A Sporting Chance
Kids Life, Issue 11, Sep 2005

By Jane Wiesner

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From a yogic perspective, a person's overall wellbeing gives them the capacity to fulfill their true potential in sport. Yogic theory also claims that the key to optimal physical performance is found in the mind, not the body. So, for your child become a great athlete, they need to train their mind as well as their body. Nature may endow us all with potential but it is what we 'think, feel and do' that ultimately brings our inherent qualities to fruition. Being good at sport requires focused attention, determination, perseverance and ability—these are all things that we have to work for. So, why do some of us have to work harder than others? Often, what holds us back is a negative core belief, such as 'I'm no good at sport'. Sure, sport requires training, focus and passion but it also requires positive beliefs.

Dr Albert Ellis, a founding father of cognitive theory, claims that negative core beliefs are the basis for emotional disturbance and destructive behaviour. He suggests that it is important for our success in life—and in sport—that we do what we can to improve our self-image and combat destructive core beliefs. Children are especially vulnerable to these destructive core beliefs because they do not have the intellectual capacity to fight them.

Yoga can help a child replace these negative core beliefs with positive ones. It works to build their feelings of strength and personal power, giving them a sense of ease and comfort in their environment. Yoga teaches that there is a vital life force (energy or prana) at work in the body that moves through the breath. When this flow of energy is restricted our bodies break down and they can cause illness, depression and confusion. The physical side of yoga works with the movement of this energy throughout the body, giving us the health and vitality we need to excel at our most important challenge—living. Yogic theory also claims that the reason for this blockage in energy is 'tension' in the body and the practising methods of mindful stillness, relaxation techniques using various forms of yoga practice (such as dhyana [meditation], pranayama [breathing techniques] and asana [postures]) release the body from this tension.

To understand this concept with relation to sporting performance, think about a golfer. If the golfer's mind is scattered and they are anxious, their body responds by initiating the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (the flight or fight response). This creates a physical chain reaction that will make it impossible for them to make the shot successfully. Why? Because this biological response creates tension in the muscles of the body, increases adrenaline levels, makes the heart pump rapidly and increases the blood flow. It prepares the body to respond to a life-threatening situation. If the golfer's body is preparing for attack, how can they possibly expect to relax and focus, let alone hit the ball where they want it to go? Yoga teaches that without sustained mental focus, the ability to release tension and an inner 'trust' in the body's processes, it is difficult to realise our full physical potential. It shows us how to redirect our anxiety in a positive way.

Thankfully, people are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of the mind-body connection in sport. For instance, the child who runs out onto a football field needs to make this connection just as much as a golfer. The footballer needs the courage to face physical (and often aggressive) confrontations, the conviction that he can and will win and a high degree of control over his body's movements. Without this mental and physical strength, he is limited in what he can achieve. Yoga can give children in all sports the capacity to make this imperative mind-body connection. It teaches them ways to foster a constructive inner dialogue (through affirmations and positive self-talk) and to control the body's nervous responses through meditative movements (postures), breathing techniques and mindful meditation practice. Yoga practice massages the body's internal organs, re-oxygenates the bloods, increases circulation (distributing healthy nutrients where needed), strengthens and tones the muscles, creates the capacity for balance and sureness of stance. On a more subtle level it creates a sense of grounding, helping your child feel strong, capable and steady.

The following asanas are great for building physical and emotional strength and stamina and can be found in the PDF of this article (1,063 KB): Mountain Pose, Lightning Pose, Triangle Pose, Warrior Pose, Tree Pose. Please note that to maintain balance, mindful relaxation should always follow athletic activity (try the ragdoll and maypole pose).

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