By Dr. Rita Khanna
Sport is not purely a physiological phenomenon, but a complex interplay of the mind and body. It is now becoming more and more competitive, and has also become a career, with an emphasis on monetary gains and the desire to win at any cost. Therefore, it is important to find solutions to the changing sports scene of today.
A sports person needs four basic qualities: Speed, Skill, Strength, and Stamina. To achieve these in professional sports, the daily life of a sports person calls for discipline in training, a balanced diet, a balanced lifestyle, and an inner focus and determination.
Yoga is a holistic system – teaching skills which many sports persons seek, such as control over the mind, control over the body, good breathing habits, relaxation under pressure, highly developed concentration skills, and the ability to focus on the present. Asanas, Pranayama, and Meditation unite the forces of body and mind, so that they are not at odds with one another. They help to develop greater body awareness and build up vitality and concentration.
How Yoga Helps a Sports Person
• Yoga helps a sports person to feel, and understand, the body processes more accurately; thereby learning what the body needs. By understanding this, an athlete can work on areas that need attention, with confidence.
• Yoga is useful for all types of sports to help prevent injuries. One gets extra agility, which helps to avoid damage, provides more strength, and improves a player’s ability to react to a situation.
• In competitions – athletes, at all ability levels, tend to have a fear of losing, of other competitors, or of developing mental deterrents to excellent performance. Yoga trains us to be our best every single moment, to hold ourselves at our highest standard, and to go beyond our pre-conceived limitations.
• Yoga postures work all around a limb and help to knit the muscle fibers; thus, building resilience to injury. By anticipating areas of the body that are subject to stress, one can use Yoga effectively to pre-strengthen areas of concern.
• Due to long-term sports training, muscular imbalance can develop in the body, which can lead to damage and injury. Yoga’s practices are ideal in this respect because integration, balance, and harmony are keywords of Yoga. These practices correct the one-sided effect of training, by promoting general harmonious development of the body, and by improving the whole physical system.
• Yoga practices offer the natural remedy because Asanas are based on the gentle stretching of muscles, which induces relaxation and increases the blood supply. These also release residual tension and speed up regeneration. It is a natural counterbalance to the muscular effort of training and competing.
• Sports’ training tends to be very intensive over an extended period of time. This, again, can lead to a form of imbalance, where muscles, or the body as a whole, becomes weak through over exertion. Regeneration is a remedial process for regaining strength and for the prevention of injuries. Yoga regeneration exercises are based on the principle that, after contracting for a specific time period, in an isometric movement, against specific resistance, muscles will release and relax. However, all this would be effective – only if done consciously.
• The Preparatory Exercises
• Surya Namaskara
• Backward and Forward Bending Asanas
• Inverted and Balancing Asanas
• Relaxation and Meditation Techniques
The Preparatory Exercises
Preparatory exercises remove stiffness from the joints, and help the muscles to become flexible. Co-ordination between bones, muscles, joints, and ligaments improves, so that they work naturally and spontaneously. Problems in the knee joints, hip joints, ankle joints, shoulder joints, and wrist joints can all be remedied by these Asanas; thus, minimizing injuries.
Backward and Forward Bending Asanas
• Backward and forward bending Asanas increase the strength and flexibility of the spine. The spine is responsible for posture, free flow of energy, nervous activities, and body reflexes. Balance of the whole body depends on the power and flexibility of the spine and adjacent muscles. By practicing these groups of Asanas, one can minimize the problem of back pain. Much accumulated stress tends to stagnate in the spine, especially in the lower region or at the neck and shoulders. Hence, backward and forward bending, followed by one or two twisting Asanas, will relax the spine and give the feeling of alertness.
• Psychologically, backward bending Asanas prepare the players to face any situation with courage and optimism; forward bends help to let go and go with the flow; and twists gently squeeze out hesitation and uncertainty.
Surya Namaskar (Salute to the Sun)
This is a complete practice in itself. Players can use it for overall fitness and as a warm-up before any sport. It prepares the body for handling stressful situations. It is an effective way of loosening up, stretching, massaging, and toning all the joints, muscles, and internal organs of the body. It stimulates and balances all systems of the body.
Inverted Asanas encourage a rich supply of blood flow to the brain and reverse the effect of gravity on the body. During the practice of an inverted Asana, the breath becomes slow and deep, maximizing the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, which encourages correct respiration.
The liver, spleen, stomach, kidneys and pancreas receive a powerful massage, helping them to perform their functions more efficiently. Blood and lymph, which has accumulated in the lower limbs and abdomen, is drained back to the heart, then circulated to the lungs, purified, and re-circulated to all parts of the body. The enriched blood flow also allows the pituitary gland to operate more efficiently, tuning the entire endocrine system.
These induce physical balance by stilling unconscious movement. They develop the brain centers that control the body functions in motion; thus, developing the connection between the mind and body. They increase the co-ordination of movements between different parts of the body, which develops the sense of poise and balance. They fine tune the efficiency of the use of energy, both in action and stillness. As the moving body attains balance, it becomes increasingly free to rely on other more subtle forces to support and propel it. In this way, the body conserves its own energy and achieves grace and fluidity of motion.
Pranayama, or Breathing practices, are one of the most effective means of increasing lung capacity, energy, and stamina. It also helps control over involuntary muscles, enhances concentration, and balances emotions. When practiced systematically, and regularly, the awareness develops – that energy is not purely physical in nature, and that efficient management of the Pranic energy can be developed through control of the breath.
• Bhramari Pranayama (humming bee breath) and Ujjayi Pranayama (psychic breath) can be used before any sporting event to induce relaxation and reduce mental stress; thus, bringing calmness and quietness of mind.
