“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Even before we became athletes we could feel it. The desire for far reaching goals and the innate tools to reach those goals. We put in the work, we always have, and we strive to go beyond what is reasonable most days of the week. We were born with naturally strong wills and it is our will that drives us. Will is a faculty of our mind that allows us to stay focused on one thing and not allow anything to stand in our way. It is this same strong will that is required to start and maintain a mindfulness meditation practice which makes us athletes, natural born yogis.
The act of mindfulness meditation itself is simple, quite possibly the simplest thing anyone will ever set out to do. It’s paying attention on purpose to the moment of now by focusing on breath or body and sometimes with the assistance of a mantra. It requires little to no training to begin while producing dramatic results in a short period of time. There are thousands of peer reviewed published studies showing how mindfulness meditation can help with everything from lowering blood cholesterol levels and reducing inflammation in the body to increasing focus, compassion and quality of life. Meditation has been shown to decrease stress and interrupt automatic behaviors. The list of benefits appears to be endless and studies continue to dive deeper into the effects of meditation on behavior, gray matter in the brain and gene expression.
This is not hocus pocus or a religion or anything that requires robes and a cave. It is not calisthenics on a rectangle mat that so many people believe to be yoga. It is a sophisticated science of the mind. Meditation, like asana practice, is one of the eight limbs of yoga. It teaches us to concentrate our mind and observe the incessant thought patterns that compromise our ability to focus. Over time those thought patterns start to slow leaving us with more space for clarity. The Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Indian tale of the everyman’s battle with the mind and one of my pre-race favorites, assures us that “on this path no effort is wasted, no gain is ever reversed; even a little of this practice will shelter you from great sorrow”. (Stephen Mitchell translation)
It is said that competition is 90% mental and 10% physical, so to me, it seems nothing would be more wasteful than to neglect an opportunity to strengthen mind of an athlete. I have practiced yoga for 20 years, been a triathlete for 10 years and meditated for 5 years. My experience is that nothing, and I mean nothing, builds the mental acuity and strength needed in high pressure situations and times of duress, than meditation. Any athlete can master the physical but the true champion is the one who masters the mind. By its nature, meditation teaches us to perform from a higher state of consciousness where the dramatics of the mind are not entertained and energy is skillfully conserved for key moments of competition. Meditation is every athlete’s secret weapon and thankfully for us full time yogis, science has our backs on this one.
Change Your Brain
There is a wealth of scientific studies showing that mindfulness meditation affects gray matter in the brain. More gray matter means more brain connectivity. In a study out of Harvard University (Holzel, Lazar et al. 2011), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) showed changes in the brain after just 8 weeks. Areas of the brain related to muscle control, perception, body awareness, pain tolerance and emotion regulation, particularly resiliency, were strengthened. Resiliency should be of great interest to athletes because this determines our ability to roll with the punches avoiding adverse, energy sucking reactions like fear, anxiety, negativity and aggression.
Be There For Your Best
Science has shown that mindfulness is linked to present moment focus which is the essence of the psychology of peak performance in sport (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Ravizza, 2002). Meditation is the practice of present moment awareness and so through this we learn how to become fully present. When we are fully present, every bit of our being is available for that task and energy is not used frivolously by indulging thoughts of the past, future or a story about the now. Connecting your mind to what your body is doing merges activity and awareness. This intersection is where epic performance is found.
The true nature of the mind is pure understanding and is unphased by change or circumstance. This essence lies deep within each one of us but is most often obscured by the mental scurry of emotion and thought. Every now and again we’ll get a glimpse but the clouds roll back in quickly to bury it deep again. To succeed as an athlete we must get comfortable with discomfort and unexpected obstacles which is more commonly described as embracing the suck. The meditator mind gives athletes the upper hand by instilling a foundation of ease and quiet. These cornerstones of mastery can be tapped into during times of intensity and extreme physical challenge when your competition is suffering at the hand of their untrained mind.
Recover And Stay Healthy
The World Health Organization has called stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century.” Stress is at the core of dis-ease and imbalance in the body and mind. MBSR studies have shown, and participants have reported, significant decreases in stress from practicing meditation. A sitting mindfulness meditation practice is a still practice. This stillness activates the healing mechanisms of your body and shifts your parasympathetic nervous system into dominance. Finding balance in our nervous system aids in systemic reduction of stress and inflammation. A study out of the University of Wisconsin concludes, “A meditation habit can strengthen the body’s immune function, plus increase brain performance in the form of electrical activity.” During meditation blood flow increases and heart rate comes into balance which enhances the immune system. It’s shifts like these that heal the body and mind and keep you healthy so that you can continue to train everyday.
Shine A Light on Your Blindspots
The life of athlete is a full of ungodly hour wake ups and multiple workouts per day. Sometimes life can be so busy that we shut off from our bodies, we disconnect from the intuitive voice within that may be waving the white flag as we push through yet another training session. Meditation increases our mind, body connection by stilling our body and taking crucial timeouts every day to connect. Meditation, like all yoga practice, shines a light on your physical and mental blind spots so that you can spot falling soldiers before they full bloom into illness or injury. Meditation tunes us into our intuitive voice, the all knowing part of us the sits up top in the penthouse and can see the all the paths, solutions and possibilities. Meditation strengthens this connection and the inner voice starts to trump the mental commotion. It is this voice of steadiness and non-emotion that will shine in competition leaving us clear on what needs to be done because in the face of knowing, there is no doubt.