5/12/2023 0 Comments
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.
Why Skaters Should “Do Yoga”, Even Though the Pose Isn’t the Purpose
The purpose of doing yoga isn’t achieving a new pose perfectly, just like the purpose of skating isn’t nailing the double axel or winning a gold medal.
We use movement–both skating and yoga– as a means to explore the limits of our bodies and minds.
Exploring our limits does not mean we consistently push ourselves until we drop.
Rather, it means we practice being aware, observing, experimenting, and existing in our bodies, all within the wisdom of the parameters of the first two limbs - the yamas and niyamas. (See image at right)
Movement (aka in some circles as “exercise”) helps clear our minds, improves our cardiovascular fitness, makes us stronger, enhances mood, increases mobility, gives us something to look forward to, instills discipline, and in many cases, creates and builds a sense of community.
Being able to move in a way you love (skating!!!) and work towards something you’re passionate about is a huge gift for which we should be grateful.
Skating is a beautiful sport.
Yet, the institutions that control skating and the society in which we live and skate insist on turning the sport into an overly competitive display of one type of athletic body striving to win the approval of the officials, the fans, and the press.
Some training environments are fun and positive, but the very nature of our competition-based sport makes it even harder to escape the negative self-talk and comparisons that even non-athletes are prone to.
In my experience, yoga was key to overcoming a toxic training environment and years of unhealthy, unhelpful programming. It was a crucial piece of finally believing that I am enough.
Putting the yamas and niyamas into practice was a HUGE part of that, but I never would have understood the yamas and niyamas without practicing the third limb of asana… without “doing” or practicing yoga postures.
In our fast-paced overly capitalistic, patriarchal society, we are programmed to believe that we must always be “doing” something.
For skating folks uncomfortable with sitting to meditate, an asana practice is perhaps the easiest way to begin the journey into the 8 limbs.
(When we are used to moving and doing, it’s easier to begin the yoga process with moving and doing, rather than sitting and contemplating.)
If skating helps us explore the limits of our bodies and minds and learn life lessons, then yoga amplifies that process by slowing us down and inviting us to turn inward as we explore.
In this way, it can help us better understand and process the life lessons we learn through skating.
You are enough, just the way you are.
And yoga, beginning with asana, can help you begin to believe that.
Top Yoga Poses for Figure Skaters - Part II
This is the second part of my three-part series - top asanas for figure skaters. (Click here for Part I.)
All of these postures listed here have a deep connection to a skating element or concept, so skaters of any level can identify with them and find benefit from them.
I invite you to explore the poses on the mat and then take your findings to the ice. And then come back to the mat.
Be sure to breathe fully and smoothly while practicing each posture for 3-5 rounds of breath, and pause after each one to notice any effects of the asana on the body. Don’t feel anything yet? Try the pose again 1-2 more times before moving on.
Do Sphinx Pose to Develop Good Skating Carriage
Salamba Bhujangasana - Is the best posture for developing good carriage, which is essential in every aspect of skating. Carriage is a key component of skating skills, and the sphinx pose helps skaters feel the shoulder placement, trapezius activation, and lengthening of the neck and spine that is required.
For more details on sphinx pose, I have a separate blog post on it here.
Try Warrior III For a Strong Back Body (aka Posterior Chain)
Warrior III - Virabhadrasana III - is a great option for building awareness and strength of the posterior chain, that pesky group of muscles that likes to evade activation yet is required for everything in skating. Beautiful camel spin? Double salchow? Gold dance medal? Work on that posterior chain.
This posture helps develop the ability to stand correctly on the sole of the foot, which is an important first step to being able to lean the foot for an edge.
Warrior III strengthens and tones the legs, glutes, abs, and back.
Since it is practiced with the hips mostly square to the mat, when done correctly, it activates the entire back body - aka the posterior chain – which is crucial to so many skating elements.
Many times low spiral height is not a flexibility issue, but a strength issue. This pose helps.
Be sure to practice each leg and hold for 3-5 full breath cycles before slowly exiting.
For more detailed instructions on how to practice, visit this post.
You can do Warrior III standing beside a wall or behind a chair or sofa in case of balance difficulty.
You can also practice it with the hands pressing firmly into the wall to help wake up the muscles of the upper back.
Practice Half-Moon Pose to Get Better Spirals
Ardha Chandrasana - Half-Moon Pose is my favorite posture for working on edge spirals and camel layovers.
