As a figure skater, beginning a yoga practice–or starting to “do yoga” –can be overwhelming. There is so much information online it’s hard to know who to trust and where to look.
Besides, society presents this image of yoga as bubbly young athletes sweating in Lululemon doing crazy poses. The franchise yoga business in many cities has perpetuated this myth.
Sure, some yogis are very flexible, even hypermobile, but most of us aren’t.
The reality is that all figure skaters already have some experience with the foundations of yoga, whether they know it or not. Spirals, catch spirals, lunges, Biellmanns, split jumps, layback spins, etc. Many of the movements and movement patterns we use in skating are very similar to those of yoga, as is the overall focus on balance, strength, and flexibility.
In fact, I was drawn to yoga because when I practiced, it was the first time I felt like my body could move in a somewhat similar, yet more gentle, way than skating, and the first time ever I felt like I could synchronize my breath with my movement. And that was the most powerful tool I had ever experienced.
The additional reality is that yoga has something to offer every single skater.
In a post a few weeks ago I even talked about how the foundations of yoga - Patanjali’s 8 limbs - relate to the skating journey.
In short, I broke down the foundational journey of yoga to show how it parallels some aspects of the figure skating journey:
So back to the original question… where does a skater go to begin “doing yoga”?
What Skaters Need to Get Started in Yoga
The most important thing you need for your yoga journey is a desire to turn inward–to become more aware of your body and yourself–and your breath. Yoga is about the balance between movement and stillness, and the practice itself allows us to peel back layer upon layer of our understanding. If we allow it.
Any good teacher will sequence the class with cues to remind you to breathe and help you turn inward and will offer moments of stillness so you can reflect on how the movement and the postures make you feel. This is the key to getting the most out of your experience.
A live face-to-face class is always wonderful, but sometimes it’s just not practical with a busy skating and work or school schedule.
The beauty of 2023 is that now you don’t have to search high and low for a studio near you and try to squeeze in transportation to and from a class after skating.
There are loads of resources online and you can try out videos or classes by different instructors and in different styles to see what might be the best fit for you and your skating schedule.
Find a Space to Practice Yoga
If you have ever visited a yoga studio, you know that part of the experience of a class is the environment. Spacious, clean, generally uncluttered, and careful attention to the aroma (or lack thereof) are all part of the feeling a studio wants to create for the yogi.
Having said that, you absolutely do not need any place special to begin a home practice! All you need is a space 1) big enough for you to be able to move freely and where 2) you won’t be disturbed.
Sure, you have more options for movement if you have more space, but everything can be modified. For example, I recently taught a virtual class to a university professor in her tiny office with bookshelves on both sides of her mat. Instead of reaching the arms out to both sides when taking them overhead, we took the arms forward to raise them overhead.
With a little creative thinking, you can find a workable space–it might be a living room, a spot between a bed and a desk, or even a hallway–to roll out a mat. (Heck, yogis didn’t even have “mats” until a couple of decades ago… Where there’s a will, there’s a way!)
The second piece is perhaps the most important. While some people might be able to practice yoga with distractions all around–and certainly that is an advanced practice for developing focus–it’s no fun to be sitting with the eyes closed trying to turn inward and focus on the breath when a sibling sneaks up and startles or heckles you. (I’ve also witnessed that in one of my classes)
If you have the space but noise is the only distraction, then you can use a good set of wireless headphones/earbuds. If you are practicing on your own and don’t have an instructor, moving to a good playlist is a good way to tune out the distractions and connect with your body. As skaters, we are used to moving to the music, and it feels so good!
Props Can Make Yoga More Accessible
Other than a workable space and perhaps a mat, nothing else is needed to begin connecting with your body and breath through yoga.
However, a few simple things can support your practice to make it more comfortable and make some of the poses more accessible. Why more accessible? The point of yoga is to push the body to the limit of your comfort zone at any given moment while maintaining smooth and steady breath.
If you lose the breath, you lose the point.
Props can help support the body to keep you practicing the poses without strain, allowing more body types to safely practice more poses.
I’ll do a post soon with more detail, but here’s a general list of my top prop suggestions:
Just Get on the Mat
Or crawl onto the mat, or roll on over there.
Seriously, just make an appointment with yourself and make it happen.
Even if you don’t know what to do, and even if you think you don’t have time.
When I am struggling to get on the mat, I set very small goals for myself. For example, for 2023 I decided to make it a point to start the day by sitting on my mat for at least five minutes. Sometimes I sit for longer, but the ritual of sitting and breathing before doing anything else (besides maybe drinking water and brushing my teeth) is enough to change the course of my day for the better.
And yes, sitting counts as yoga.
Leave your competitive conditioning off the mat here. It’s not about how hard you push yourself–it’s about slowing down, becoming aware of your body, and connecting with your breath and yourself. That is the yoga. Asana (the physical postures) is a tool for this process.
Find a Yoga Teacher Who Understands Skating
There are many versions of yoga–Hatha, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Yin, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Sivananda, Restorative, Bikram, Acro, etc.--and teachers of all styles, personalities, and backgrounds.
“Hatha” yoga is generally an umbrella term for posture-based yoga that also includes focus on the breath. Technically, many other forms of yoga are also hatha yoga, but today the term is used to differentiate between a faster-paced more athletic style of yoga (“vinyasa,” which developed out of Ashtanga) and a slower-paced style that focuses on alignment and muscular awareness.
Hatha yoga classes offer a good entry point into yoga, including a good foundation of standing and seated postures, as well as breathwork. Some hatha classes are slower and some are faster, but generally include instruction on how to do the postures and how to breathe, instead of rushing students through a “workout” and making them sweat as much as possible. (Yoga is great “conditioning” for skating, but it is not meant to be a substitute for cardio or plyometric workouts. Think of yoga as a “work in”. )
Whatever style of yoga you choose, I recommend you pick a yoga teacher that actually understands skating. Some beginning hatha classes may be boring for skaters, since skaters already have a foundation of body awareness and movement compared to many beginning yogis. Advanced classes, though, may assume a higher level of yoga knowledge and presence than what a beginning skating yogi might have.
Additionally, many skaters are used to quality instruction and expect the same out of their yoga teacher… so having a teacher with a skating background helps.
A yoga teacher who understands skaters will appreciate the need to give the student autonomy and instruction; strength and flexibility; accountability and grace; movement and stillness; and warm-up, a cool-down and a rest.
Finally, it is crucial that the teacher understand the importance of giving the skater permission to be aware of their own needs and not push themselves sometimes. A good teacher will guide the student and offer quality instruction, but for yoga to truly make a difference, the student has to lead their own journey.
In short, getting started in yoga can be overwhelming for anyone, including skaters. However, with a desire to turn inward and a little willingness to slow down and breathe, there’s no reason you can’t get started today. Carve out a teeny space where you won’t be disturbed and take a seat and breathe. The rest–the mat, the props, the decisions–they can all come later.
Want to know how to breathe or what the next step is? Check out my Anxiety Tool Kit for Skaters. It has some short practices to help guide you along your skating and yoga 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.