Over the last several years, yoga has gained acceptance among athletes. The uptight jocks of the past, who thought of yoga as something only for incense-burning hippies, have been replaced by today's more open-minded trainers, who will try anything that promises to improve their competitiveness. Yoga definitely does that. It increases balance, strength and flexibility - three of the five essential components (along with speed and endurance) of physical fitness. And, maybe most important of all, it teaches focus and relaxation, integrating mind and body. Anyone who is prepared to swim, bike and run for three to six hours knows the importance of mental, combined with physical, strength.
Professional triathletes use yoga as part of their strength training regimen. As healthy history attests, strength is key to avoiding injury. Yoga is also a welcome respite from high-impact aerobic workouts. Training schedules published in various newsletters included yoga on rest days. Restorative sessions, that put the mind and body back in balance and deeply open tight muscle groups, provide an ideal way to relax... while staying ready for the next challenge.
Other athletes use short yoga sequences as warm-up and cool-down. Breathing exercises center the mind and steady the pulse. Stretching increases range of motion, which supports and stabilizes the skeletal system, further preventing injury. And quiet introspection allows the athlete to meditate on the task at hand, or bask in the accomplishment of a completed workout.
It is this kind of session that we have outlined below, using breathing, stretching and mental focus as a way of preparing for a race. It is a short practice, ideal for the last quiet moments that come before the athlete leaves the house, hotel or campground and gets caught up in the nervous excitement of the transition area.
If you have never sat on a sticky mat and you are racing next week, it is unrealistic to expect to have a productive, independent pre-race yoga session. That is not to say scheduling a class or two before your competition won't do some good; it will. But this article is written for those who have practiced yoga enough do these poses on their own, with an understanding of the basic principles of alignment.
Start by sitting in a comfortable cross-legged position on the floor - a hard floor or sticky mat is best. Place your hands comfortably on your thighs. Lift your shoulders easily up toward your ears and roll your shoulder blades together down your back. Rooting into the ground with your sitting bones, and keeping the natural inward curve in your lower back, lift up through your spine, as if someone were pulling on a string threaded from your tailbone through the top of your head. Maintaining that alignment, close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose as you count to five, hold it for five counts, and exhale through your nose for five counts as you gently lower your chin to your chest. Raise your head as you breathe in for five counts, and repeat the process five times. As you do this, think about why you are doing this triathlon. What do you hope to accomplish? Fix that goal in your mind.
Move to hands and knees, keeping your hands directly under you shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Point forward with your index fingers and grip the ground with your fingertips, activating your arms. Tuck your toes under and spread them out vigorously. Lengthen and straighten your spine parallel to the ground. Breathing in through your nose, lift your chin and tailbone to the sky and melt your heart to the ground while rolling your shoulder blades together on your back. As you exhale through your nose, do the opposite: drop your head toward the ground and round your back up toward the sky. Repeat this action five times, feeling your spine getting warmed up.
Stand straight up, extend your arms out to the side and spread your legs as wide as your hands, keeping your feet parallel to each other. Inhale through your nose and gently lift your head and heart up and back as you deepen the natural curve in your lower back. Keeping that curve and leading with your heart, bend at the hips and lower your torso toward the ground as you exhale through your nose. If you are stiff in the back and hamstrings, support the forward bend with your hands on your upper thighs. Otherwise, reach down and forward with your heart until you can get your hands on the ground. As you hold this pose for five breaths, keep lifting your sit bones to the sky and pushing your quadriceps back into your hamstrings. If you are flexible enough, walk your hands first to your right foot, twisting your trunk slightly toward the front, then to your left. Enjoy the lengthening of your spine and legs.
Inhale and lift your upper body to a standing position, leading with your heart and keeping your arms out to the side. Bring your legs in a few steps so they are about hip-width apart, feet still parallel. Lift your forearms so your fingers are pointing up and your palms are facing each other, like the branches of a cactus. As you inhale, gently draw up and back with your head, expand your chest, lift your shoulders up toward your ears and roll your shoulder blades together down your back. Keeping this alignment, exhale and bend your knees, lowering to a squatting position. Hold this position for five breaths. As you do, look straight ahead and feel the power in your arms and legs. Think about all the training you have done and how much stronger you are now than when you started. In this sense, you are already a winner.
Inhale deeply and rise up to a standing position, shooting your hands up toward the sky and looking slightly up and back. Exhale and bring your arms out to the side. Widen your feet arms' length apart, turn your right foot out, so it is pointing the same direction as your right hand, and turn your left foot in slightly. Bend your right knee and, keeping your left leg straight and strong, lower directly over your right foot. Keep your trunk and hips facing perpendicular to the direction your arm, knee and foot are pointing. Then, turn your head to look out over your right arm. Reach with equal strength through both hands, but keep your spine stretching up. This is the pose of a proud warrior. For five breaths, gaze out over your right arm and feel the warrior inside you, fearless and determined. Inhale and straighten your right knee lifting up and turning your head in the direction of your hips and chest. Turn your left foot out and right foot in and repeat the post on the left side.
Inhale and rise up to a standing position, dropping your arms to your side. Bring your feet to hip-width distance. Bend your right knee, drawing your right foot up and placing it on your upper, inner left thigh. As you push into your thigh with your foot - and back into your foot with your thigh - expand your heart, lift your head, and roll your shoulders up and back. Keep the natural curve in your lower back. Bring your hands to prayer position at your chest. Soften your gaze onto a fixed point in front of you. For five breaths, focus on that point. Remind yourself of the goal you set at the beginning of this practice. Lower your right foot to the ground, lift your left foot to your upper, inner right thigh, and do tree pose on the other side.
Lie down on your stomach. Rest your chin on the ground, reach your arms overhead and stretch out in opposite directions with your hands and feet. Bend your right knee, reach back with your left hand and grab your right foot. Inhaling through your nose, and pressing down into the ground with your left leg and right arm, raise your joined hand and foot toward the sky. For five breaths, lift your face and chest toward the sky. Press deeply into your back with your shoulder blades. Shine out through your heart. You are lithe and forgiving. No matter what happens, this race will be uplifting for you and your fellow athletes. Lower your right leg and left arm to the ground, stretch your arms and legs out in opposite directions, and repeat the pose on the other side.
Lower your arms and legs to the ground and roll over on your back. Spread your legs a couple feet apart, and your arms, a couple feet from your body. Roll your feet out and your palms toward the sky. Shrug your shoulders toward your ears and tuck your shoulder blades together on your back. Close your eyes and breathe naturally. Relax every bone and muscle into the firm ground, starting from the tips of your toes and going through the top of your head. Soften your eyes and the corners of your mouth. For several minutes, let go of everything as if this were the end of your life. Enjoy the peace of having nothing left to worry about. Gradually, reconnect with the present by deepening your breath and wiggling your fingers and toes. Roll over to your side in a fetal position. Pushing yourself with your hands, sit up into a comfortable cross-legged position. Bring your hands together in prayer position at your heart and lower your head to your chest.
Be grateful for the race you are about to compete in. Honor yourself for taking on this challenge and getting into the physical and mental condition to face it.
Run The Planet thanks the endurance sports magazine (www.transitiontimes.com) for the permission to reprint the article "Pre-race Zen" by Heidi Genoist. Heidi Genoist is a Las Vegas-based writer and triathlete who has been studying Anusara yoga for years. Text © by Heidi Genoist. Illustration © 2005 by Run The Planet.