One of the biggest boons that yoga offers an athlete has nothing to do with working muscles and bones. Instead, it's all about learning to work with your breathing to quiet the nervous system and hone your focus on the task at hand. Researcher and yogi Ralph La Forge explains it this way: When you inhale deeply, the lungs expand and the chest wall stretches, stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down into the chest and beyond. The pressure on the vagus nerve triggers a feeling of relaxation that lasts from 15 seconds to a couple of minutes.
"Consistent research shows that yogic breathing momentarily suppresses stress hormones," La Forge says. That ability—to momentarily quash stress hormones so you can concentrate—confers a competitive advantage in any sport. Just ask triathlete Maxine Bahns. Whether she's running, swimming, or biking, she relies on Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) before the race to vanquish the jitters. "During a race there is always a moment of anxiety when the demons come up and you tell yourself you can't finish because it's too hot, or your blisters are bleeding too much, or you just don't feel good," she says. "So I go into my Pranayama, and the anxiety melts away."
Here's how to trigger the relaxation response:
To start, take a deep inhalation through the nose. Fill the lungs from the bottom to the top while counting slowly up to 3 (it's OK if the lungs fill quickly). Hold the breath for a slow count of 3. Then, slowly and evenly, exhale (use the Ujjayi technique if it's comfortable) to a count of 4 or 6. Repeat the breath several more times, gradually lengthening the exhalation to a count of 8.