• Cooling practices, such as Sheetali and Sheetkari Pranayamas, are good in a hot summer season.
• Bhastrika Pranayama (rapid breathing from the abdomen) generates heat and vitality and raises the natural energy level; it makes the ‘second wind’ more accessible in sport after near-exhaustion.
• Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) with Kumbhaka (breath retention) also increases lung capacity, as well as being the main practice for balancing the Pranic energy, by stimulating both hemispheres of the brain equally.
• Abdominal breathing is also one of the most simple and effective Pranayamas, which can be done at any time, to enable one to be in the present moment.
Neti, Kunjal, Laghoo Shankhaprakshalana, and Trataka are four of the six cleansing practices, which are considered important for sports persons.
Neti cleans and clears the nasal passages, giving clarity of mind and sharp reactions. It induces calmness, and balances the body-mind relationship, by helping balance both hemispheres of the brain.
Kunjal (regurgitative cleansing) helps to reduce fear of failure, and enhances courage, to face changing and challenging situations. It can induce confidence in players, so that they can express themselves properly and give their best, without holding back through fear or anxiety.
Sports persons should do Laghoo Shankhaprakshalana (intestinal cleansing practice) under the guidance of a qualified teacher. It cleanses the whole intestinal tract and clears out impurities and toxins from the body. This practice induces freshness of mind and body. It keeps the digestive system functioning properly.
Trataka is concentrated gazing at one point. All games require the ability to develop one-pointed concentration and awareness. This practice, not only enhances concentration and one-pointedness to counter distractions, but also increases awareness, intuitive knowledge, and discretion.
Yoga-nidra is the systematic method for inducing complete physical, mental, and emotional relaxation. It works at three levels simultaneously – the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. Due to the depth of relaxation, the level of awareness and focus increases. The level of receptivity is also greater; hence, it is helpful for learning skills and techniques. For example, there are a number of stages in the practice of a sport, one of which is the process of Visualization.
While the body lies in a state of physical sleep, the mind is awake and relaxed. In these circumstances, it is possible to learn and rehearse moves mentally, by visualizing them. There is a stage in Yoga-nidra, where a resolve is made, which can increase willpower and single-mindedness, to achieve success on the field. Players can develop the appropriate state of mind, so that at the time of need, they can balance their physical, mental, and emotional states. For most players, negative emotional responses, including rage, fear, and aggression can be hard to control during high levels of stress. In Yoga-nidra, players are asked to submit voluntarily to strong emotions, while preserving a state of deep relaxation and witnessing the whole process. This helps to remain balanced, and in control, in any situation.
One of the most important aspects, for the sport persons to understand, is the Meditative process, which helps us to understand our own nature, to accept ourselves as we are, and to work from that point.
There is a technique of contemplation, or Meditation, which allows a close analysis of our Strengths, Weaknesses, Ambitions, and Needs that can make the difference between success and failure. It is a written exercise. Use one sheet of paper, per aspect, and add pages as needed. For example, you might start writing down all your strengths, then on a different page all your weaknesses, and so on. In the second session, examine your strengths and answer questions about them. You might want to add a page to that section, and so on. After you have written down all the strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, and needs you can think of, start asking yourself questions about each principle.
This process can be continued as a short, daily Sadhana, for ten to fifteen minutes, at the end of each day. This short, daily Sadhana can be done for two to three months. At the end of each month, count all your personality characteristics and see what you really are. After two to three months of daily practice, stop doing this process. Observe what happens; observe your awareness of yourself. Breaks in between are essential, as a mental rest, because it is very confronting. After a break of two to four weeks, start a second round of this Sadhana.
You may find surprises, as it may be different strengths from the previous month. Some qualities that featured strongly in one session, may not appear in the next; or what appeared as a strength, may come up as a weakness, need, or ambition, because different situations show up different aspects of our personality. It all depends on your awareness, how you look at things, as to whether a quality comes up in one aspect or another. After some time, you know that what you need is there; you just have to tap into it. It all becomes very positive. You begin to realize that your moods and attitudes change, according to the way you see things. This begins to give you some control over them. Your self-image then changes too. You realize that any quality is a momentary thing, and you can learn to unidentify with the aspects of your personality. You realize everything changes and is really impermanent. It becomes very exciting, and inspiring, to watch what is happening. Transformation occurs. It is not instant Smadhi, but practicing Sadhana definitely has the capacity to transform you. If you want to change and to know yourself, then do it!
Sports are highly demanding and competitive, and Yoga moves in the opposite direction, with its apparent emphasis on a relaxed approach and detached state of mind. However, the state of mind, and physical preparedness that Yoga brings, is exactly the same state that the most successful players speak of when at the peak of their performance. Who cannot perform at his best while being relaxed, ready, and confident; and who cannot gracefully accept victory or defeat if his body, mind, and spirit has the equanimity of a Yogi?
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Courtesy: Dr. Rita Khanna’s Yogashaastra Studio.
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Dr. Rita Khanna
Dr. Rita Khanna is a well-known name in the field of Yoga and Naturopathy. She was initiated into this discipline over 25 years ago by world famous Swami Adyatmananda of Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh (India).
She believes firmly that Yoga is a scientific process, which helps us to lead a healthy and disease-free life. She is also actively involved in practicing alternative medicines like Naturopathy. Over the years, she has been successfully practicing these therapies and providing succour to several chronic and terminally ill patients through Yoga, Diet and Naturopathy. She is also imparting Yoga Teachers Training.
At present, Dr. Rita Khanna is running a Yoga Studio in Secunderabad (Hyderabad, India).