Yoga for Weightlifters, Part 2: Do We Have to Chant or Something?

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Tom here! Back by popular demand is our yoga for weightlifters series, written by my lovely wife and resident yoga instructor, Beth. Keep the comments and questions flowing, folks!

In our last installment, I demonstrated some of the physical benefits that yoga can bring to your body and training. In this article, I’m going to bust a few of the myths around the mental aspect of yoga, and show you how it can give you a mental edge both on and off the platform.

When most people hear the word “yoga,” 9 out of 10 people will think of bendy poses, handstands, or pretzel-like postures they’ve seen on instagram. Yoga, by definition, is NOT about the physical practice. Poses, or asanas, while helpful, are only one of eight parts of yoga. Yoga is, simply put, the journey to mental peace and stillness. Yoga is a clear mind and dialed-in focus…but without the effort. Don’t get me wrong, it takes effort to get to that place. But if you could, (and you can!), can’t you just imagine how helpful a less chaotic mind would be as an athlete?

Yoga, just like sports, requires discipline. To maximize the effects of yoga, you need to be consistent with your practice (whether that is once a week or three times a week), and you need to focus while on your mat. It’s easy to check out while you’re in a posture, especially if you believe you’re just there for the stretch. Bringing your mind to your mat can help you develop the laser-like focus you need in weightlifting. You learn to detect the subtleties within your body — how to shift your hip a few millimeters back, how to reach and stabilize to better root through your heels, how to ensure your elbow is completely locked out. Staying in a yoga posture for a few minutes, or even a few breaths, can help you connect to your body and movements in a different but complimentary way.

We can probably all agree by this point that concentration is great and this yoga thing sounds promising, right? But how do you develop that? And how does having it in a weekly yoga practice matter to your clean + jerk? Picture this: you’re at the biggest meet of your career. You rushed your first snatch and missed. When prepping for your second, you and your nerves are kicking in. Your competitor goes up and misses. You shake out your arms and legs, step up to the platform, set yourself and pull. You lose it behind you. Your competitor played the weight change game and messed with the clock. You now have a minute before your next attempt, and you need this to stay in the competition. Do your nerves get to you, or are you able to calm yourself down, let go of the last ten minutes, and make your next lift?

Yoga is not an ace in the hole — I can’t say with certainty that if you’ve practiced, you’d make that 3rd lift. But the likelihood is surely increased. Being in an uncomfortable yoga posture for 2-3 minutes, or sometimes longer, can help your mind learn that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. You learn to find comfort in discomfort. And when you’ve missed 2 lifts and need the 3rd, it’s surely uncomfortable. You can dig down and find that place of stillness and comfort from your mat, tune out the other guys and gals in the warm-up room, look beyond the judges’ waiting faces, past the sea of spectators, and just know it’s you and the bar.

Any yoga practice can give you this — what it comes down to is how you use your time on the mat. Do you allow your mind to wander and think about how sore your knees are, or what you need to pick up from the grocery store, or what percentages you’re training at tomorrow? Or do you focus on the muscles engaged, the placement of that sore knee, the steady inhale and exhale of your breath? If you’re still reading this, I suspect you care a great deal about your sport and you know what discipline is. You know that iron sharpens iron. Combining two sports that require concentration, steadiness and precision sharpens both. Gaining the ability to tune out the noise is what will make the difference. You get this by doing yoga consistently…anywhere from twice a week to daily. You show up to your mat, just like you show up to your platform. You don’t go through the motions. You use the time in postures to focus on your body, and on your mind. If distractions pop up, aka thoughts, you acknowledge them and let them go. You don’t fidget. All these things, when combined and practiced regularly, help you hone your mental edge, no chanting necessary. You walk away from a yoga session feeling as if you can take on the world, or at the very least, make that 3rd lift under pressure.

So, now the bigger question is, how do I get some of this yoga stuff in my life? I HIGHLY recommend that you attend a yoga class in person. Doing yoga videos at home is great, but an instructor can help you maximize your time on the mat. They can offer assists to help you get deeper into a pose, adjustments to make sure you’re not putting undue stress on a joint, and if you’re lucky, sometimes even a light massage. The YMCA is a great place to find instructors in a low-pressure class environment. CrossFit gyms are getting into the yoga game, and many of those classes will be heavily geared towards hips, hamstrings and shoulders. Local yoga studios offer deep stretch or restorative yoga classes, which are great at the end of a long training week. It might take a few different places or instructors to really feel comfortable. Don’t give up if you don’t enjoy the class at first. It may be the teaching style, it may just be in your head…try again, try somewhere or someone else. The benefits are worth it for any athletes, but especially to strength athletes.

Note: There’s a lot of neuroscience devoted to how meditation, mindfulness and yoga can all work together to improve the human body. If you’re interested in more in-depth information, I highly recommend checking out the book Buddha’s Brain. It’s a great resource for athletes and coaches alike, with technical information, as well as tips for bringing meditation and mindfulness into your daily activities.

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