanced figure skater.
This is not to say that mental training, conditioning, plyometrics, nutrition, off-ice spinning, and off-ice jump training are not important. It’s all important! And as skating folks–coaches, parents, and skaters–we have to juggle our time, money, and energies, based on all the factors and realities of our current situation.
What’s right for one moment or goal, may not be a top priority for another moment.
Of all the off-ice training a skater might do, though, yoga is the most well-rounded, holistic, all-encompassing piece.
Yoga, when taught well, is about slowing down to cultivate awareness and self-knowledge.
Yoga is the off-ice training that helps skaters assimilate all the other aspects of training, while also helping them develop an inner confidence, calm, and love that will help them withstand the chaos and frenetic pace of a highly competitive sport and world.
The framework I use to teach yoga to figure skaters is based on Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga. This means that I teach positive mindset and training habits, philosophy, breathwork, focus, and concentration, as well as physical postures.
Because while yoga is not really about developing a deeper backbend or touching your toes (even though these things often happen), it is very true that most skaters find it easiest to begin studying yoga through movement and asana (physical postures). It’s what they’re used to and what makes the most sense to them!
So, I’ve compiled my favorite asanas for figure skaters to use as a starting point for their yoga practice. These asanas all have strong applications to movements or positions on the ice, so they should be familiar to most skating folks.
This is the last installment of a 3-part series teaching a comprehensive list of my top picks of yoga poses (asanas) for figure skaters.
To learn about the other asanas, visit here for Part I and here for Part II.
5/12/2023 0 Comments
Yoga Training for Figure Skaters is Not What You Think - and Top Asanas for Skaters Part II
When skating folks think of yoga, most of us picture a Biellmann, Y, I, or pancake.
Maybe we even picture Kamila Valieva or some other uber-flexible athlete looking blissful in one of these positions.
While it’s true that many yoga postures are similar to these well-known feats of flexibility, the main purpose of yoga is NOT THE POSE.
You read that right. It was never really about the poses!
It is true that yoga has been around for thousands of years, and that different traditions of yoga from different era and parts of India have different frameworks and beliefs.
It is also true that there is no known mention of most of the modern physical yoga postures until the 20th century.
Several postures have been found engraved on ancient temples in India, and only 15 postures (yes! only 15!) were mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (an authoritative yoga text from the 15th century). But the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras make it clear that the physical practice, the asana, is to help the yogi learn to control and discipline the mind and body.
The most commonly cited yoga text and framework used today is the 8 limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, which is the framework that I use for applying yoga to skating.
(For a more in-depth explanation of the 8 limbs and a visual application to the skating journey, visit this post.)
As with most traditions, yoga has evolved throughout the centuries, with different lineages of teachers filtering their teaching through their own experiences.
What has remained true, though, is that yoga's purpose is to help you lead a happy, purposeful life, generally in service to others and to your interpretation of a higher purpose or power.
It is NOT about being able to achieve lotus position, or stand up out of a backbend, or have an Instagram worthy Biellmann position.
Yoga is the practice, and yoga is the destination. In other words, the practice is the path…
For skaters, the yogic path very closely parallels the skating journey...
It is showing up every day, putting in the work with excitement and joy, without being attached to the outcome.
It is practicing the balance of effort and ease, contentment and burning drive.
It is being ok with the unknown, giving up the illusion of control, and facing new circumstances with curiosity and grace.
All of this is what leads to moments of bliss.
And you don’t have to put your blade to your ear to be able to do that!
Any skater can practice yoga and learn to feel that they can succeed at whatever their coaches and their life throws their way.
By now you’ve probably read or heard many times that yoga can help skaters with issues they have to tackle:
improper goal setting
unconstructive training environments
Plus, there are other “fitness” based areas that yoga can help skaters improve–balance, strength, flexibility, proprioceptive awareness, etc.
Yoga is not enough to fix all our problems, but it can help us see them in a new light and learn to stand steady and undisturbed while facing them.
It can help us turn a journey based on comparison into a journey of self-actualization.
Mantra repetition, a powerful form of meditation, might be the missing link in your mental training.
A mantra is a word, statement, or sound recited repeatedly out loud or silently to aid in concentration or to help redirect focus to a desirable outcome. Mantra meditation helps us become aligned with our goals.
In Sanskrit, “man” means mind, and “tra” means vehicle.
Just as Warrior II is a vehicle for practicing asana (physical postures), a mantra is a vehicle for developing the sixth limb dharana, or concentration. For this reason, sometimes mantras are called the “asana of the mind”.
The first recorded use of mantras was over 3000 years ago. Today, they are widely used in nearly all religions (repeated prayers) and in many secular spaces throughout the world.
The lead character of my favorite movie “French Kiss” is petrified of flying–has full-blown panic attacks–but she dreams of going to Paris with the love of her life. In the opening scene, she goes through a very expensive “U Can Fly” simulation. As she becomes increasingly agitated, the facilitator says over the loudspeaker “Kate, don’t forget your mantra”.
Even in 1995 when this movie was released, the idea of using a mantra to help change subconscious thoughts and battle anxiety was part of popular culture.
The vibrations of the sounds, the repetition, and the spirit behind the meaning all contribute to the many benefits of mantra repetition: Studies show mantra meditation can help lower anxiety and improve overall mental health, improve awareness, lower blood pressure, and potentially lessen intrusive thoughts and improve symptoms of PTSD.
