After a yoga session with an age group team this weekend the head coach spoke about how he loved the way the athletes had to be fully engaged. How the practice required them to be aware of what they were doing with their bodies and curious about how they felt when they did it.
It was an hour of focused practice.
Going on auto pilot when training is often the norm. It is about how to go farther, push harder, but not always about being truly aware or engaged.
I don't want to lose you here. For many of us training is an escape from the stresses in life. The repetition can be almost meditative, providing an opportunity to let go of many worries and concerns.
There is no judgement in these words (that would not be very yogic of me ;), I often train in the exact same manner. What I am proposing is ask yourself some questions of how you might do things differently.
Are curiosity and awareness words that come to mind when you think about training? Play with the idea of making describing your practices with those words.
In fact I challenge you to apply them. Be curious, check in with your body, ask yourself questions and notice what is happening in your next training session. By doing this you will begin to develop greater awareness that can help develop more efficient technique and adjust the ways your body reacts to specific stimuli.
It will also begin to give you a chance to work with the mind-body connection.
Asana practice (the movement practice within yoga) is often focused on the physical benefits that be can gained. One aspect of asana that is often not talked about is how it is a great way to practice movement with awareness and curiosity, which can then give you the ability to apply them in training.
What does that look like?
During the first few moments of a practice go through a body scan while bringing awareness to breath. Moving through a sequence following your breath you come into a lunge. As you do the lunge notice the position of your hips. Are they stable? Do you feel engagement? Square your hips. What changes? Check in with your breath. How has that changed? Is there still a connection with it? Relax jaw and your eyes. How does effect the pose?
Eventually you return to mountain pose. Notice your breath and heart rate. How are they connected? Move through another body scan. How do the left and right side feel different? How does the pose feel different from the first time you entered into it?
How would taking this approach change how you train?
Improvement often comes from small adjustments in training, technique and mindset. To be able to make adjustments we must have awareness and use our curiosity to experiment with new ways of moving and approaching things.
Engagement, awareness and curiosity are keys to making effective change
Try it out and let me know if it creates any changes.
The book "Champions: The Making of Olympic Swimmers" by Daniel F. Chambliss is one of my favourite swimming books of all time. Chambliss follows the Mission Viejo Nadadores as well as swimmers such as Rowdy Gaines, Mary T. Meagher and Mike O'Brien on their journey towards the 1984 Olympic Games.
In the final pages of his book he goes over what makes the difference between Olympians and non-Olympians: The Mundanity of Excellence:
The champion athlete does not simply do more of the same drills and sets as other swimmers; he or she also does things better. That’s what counts. Very small differences, consistently practiced, will produce results. In swimming it could be doing all turns legally, or swimming one extra set of repeats after practice every day, or wearing gloves on your hands to keep them warm at a meet. American historian John Morton Blum reportedly has said that to be successful a writer need produce only three pages a day---every single day.
Often the trick is doing little things (like good turns) correctly, all the time, every time. Championship training consists of doing more and more of these little things---and they are, finally, innumerable---each one consistently, so that each one produces a result.
The results of such quality training inevitable add up. Swimming is swimming, we can say---in practice, or in meets, it’s all the same. If you swim sloppily 364 days a year, nothing great is going to happen on the day of that one big meet, no matter how excited you get. Nowadays top-level swimmers tend to treat workouts as meets, where every swim counts; they have to win each repeat, always do great starts and turns. Steve Lundquist, for example, decided early in his career to try to win every swim in every practice, and eventually he did that. Many Mission Viejo swimmers took time every day to psych up for workouts, which they treated as intense competitions. It was not uncommon to see swimmers at Mission Viejo swimming within seconds of their lifetime bests in practices, going all out every day. When they eventually got to a meet, there was nothing new to be overcome, and the conclusion was all but foregone: for all the closeness of the times at Nationals, the same people often do win, year after year.
When Rowdy Gaines studied the starter in the Olympic Games, that was not a new “trick” he invented that day. He always checked the starter, as do many swimmers, because he knows that sometimes it makes a difference. He wasn’t “cheating” to win that day. He was simply attending to details that other people didn’t, and he had the good luck that the officials didn’t recall the start. Mike Heath and Mark Stockwell and the five other swimmers in that race could have anticipated the gun, too, perhaps with good results, but they didn’t. Gaines did.
