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
Skaters' Brains Work Hard
The human nervous system is designed to react to all sorts of stimuli. It is constantly at work deciding what it needs to do to keep us safe.
In addition, the limbic system is hard at work recalling and processing memories, emotions, and motivation to coordinate with other parts of the brain.
The brain is always working hard releasing chemical messengers, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, even when we don’t actively seem to be “thinking”.
When the brain receives too much information either from sensory overload or from too much internal chatter, the chemicals are left out of balance.
Spending hours upon hours scrolling social media while hearing notifications ping every few seconds tells the brain it needs to be on alert because it needs to act quickly.
Skating on a crowded session with the music blaring, toddlers crossing your path, teens congregating in packs at the wall, beginners standing in the lutz corner, and people forgetting to look both ways before entering the ice… leads to sensory overload!
All these scenarios put us in a state of hypervigilance, causing an overabundance of hormones designed to stimulate the brain and body. It also gives us major FOMO.
With a chronically stressed mind and body that’s waiting for the next new thing, we simply can’t do our best work or be our best selves.
When I am stressed, I get stuck in indecision over simple things like what houseplant to water first.
When I am more in balance I easily find flow in my day and can confidently choose which tea I want for breakfast and which text to answer first.
When I am emotionally regulated, I am able to prioritize tasks to tackle the most essential first, rather than flitting around between texts, tabs, and emails and accomplishing nothing.
The best way to promote balance for our bodies and brains is to have a practice dedicated to the “time out”.
This practice is called Pratyahara.
Skaters Need Peace and Quiet
The need for a time-out is not unique to 2023.
Humanity’s need to withdraw for contemplation has been around for thousands of years and is evidenced in civilizations across the globe:
Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady.
Eastern and Western thought leaders throughout history have implored us to shed materialism, become still, and turn inward. Spiritual leaders such as Buddhist monks Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh have urged this to become closer to God:
It's a transformative experience to simply pause
… while other thinkers have simply encouraged it as a means to live more fully and happily.
John Muir and Henry David Thoreau famously turned inward by retreating into nature:
Into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.
Blocking out Distractions
I’ve written many times about how yoga is more than just a physical practice. The physical practice - the asana - is just an entry point to help us get to know ourselves and the bodies we live in.
The ancient yogis knew the importance of this time out and spent much of their energy practicing it. So much so that Patanjali dedicated one of yoga’s 8 limbs specifically to it.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of 196 aphorisms dating to the early centuries CE that synthesize and summarize the wisdom of prior generations. They are generally considered to be one of the main authoritative texts on yoga.
In the Yoga Sutras, the ancient sage Patanjali outlined an 8-fold path of self-realization for yogis. Today, these 8 limbs are often described as steps to living a meaningful and purposeful life.
The 8-limbs are as follows:
(For a deeper summary of how the 8 Limbs of Yoga relate to skating, go to this blog post. )
A skating application of the 8 limbs of yoga looks a little like this:
Right mindset, right discipline, strong body, strong lungs, trained skills, practice focusing, practice focusing for longer, then perform and/or achieve the goal.
It is often said that if you work the first four limbs- yama, niyama, asana, pranayama–the last four will fall into place.
The fifth limb, pratyahara, acts as a bridge between the outward practices of the first four limbs and the inward practices of the last three.
It is the practice of becoming aware of our thoughts, feeling our bodies, gaining control over external influences, and learning to shut out distractions.
And it is a vital component of yoga practice before the very focused work of meditation.
Pratyahara itself is termed as yoga,
Our human mind is very much influenced by sensory input and very distracted by thoughts that pop up, even by (and especially by) the unimportant ones.
The undisciplined mind lets itself be led by desires, cravings, habits, fears, and new and shiny things, rather than the task at hand or our greater purpose.
By learning to block out unnecessary stimuli and thoughts, we can better listen to our gut and stay focused on what is important.
That doesn't mean that our brain doesn't register the stimuli… it just means that we don’t have to engage with them.
With the right amount of practice, the skaters dancing in the corner, the new adult skater across the ice trying jumps before they are ready, the teenager having a meltdown, the toddler eating snow and making snowballs, and the skater whizzing by in their neon pants will cease to attract your attention.
How Skaters Can Practice Pratyahara
The self-control exercised in the practice of the yamas and niyamas and the awareness developed with asana and pranayama set the stage for a focused pratyahara practice.
Then, we can incorporate specific exercises to deepen the practice.
In skating, we are always working on all aspects of the sport. On some sessions we do program run-throughs, and on other sessions, we do edges, jumps, spins, or choreography. We may be laser-focused on achieving a new spin position for several weeks or months, but that doesn’t mean we stop jumping or doing edge drills or dance patterns for that period of time. We plug away daily and pick 1-2 things to dive into a little deeper.
The same is true in yoga.
We practice withdrawing from the senses through many other, specific exercises or practices:
Finding Focus While Skating
Skating is like driving–we must be constantly aware of our surroundings, anticipate which direction others are heading, and be ready to stop on a dime. We can’t be in a constant state of deep relaxation, or we will have an accident.
However, we do need to be aware of our body and what we are feeling, independent of any external stimuli. And we must be able to turn inward and block out unnecessary distractions! This awareness is crucial for practice, progress, and peak performance.
While at the rink you can practice pratyahara by:
1) turning down the music when it’s too loud
2) pausing your practice to focus on your breath
3) standing at the wall with eyes closed and ears plugged
4) looking at a list of keywords to direct the thoughts to specific body movements
5) sweeping awareness from the top of the head down the body all the way to the toes–perhaps by squeezing the muscles or wiggling the joints. Similar to a progressive relaxation, but intended to move the muscles, rather than relax them.
Figure Skaters are faced with lots of distractions and external factors that make it hard to develop and train body awareness and intuition.
A yoga practice that includes the fifth limb - pratyahara - is a key component to any well rounded figure skating training.
On and off-ice pratyahara practices and exercises like the ones listed above can help train the mind and teach us awareness techniques that prepare us for maintaining focus in key moments of performance.
What other ways do you practice pratyahara? Leave a comment below to share!
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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.