In Yoga for Athletes

Developing Mental Toughness

Stress is a natural and necessary component of athletic training and improving performance. For example, our bones will adapt to become stronger when loads are placed on them. This is known as Wolff’s law. Research has shown that yoga can prevent, slow down, and even reverse bone loss. Soft tissue, ligaments, tendons, and fascia also adapt to mechanical stress during yoga postures and become stronger. This is the corollary to Wolff’s law, known as Dave’s law. But there is another kind of stress that athletes can leverage to improve performance, and that is cognitive stress. Yoga can serve as a form of stress inoculation to help athletes develop “mental toughness” and often that is the competitive advantage that makes the winning difference.

Arousal, Stress & Anxiety

In Sports psychology, there are many theories about how Cognitive (mental) stress and Somatic stress (physiological) relate to anxiety and performance. These two activities; mental and physical, are generally referred to as “arousal”.  Cognitive stress is a negative emotional state where athletes become overly concerned about their ability to perform and the consequences of failure. Somatic stress involves the physiological effects of competitive anxiety. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated the heart rate increases, and this affects motor performance, visual processing, and cognitive reaction speed. This is also known as the “survival stress response,” “fight-or-flight response”, or an “adrenaline surge.”  Physiological effects include muscle tension, palpitations, shortness of breath, clammy hands, and even nausea in some cases. Approaching or exceeding the heart rate maximum can lead to tunnel vision, short-term memory loss, diminished hearing, difficulty speaking, and loss of coordination.

I won’t get into all of the different theories and conceptual frameworks, there’s quite a few and they all have their merits and faults. Some theories suggest that the more arousal and anxiety the better (Drive Theory), some suggest there is an ideal medial balance between anxiety and arousal (Inverted U Hypothesis), and some suggest there are personal levels of anxiety and arousal unique to an individual’s performance (Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning).  Then we get into what I call IFTTT theories… “If this then that” theories like “If cognitive anxiety is high but somatic anxiety is low then performance is enhanced, but if both are high, then performance suddenly deteriorates” (Catastrophe Theory). The list goes on and on with the Multi-Dimensional Anxiety theory, the Reversal theory, Anxiety Direction and Intensity, etc. While they don’t all agree on exactly how arousal, stress, and anxiety relate to performance what can’t be denied is that stress experienced during a catastrophe and stress experienced during a high-intensity workout or competition will elicit the same physiological response. The same biochemical cocktail gets released whether it is an actual fight-or-flight moment or just an emotional or symbolic one, your body doesn’t know the difference.

Throat choked, eyes open, breathing normal…

Bikram Yoga as Stress Inoculation

For this reason, Bikram yoga can serve as an ideal form of stress inoculation therapy. Participating in a Bikram Yoga class a few times a week is a great hack for Athletes because it lets them focus on maintaining cognitive function and access to fine motor skills under the stress of extreme heat and discomfort. They learn to breathe properly, move efficiently, and control the heart rate response during high-intensity exercise. In fact, during a typical Bikram Yoga class you will hear the cue “throat choked, eyes open, breathing normal” over and over again in several postures. Your teachers are describing a physical and energetic action known as ‘Jalandhara Bandha’ but I like to think of this as a metaphor for your entire practice, your sports performance, or life in general, even if you’re not an athlete.

With a regular Bikram Yoga practice, athletes can learn to work harder while maintaining a submaximal heart rate, avoiding the adrenaline surges and minimizing stress response symptoms. It really comes down to this, in your first Bikram class you’re going to trick your body into thinking it is actually going to die. You’re going to want to run for the door, you’re going to think you NEED to chug that water to survive, you’re going to think you just can’t survive in there. It never really gets any easier, not if you are always challenging yourself. But, what does happen is your body recognizes over time that it’s been there before, and it’s ok. You recognize this and you know you’re not actually going to die. You’ll look back at it like you thought you were drowning when it was only a small puddle of sweat. You learn to deal with it in the hot room, and this translates into your game while the competition folds under the pressure.

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