These little things matter not so much because of their physical impact, but because psychologically they separate the champion from everyone else. Having done the little things, the champion can say “I have done what no one else has done, and I know it; and they know it, too.” The little things, the details, then can be important for their testimonial value, their symbolic value, in setting one apart as someone special or different---someone to be watched and to be paid attention to. “This guy takes this seriously (and we don’t); he really does deserve to win.” “Why should I hurt myself in this race when Christine wants it that bad?” The little things, far from being an aggravation for top-level athletes are the part they most enjoy: the polished points that mark the craftsmen of sport
One result of this we call “confidence.” Some people believe that confidence is “mental” or is “all in your head,” as if you could just, one day, decide to have it. Or they believe that you get “confidence” when you buy a cassette tape that tells you to relax, think positively, visualize your races, and so on. They believe that confidence is a mental trick, like hypnosis, that can take one to incredible feats. But the confidence of the champion is not some trick learned by listening to an inspiring lecture. Confidence is not the cause of championship; it is the result of setting up difficult tasks and then doing them. As one coach put it, “Mental preparation is something you do in the water everyday.”
Our usual view of champions tells us the opposite. We think they are special people, larger than life: unusually good-looking, successful, happy all the time, patriotic, and self-confident. Failures don’t get much TV coverage. For the sake of drama, reasonably enough, storytellers enhance some part of the story and downplay others. And we think reasonably: My God, this guy is nothing like me, I could never do what he does.
But there is no magic that separates Olympians from everyday people, despite the fact that the title suggests Greek gods. No one is born to make the Olympic finals; potential doesn’t win a gold medal. Doing it is the only thing that counts. The truth is simple: Most swimmers choose every day not to do the little things. They choose, in effect, not to win. They say, “I could do this workout if I wanted to,” or “I could have rolled with the start,” or “I would have won if I had been healthy.” In some sense, everyone “could” win in the Olympic Games, but “could” doesn’t count. The gold medal is reserved for those who do.
The doing---this alone makes champions different. The excitement they feel comes from the raw physical and emotional reality they face every morning as they swim six miles, paying attention to all the details. Certainly the Olympic Games represent a rare opportunity to demonstrate publicly one’s heroic capabilities. But champions do not wait four years to find their heroic opportunities; they create those opportunities, every day.
It was a long day. One of those days where you know that you need to workout, but you really want to find every excuse you can until you come across one that actually justifies your laziness - and there isn't.
So I got home from filming a Yoga for Swimmers Express Class and got on the bike. Unfortunately with a broken wrist getting on the bike means getting on the bike trainer. Fortunately in Vancouver it was a beautiful spring day and I took the bike trainer outside.
My legs were heavy and sore, but went for a strong 60 minutes being powered by a great e-book The Art of Learning.
After getting off the bike my wife and I did a yoga class together. It is always interesting to see how your approach to a class really dictates what you get out of it.
No matter how much I love yoga quite often after a hard workout it can be, "I know I need to do this to help my recovery and work on mobility, let's get it done." Approaching a session that way isn't wrong or bad it is going in with a purpose and most often I finish the practice feeling a lot better.
We did our online class today with a teacher we had never done one with before. When that happens I strive to stay open minded (see my blog post The Beginner's Mind). It gave me a chance to really feel what was happening in my body rather than wanting something to happen to my body.
I experimented with different poses and worked a lot with my intuition. By doing this my post workout yoga practice gave me an opportunity to develop my body awareness and learn new ways to allow my body to move and recover.
How will you approach your next yoga practice?
Throughout the week my energy has been low and today when it came time to start my yoga practice my tank was empty. My body was sore and my mind was fatigued.
The thought ran through my mind that I really needed to do something today to work on my core strength. I took a step back and realized my body was giving me several signals that what I needed was to take some time to really relax and restore.
Instead of going through an energetic practice I did a slow restorative one where I did very few poses. This type of practice allowed me to truly let go of tension I was holding in my body and the stress that I was holding onto in my mind.
