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I used to be a competitive person, but more so in the academic realm. I was never an athlete growing up, but losing out to someone else was almost catastrophic, knowing that I wasn’t good enough to gain first place. It was hard to succumb to that outcome. All of that hard work, training, studying, observing, and getting feedback are not enough to come out on top.
Having a consistent yoga practice for the past several years has made me lose my competitive edge. This might sound like a bad thing–and there’s nothing wrong with being competitive–but there are so many more things that I value more now than winning or getting first place. Yogic philosophy has a set of principles that people should do their best to observe when interacting with themselves and interacting with others. Under the yamas or personal observances, aparigraha, which is also known as non-attachment, reminds me that while it’s human to want to achieve a certain expectation or outcome, hanging onto it will only lead to negativity and disappointment. There can be lessons gleaned from not getting first, too, and sometimes those experiences are just as insightful. Plus, growth is never easy, and at times learning can be difficult. Santosha, or contentment, also reminds me that I have a healthy body; I have the ability to move, to breathe, to sweat without challenge, and to find satisfaction in my current state.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say how useful a regular yoga practice can be for runners or any other athletes who are primarily cardio or strength-based. It’s not “just stretching,” and the physical practice combines mindful movements with breath. When the breath becomes labored, your mind becomes scattered, and it can be difficult to focus. When your breath becomes stable and consistent, that is when the body understands that calm is imminent and everything is okay.
The practice of pranayama (Sanskrit, from prāṇa ‘breath, life force’ + āyāma ‘restraint’), or breathing techniques, can be useful on race days or days of competition. Once you manipulate your breath, your body’s parasympathetic nervous system activates, and instead of activating the fight/flight response, the body maintains its homeostasis and sense of safety. If you’re feeling especially nervous or you want a chance to refocus, sama vritti (equal breathing) is a tool you can utilize anytime, anywhere and is useful for many different scenarios, not just races or competitions. I’ve got a short video guiding you through this practice.
The same things said about pranayama can be said for meditation as well. Meditation doesn’t have to be you sitting still–it can show up as a walking meditation or a reclined meditation–just anywhere you can set aside everything else from your day, your week, the month to just notice. Notice how your body feels, how fast your breath might be, acknowledging if there’s anything making you upset or anxious, or whatever else might be going on, and focusing your attention on a singular idea or type of energy you wish to cultivate.
Being present is so important on those days where you need to perform and do your absolute best. If you don’t have a yoga practice yet, consider starting one soon. Know that it doesn’t have to be the physical postures; it can be breath work and/or meditation. Consider all of these tools to set aside those game-day jitters and know that focus is only a few breaths away.
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