Whether you are focused on athletic achievement or life lessons, creating a safe space is crucial for the well-being of everyone involved.
As a skater, I trained in environments that, from the outside, appeared healthy and safe. There was no physical or sexual abuse that I am aware of, and there was none of the heinous screaming and name-calling that still exists in many rinks.
However, when I was younger, my coaches behaved like mean girls in club politics and created ugly rivalries where there should have been collegiality and friendship. Later, at a different facility, my peers had weekly weigh-ins, and I was applauded and revered for drastic weight loss that led me down a decades-long path of eating disorders. In yet another facility, I was made to feel like an imposter–just a “tester” among those actively competing.
As a coach, I have always tried very hard not to repeat the mistakes of my teachers. Most of them were good-hearted with good intentions, even if they were often blinded by their own competitive nature and their own past wounds and teachings.
So, without a good model in my background, I repeated some of the same mistakes. Pushed kids when they didn’t need to be pushed, compared skaters to one another when I shouldn’t have, offered dietary advice without being a licensed dietitian and tried to convince a skater to stay in the sport when what she really, really wanted was to be done.
For many years I coached in an environment that closely followed Safesport guidelines. Yet, it didn’t feel healthy and was arguably quite harmful to me and many others. Playing favorites, forming cliques, ignoring skaters who need extra emotional support, and politicking amongst coaches are surefire ways to ruin a healthy, collegial environment.
While Safesport and SkateSafe attempt to prevent and prosecute the most egregious acts of abuse in our sport, they fall short in many ways, especially in instances of emotional abuse. Their shortcomings are beyond the scope of the post, so I will simply say that I believe we need good models of conduct and spirit that go deeper than US Figure Skating’s Code of Conduct and the PSA’s professional standards.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
In a previous post, I described the 8 limbs of yoga and how following the yoga path can directly correlate to figure skating.
To recap, the 8-limbs are as follows:
When you break down the journey, you see a lot of parallels to figure skating:
The right mindset, right discipline, strong body, strong lungs, trained skills, practice focusing, and then achieve the goal.
As I mentioned in that post, in yoga it is often said that if you work on the first four limbs, the last four will fold into place. In other words, you must lay a sturdy foundation for the path from the very first step.
So what is the first step?
The Yamas as a Figure Skating Code of Conduct
The yamas are a code of conduct, a set of moral and ethical precepts meant to guide yogis on a path to “virtuous living”–in other words, to help yogis live a meaningful, happy life in society and avoid unnecessary suffering.
The yamas are often thought of as “constraints”, or things “not to do”, even though they are expressed positively in the original language. B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation of Sutra 2.31 calls them “the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time, and class” to be practiced by everyone, particularly yoga students.
They are explained and applied to skating below.
Ahimsa / Non-Harming
Ahimsa is often translated as non-violence, but a more thorough explanation means not wishing physical, mental, or emotional harm to the self or to any other being.
This is one of the most important yamas in skating, particularly as we try to make the sport a more positive space for all people involved.
Ahimsa doesn’t only refer to physical acts of violence like the incident against Nancy Kerrigan (Hopefully, even non-yogis know that’s not acceptable!). It could also refer to restraining an urge to be aggressive on the ice–either in the form of fighting traffic during a busy session or by pushing yourself too far with a skill when you really need to back off and redirect or rest.
For some people, ahimsa entails being vegetarian, and for others, it may mean not being a vegetarian, even if you really want to be–if that is what your body needs.
New Flash: It also means not speaking poorly of another skater through gossip, or speaking in a harmful manner to ourselves.
I think it’s important to note that we are not our thoughts–just because we may have a fleeting thought of ill will towards another skater, coach, or parent does not mean that we actually wish them harm. Nevertheless, the well-known acronym THINK before you speak can help us here: Before you say (or do!) something, ask yourself if it’s true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind.
Satya / Truthfulness
Satya is often translated as honest and truthful, or not lying. The sanskrit word, though, goes deeper than that–it means to live in your true essence, or to live authentically.
How do we do this? By being honest in our words and actions to ourselves and those around us; by seeing things as they actually are, rather than as we wish them to be; and by taking the time to explore the truth of own feelings.
Practicing satya doesn’t mean that we can’t visualize an outcome or pump ourselves up with affirmations to achieve something. In fact, thinking positively is part of ahimsa (yama #1). But… we shouldn’t live in delusion.