It was a reminder that allowing myself to listen to my body is more important than doing what I think I 'should'.
How do you get into the zone?
Each time an athlete performs they are searching for a way to find the mythical place known as the zone.
“When you get in that zone it’s just a supreme confidence…”
“Things just slow down. You really do not try to focus on what’s going on because you can lose it in a second. You have to really try to stay in the present and not let anything break that rhythm.” – Kobe Bryant
The zone appears to be mythical because it is so elusive. George Mumford doesn’t have the answer to how create this flow state at will, but he has taught some of the greatest basketball players in history how to be zone ready.
Last week I listened to a podcast (10% Happier) where Dan Harris interviewed Mumford who worked with legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson teaching his teams the importance of and how to meditate.
There were many valuable lessons in this interview, but two that resonated with me the most were Mumford’s explanation of mindfulness and how it helps athletes become zone ready.
Too often people think meditation is the process of slowing down the mind or clearing the mind of thoughts. Mumford explains these are both misconceptions, “That is the crux of the problem you are not trying to turn your mind off you are trying to create space and let your mind be,” said Mumford.
“The goal is to present to what is so if you have all these thoughts and negative self talk can you create space, observe it let it speak to you without identifying with it.”
“Meditation is not trying to go anywhere or do anything, meditation and being present is just seeing what’s there and letting it speak to you.”
“The goal is to be present to what is. … Can you create space where you can observe it without being identified with it.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the psychologist credited with defining the concept of flow, which is synonymous with the zone. He describes flow as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
Performing in a flow state is performing mindfully. This is the biggest reason Mumford believes that a mindful practice makes athletes zone ready, “It’s a monitoring aspect with more-- rather than ‘I got to make this shot’ -- no just shoot,” said Mumford. “You’ve trained your nervous system to do it, so now your conscious thinking needs to be quiet and let your body do what it does… Nothing exists but this moment and what you’re doing.”
Mindful practices such as meditation and yoga teach you to trust intuition and act accordingly. These practices do not make the experience of flow predictable or reliable, but it does give you a better chance of taking advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself.
Since becoming a yoga teacher one of my biggest challenges is practicing in a truly mindful way. One would think that knowledge and practice would help. The practice does, the knowledge not always.
My challenges tend to show themselves in three different scenarios.
I am taking a class with an incredible teacher. They take us through a phenomenal sequence.
What goes on in my mind: Wow my shoulders feel great. That was a great idea! How do I put that into my own class? Will I remember it? Oh yeah breath, return to the breath.
What were those cues again?
I am taking a class and the teacher says that figure four pose is a great way to stretch the psoas (it is not).
What goes on in my mind: Nope wrong pose, wrong muscle. Why are they speaking in a forced spiritual voice? Oh yeah breath, return to the breath.
Where did they train? Do they really know what they are doing?
I am practicing alone and my movement is guided by body awareness. A tight thoracic spine directs me towards putting together a sequence of poses that feels incredible.
What goes on in my mind: That felt amazing. What class will I put that into? I was thinking of writing a second article on thoracic spine mobility. Oh yeah breath, return to the breath.
My students are going to love this!
In all three scenarios I should know better. The problem is what I 'know' leads to expectation, judgement and ego.
Knowledge is a funny thing.
There is a zen concept Shoshin, which is often referred to as ‘the beginner's mind”. Author James Clear explains it as “the idea of letting go of your preconceptions and having an attitude of openness when studying a subject.”
My 'knowledge' prevented me from practicing with a beginner's mind. An approach that would allow me to enjoy and ultimately learn more from my experiences.
In my personal practice the biggest challenge is to arrive on the mat with curiosity, a playful attitude and no expectations. All things that lead to practicing in a more mindful way.
I am stealing the title of this blog post from a great book written by Ryan Holiday. If you haven't already - read it!
Arriving at the mat is not always easy. There can be many obstacles in front of us. Some placed there by our environment, by others and often ourselves.
I have too much work, I have no energy, I don't feel like it, I am stiff and sore, I am not in a good mood - for me at the moment it is a broken wrist. These obstacles may be very legitimate, they may not. The thing is it is almost always possible to find a way to spend 10-15 minutes bringing awareness to our breath and to move mindfully.
