Stretching Toward Gold
Olympic competitors represent the epitome of athletic perfection. They run faster, swim harder, jump higher, strike more swiftly, and wind more rotations into their dives and flips than seems humanly possible. They wake up at 3 a.m. to train—and they do it sore, injured, exhausted, and when they just plain don’t feel like it. Performing on the planet’s most coveted competitive stage is the result of years of unwavering dedication, superhuman discipline, and countless sacrifices. Olympians embody the pinnacle of their sport while simultaneously carrying the dreams of a nation.
As hard as this way of life is on their bodies, it’s just as demanding on their emotions, their egos, and their psyches. Earning the chance to vie for gold in the Olympic Games means training mind, body, and soul—and for many athletes, yoga is the bridge that connects all three.
It may seem strange to envision elite athletes rearing into Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) to prepare for Olympic greatness. But for many competitors, yoga is a vital piece of their performance puzzle—and to their transition to life after their quest for gold has ended.
“Our research shows that sport-specific yoga [practice designed for an athlete’s particular discipline] enhances the performance of athletes at all ages, from the playground to the podium,” says Hayley Winter, founder of the Institute of Yoga Sports Science, an organization that trains sport-specific yoga teachers and researches the benefits of using yoga to improve athletic performance and prevent injury. Athletes who practiced sport-specific yoga reported physical benefits including optimized breathing, efficiency of motion, greater body control, increased power output, a reduced risk of injury, and improved recovery, according to Winter.
But the mental benefits are just as significant. Winter says practicing yoga can help athletes of all ages sharpen awareness, calm pre-performance nerves, and enhance focus. “The mindset and breathing strategies of an athlete can be a determining factor between winning and losing,” she says. Yoga helps them get their head in the game. Here, five elite athletes share the role their practice has played in their Olympic dreams.