While Warrior III helps develop balance and strength of the back body (as well as hamstring flexibility), Half-Moon pose has the added challenge of stacking the hips, which is a closer alignment for what we need for spirals on an edge.
In this way, Half-Moon uses the gluteus medius of the standing leg to stabilize the pelvis and maintain balance, while the lifted leg is using the same muscle to help lift itself.
The gluteus medius is often a problem muscle in skaters, as weakness in this muscle limits balance. This pose helps with that!
Ardha Chandrasana works to create maximum energy and extension in all directions. As we know from moves in the field, extension facilitates balance, and balance is everything in skating.
Hold for 3-5 smooth and full rounds of breath, then practice again, if you like, before switching legs.
This post gives detailed instructions on how to practice Half-Moon.
Get a Better Axel Set-up with Warrior II
Virabhadrasana II - Warrior II - is a strength-building pose that mimics the step into the axel jump – back to the circle, rib cage parallel with the front foot
The forward leg is bent and externally rotated, while the back leg is straight and internally rotated. In flexibility training we often overwork external rotation, yet we need internal rotation for stability, jump rotation,and injury prevention. This pose works on both.
When practiced with awareness and muscular engagement and held for several rounds of breath, it can build significant strength in the bent leg.
It also tones the ankles, opens the pectoral muscles, and creates lengths in the inner thighs,
I like Warrior II because it acts like a “power pose”, boosting confidence and feelings of well-being.
You can try it with your back against the wall for even greater awareness.
Be sure to breathe for 3-5 rounds before trying again or moving to the other side.
Learn a Y Spin with Hand to Big Toe Pose
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana - is a top pose for skaters because it helps develop balance, strengthens the legs, and stretches the hamstrings and inner thighs.
When standing on one foot, it is essential to feel the opposing actions of grounding into the standing leg from the hips while lifting from the waist through the top of the head.
Keep both sets of glutes engaged, as they help support the standing leg and may help safely release and lengthen the adductors of the lifted leg.
If the legs don’t straighten, it’s ok – just keep practicing and remember, non-harm is the first tenet of yoga. And if grabbing the big toe is too much of a challenge, keep your hand just below the knee on the shin.
Keep the lifted leg pointing to straight ahead for 3-5 breaths (part A), and then open it to the side for another 3-5 breaths (part B).
In part B, turning your head to the opposite side at the same time as opening the leg to the side (instead of before or after) can help with balance. Bring the gaze and the leg back to the front and gently release. Practice again or go directly to the other foot.
Fun fact: the adductor magnus is the third largest muscle in the body, inserting at the bottom of the inner thigh just above the knee, and originating at the pelvis.
Improve Your Turns by Twisting in Revolved Hand to Big Toe Pose
Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana - Dancing Shiva - is another favorite because it’s one of the only poses where you can really feel the twist we so often need in skating for good turns.
Revolved UHP is another good posture for challenging your balance, as well as lengthening the spine and stretching the hamstrings. While the traditional Hand to Big Toe Pose stretches the inner thigh, this one stretches the IT band on the outer thigh.
Begin as in Part A of Hand to Big Toe Pose above, then take the “skating hand” either to the outside of the “free” thigh or grab the big toe or heel of the free leg. Open the free arm out in the opposite direction.
Be sure to engage all sides of the thigh, though, to stay balanced and to safely release the muscle you want to lengthen (in this case, probably the IT band of the lifted leg or the hamstrings of the standing leg).
Focus on opposing actions here—root through the standing leg and hip while lifting the raised leg and hip and lengthening the spine all the way through the top of the head. If the leg doesn’t straighten, it’s ok – just keep practicing and remember, non-harm is the first tenet of yoga.
For heightened awareness, you can practice this pose with the standing leg next the wall, twist so the chest faces away from the wall, and aim to get both of the back shoulders and the free knee or foot against the wall.
When applied to the skating journey, the framework of the 8 limbs of yoga can be a powerful tool to help skaters shift their mindset from comparison and insufficiency towards gratitude, joy, and self-realization.
Yoga is a process, a continuum. And just like skating, it is a lifelong journey of practice.
And for most people--especially athletes--the easiest way to start this practice of yoga is with the third limb of asana.
These poses above, in addition to (or instead of) the other asanas I described in Part I, are a great way to begin or continue your practice.
Stay tuned for the final part of my three-part series of favorite asanas for figure skaters.
Conquer the effects of cotton mouth, jittery legs, and butterflies with my FREE GUIDE: Anti-Anxiety Tools for Skaters.
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.