It will can give you greater focus to work more effectively, it can energize you, it can build discipline, it can improve mobility and enhance recovery, it can uplift your mood and it can help heal your body.
The obstacle is the way.
Now back to me ;) How am I dealing with the obstacle I was presented with? At the start not well. I broke my wrist falling off my bike after not clipping into my peddles properly. My wrist hurt, my ego was bruised and I didn't feel much like doing yoga.
I also hate doing yoga on my forearms! The weakness in my shoulders comes to the forefront and my endurance in poses was negligible.
Being limited by an injury frustrates me, as it does most of us. At first I did not enjoy having to make adjustments to my practice. I like doing chaturanga, down dog and being able to step through into a lunge.
Even though I had a legitimate excuse (heck I showed you a picture of my brace at the start of this blog didn't I ;) I decided to approach this obstacle like the stoics and let it lead the way.
Creativity was needed to make classes I wanted to do work. So I got creative, which had the unintended consequence of my teaching being more creative. Specific strength and endurance in my shoulders was necessary to practice on my forearms. After neglecting my strength and endurance in those poses for years I now have it. Letting frustration influence my decisions never works out well. This time in a wrist brace has given me a chance to practice patience and acceptance.
Trust me I do not possess a zen secret that allows me to see all obstacles as positive. However I do have the ability, as we all do, to take a step back and figure out how to can learn from the challenges that are put in front of me.
How can you make an obstacle show you the way?
The blog I had planned to write was very different, but that will have to wait for another day – it will be a good one trust me ;)
Why the change? A friend reminded me of something while I was on my mat.
Tonight I went to a quiet spot along the ocean. I started at a slower pace moving from mountain pose into a series of low lunges.
Arriving back at mountain pose I paused for 10 breaths with my eyes closed. Opening my eyes I gazed towards the water making eye contact with a seal. It had popped its head up close to shore looking at me with what appeared to be a sense of wonder.
A smile arrived on my face, which happens most often when I cross paths with a seal – living in Vancouver playing in and along the water it happens a lot. They are an animal that almost always seems to have a playful curiosity.
Without warning their heads pop up out of the water and look at you seemingly saying, “Why are you doing that? Hmmm interesting, but you know what it is way more fun down here.”
My friend's attitude set the tone for the rest of my practice.
Moving into different poses I paused for 10 breaths. Hanging out in each pose I approached my experience with a playful curiosity.
How does my body feel? What is my breathing like? Why did I chose to stop in chair pose? Why can't I stop thinking about the blog I have to write?
Many times judgment is the first thing that enters my mind when pondering similar questions. Tonight it seemed easy to move through my practice without judgement.
I was able to stay in poses with greater ease while practicing mindfully came more naturally. Looking at my experiences with playful curiosity was an extraordinary way to spend time on my mat.
Thank you my seal friend you reminded me what a practice is meant to be.
What attitude did you bring to the mat today?
It was five years ago that I met Jenny. I was giving a yoga for runners talk at a clinic at a running store in Vancouver and she was a run leader. We were married in Jamaica this December.
I love Jenny with all my heart, but to say being forced to work at home at the same time in a one bedroom apartment has been easy would be a lie. One of the things we have been enjoying and I believe has brought us closer together is taking time to do yoga side by side in the mornings.
Practicing mindful movement together is fun. Both of us leave whatever is going on off the mat off the mat (ok let's face it we do our best to). We do online yoga classes together and give each other strange looks and laugh when a teacher directs us to bend into poses that just aren't going to happen.
I have always been someone who loves doing my own practice on my own, but over the past few weeks I have found it incredibly enjoyable to have Jenny along for the ride.
Developing core strength is considered one of the main goals of a swimming-specific yoga practice. Core strength is one of the keys to having the upper and lower body working in unison. Improving core stability is also an important of an injury prevention program.
Boat is one of my favourite poses to use with swimmers to develop their core strength.
In this blog you will learn how to do boat and variations of the pose that make it accessible to everyone!
Is a 500-hour trained yoga teacher and therapist. He began teaching yoga after a 20-year swim coaching career.