Life is full of distractions and new, shiny objects that call for our attention and focus.
Especially in our modern society which moves faster and faster every day, our brains are conditioned now to seek new thrills, however fleeting they may be. The latest headline, notification, text, or cute cat on our feed, or the next bite of chocolate or sip of Starbucks… all give us little bitty hits of dopamine.
The more we lean into these external stimuli for satisfaction, though, the more we are left craving more and more, and the more unsatisfied we become.
This is not to say that Starbucks, Hershey’s, Apple, Samsung, Meta, YouTube, and TikTok are inherently bad and that we should never consume them.
However, we need to practice enough moderation and separation from such distractions to offer ourselves space to discover our own intuition.
The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of
Cobra pose is one of the most well-known poses of yoga, but if you need to improve your carriage in skating, you should practice Sphinx pose (salamba bhujangasana) instead.
Carriage is the term used to refer to how a skater carries their upper body–everything from the angle of the torso in relation to the lower body, the shape and placement of the shoulders, the alignment of the head and neck, and the length and look of the arms and hands.
Carriage is what makes a skater’s performance look elegant, effortless, and polished vs. labored, choppy, and sloppy.
In last week’s blog I discussed the need for direction in our skating and explained why the common practice of setting SMART goals often doesn’t work for skaters.
Without direction, we feel like we are skating in circles, getting nothing accomplished, even while working very hard. It is very frustrating!
I’m from Kentucky, so I like to compare it to a thoroughbred–you can be the fastest horse in the world, but if you aren’t trained to run around the track, you can’t run the race.
But SMART goals, by far the most common type of goal-setting used, can be harmful for skaters, who are often already highly focused and obsessive, and who thrive on the external validation of achievement.
In my experience, the black and white nature of SMART goals creates a lot of anxiety in our already anxious modern beings.
If you haven’t read that post, you can find it here.
Instead of setting SMART goals, I encourage skaters to set intentions.
By definition, an intention is a plan to think and act in a certain way, preferably in alignment with a greater principle or purpose. It involves staying focused and mindful in the present moment, rather than on the future or the past.
Since an intention focuses on the present, it comes from the idea that we are already whole because we are all of a divine nature.
The idea is that our intended action or thought is already within us… our purpose is to practice bringing it to light simply by getting to work. As always, the practice IS the path.
What is a Good Intention for Skaters?
In yoga, an intention is also called a Sankalpa, which can also be translated as a resolve or a vow to be upheld above all others.
This doesn’t mean that we forget all our other obligations and become single-minded to the point of obsessiveness (remember–we are trying to leave behind the obsessiveness of SMART goals).
It means that we will be resolved to have one mindset or one purpose for each practice or period of practice–whether that period is a season, a month, a week, a day, or an hour.
If you really have one quality you want to cultivate in your life, maybe your intention is one word for a season at a time.
An example of this is how I choose a word of the year instead of choosing a list of resolutions–abundance, love, courage, flexibility, etc. Then I try to make sure my thoughts, choices, and actions are in alignment with this word.
If you practice for many hours a day, you may have one purpose for each session. It can be a word–maybe you choose one of the yamas–or a positive statement or affirmation, such as “I use my breath to stay calm when I run into traffic during my program,” or “I am aware of my self-talk.”
You can even make a positive statement about an element you really want to develop–i.e. I easily execute 9 revolutions on a forward camel spin. On your first session, you can focus on program run-throughs and all that entails, and on the next session, you focus on exercises for the camel spin.
For the past several years I have really struggled with focus. I was miserable–my brain darting between tasks, unable to focus on any one thing for more than a few seconds at a time.
During the act of teaching things felt fine–it’s naturally faster paced–but sitting to work at a computer for my other job, for writing, or for planning was challenging in a way it never had been.
Even though I rarely eat processed foods, aim to get enough sleep, practice meditation, exercise, and drink enough water, I just… couldn’t. be. efficient.
I knew something was off, but I still felt like a failure.
Then, I read somewhere that “systems will beat hard work and talent every time”.
And I realized that I wasn’t failing, but I certainly was spinning my wheels.
I think it’s safe to say that, in 2023, the vast majority of humans struggle with focus. It’s impossible to process information as quickly as technology throws it at us.
We can’t keep up with our obligations because our brains simply haven’t evolved as quickly as society demands them to.
Add in processed foods, lack of sleep, the chaos of the world, and the frenetic pace of achievement we are compelled to follow, and our brains are in crisis.
I needed a system and tools to help me dedicate time to do the work that really mattered most – like writing these blogs for the skating world – and to block out distractions.
So, I went to work finding tools to help streamline my processes and started practicing their implementation, and I plugged in breaks throughout my day to allow my brain to reset in between tasks.
This process has reminded me so much of skating.
We’ve all seen skaters spin their wheels on the ice–they get so bogged down with what needs to be done that they move from one thing to the next with no focused effort to make any improvement.
Or even worse, they fail to do anything because deciding where to begin is too difficult!
In getting to work, it’s all about using your energy in the right way - Brahmacharya. (A few weeks ago I wrote about the yamas - a code of conduct presented to us in the 8 limbs of yoga… Brahmacharya is one of the yamas. You can read more about it here.)
Coaches know this, parents know this, and deep down, skaters know it, too. But for it to click and to get a system in place can be very challenging. Enter the SMART goal.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.
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