It also means that when we are suffering on the ice–double run-throughs, for example, or struggling with a skill–we should pay attention to our self-talk. Are you speaking to yourself or acting out of compassion and a spirit of non-harm or out of emotional dysregulation and fear?
Once again, this is a practice. We must be willing to slow down and reflect long enough to recognize our feelings to be able to respond to any situation with honesty and authenticity.
Asteya / Non-Stealing or Non-Misappropriation
Asteya, like ahimsa and satya, is a virtue followed in nearly every nation in the world. At first glance it means “do not steal”, but in reality, it refers to more than not stealing someone’s belongings… it can also refer to stealing time, peace, experiences, and even credit for achievements that might not be our own to claim.
This is an important one for skating, which is such a comparison, competition-driven environment. Often, the urge to steal or misappropriate comes from a feeling of lack or want, of not being good enough. This is a common feeling that arises in skating rinks all around the world.
Have you ever snuck onto the ice 10 minutes early without permission? Or hung out in the lobby when you or your parents have paid for your ice time? Or been fixated on how Susie Skater just looked at you rather than focusing on your skating?
As a coach, have you ever taken claim for the full development of a skater, when in reality, you had a team of people working with you?
Have you, as a parent, ever no-showed for a lesson (without reason) and gotten angry that your child’s coach charged you? Or have you pushed too hard for your child to skate more than they wanted?
All of these are instances where we can put asteya into practice–when we approach life with compassion, honesty, and abundance (yamas #1-#3), we are much more at peace.
Brahmacharya / Right Energy
Brahmacharya has several translations, but the most common modern translation means “right use of energy”. It means to be deliberate and intentional in how you use your energy, so you can save it for the things and people that really matter and need it.
Do you put your energy into worrying about possible outcomes that you can’t control? Or into trying to please other people? Or… maybe you are overly focused on weight loss because that’s the message you get from diet culture and skating. Perhaps you bend over backward for that “friend” or client who just won’t respect your boundaries. Is your use of social media draining your self-esteem?
Don’t expend your energy mindlessly on these things and instead, engage in very thoughtful behavior that allows you to live fully, authentically, and with purpose.
Aparigraha / Non-Covetousness
By now you may have noticed how the yamas work with and overlap each other (and mirror the precepts of several other religions).
Everything is connected.
Aparigraha, which means non-covetousness or non-hoarding, also fits into this puzzle. Wanting for things that we do not need or obsessing over outcomes we cannot control robs us of our energy, which steers us away from our true purpose.
Is your heart’s innermost desire to own a Maserati? Is your life’s purpose to own the newest Lululemon jacket? Is it to land a quadruple jump or coach a national champion? Or is your greatest desire simply to pursue the sport you love and make a difference in people’s lives?
Aparigraha urges us to avoid clinging to things or people
Would you give your best effort even if you knew you wouldn’t receive the outcome you wanted? Would you keep working towards your life’s purpose even when the work got really, really hard?
We have very little control over most things in life, so we must learn to appreciate the joy of the process and the journey, rather than allow ourselves to become attached to the destination. In the same vein, we should continue working for our purpose, even when the outcome is uncertain. Because, actually, it’s always uncertain, isn’t it?
And finally, we also must learn to let go of a chapter, a person, or a thing, when the time is right.
Because, after all, the only constant in change.
Mental Challenges for Figure Skaters
Because everything about our sport is about appearance, comparison, and judgment, it can be very hard for any skating person - skater, parent, coach, or official –to stay grounded and authentic.
In the end, these principles are not that different from what many of us were taught in a religious upbringing: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, Love your neighbor, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt have not other Gods before me, etc.
The concepts and guidelines presented in the yamas (and niyamas, which I will talk about in another post) are organized a little differently than, say, the Ten Commandments. And for those of us who may have experienced some religious trauma, a new organization for a moral code may allow us to see and understand the concepts with fresh eyes and a soft heart.
For me, studying and practicing the yamas (and the other 7 limbs) is more about the intent and spirit behind our thoughts and actions, rather than beating ourselves up for every transgression or mistake. And, it has allowed me to see a direct correlation between some of our societal struggles and the toxicity that is so prevalent in many skating environments. More importantly, it has offered me a paradigm of positivity to try to model for my skaters.
If more skating people can put into practice the spirit of the yamas even just a little more, we can make our sport a safer, happier place for all.
Curious about how to directly apply yoga to your teaching or your or your child’s skating? Check out my Anxiety Tool Kit for Skaters. It has some short practices to help you glide a little more smoothly in your journey. And it’s free!
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.