Yoga in Sports

Dr Swami Mudraroopa Saraswati, Doctor/Yoga Teacher, Serbia

To say that I feel honoured and privileged to speak on this occasion would be an understatement. I will only do my best and leave the rest to fate, and in fact, anything of value in what I am going to say is due to Bihar Yoga and to Swamiji, and all the faults are mine only.

We have heard from Swamiji on more than one occasion about the difference that exists between what we know and what we apply in our lives. It made me realize that this difference actually determines the quality of life. There are many excellent students of engineering colleges, but not all of them become great engineers. There are excellent medical students in medical schools, but great doctors are few. So there is a path, and there are steps to be taken, between acquiring knowledge, learning something, and applying it later in life. This also goes for yoga.

In the beginning we learn yoga; we learn techniques, we learn practices, and then we need to apply what we have learnt in our daily lives. The application of yoga in different sections of society and in different fields of human activity has been pioneered by the Bihar School of Yoga and Sri Swamiji, and further organized and fully established by Swami Niranjan.

The yoga that has been applied in society, as Sri Swamiji used to tell us, is not yoga that will just make the body look better, or make us feel better, but yoga that will make us better people. This yoga is not an abstract concept, but something real and efficient, a tool that we can use to improve the quality of our lives and transcend our limitations.

One human activity which is based on constant striving for improvement and on transcending the limitations of mind and body is sport: modern sport. I am sure that classical yoga, such as Satyananda Yoga, has and will have a major role to play in the future developments of this field. As the achievements of modern sportspersons aim higher and higher, a deeper level of harmony and integration is required within the whole personality of a sports person, and not simply of the physical body.

Hatha yoga

We are finding more and more references from the research being conducted by different universities all over the world as to the validity of yoga in sports, especially of hatha yoga and raja yoga. These two branches will play a major role in the development of modern sportspersons.

Coming first to mind is, of course, asana. Stemming from the long-standing cooperation between the Bihar School of Yoga and SAI, Sports Authority of India, the Ganga Darshan ashram often hosts different types of sportspersons who continue their sports training while they attend yoga classes and live the ashram life. In the asana classes, a certain quantity of muscular imbalances and postural imbalances can be clearly observed once the sportspersons of high caliber sit or lie down on the yoga mat. Even simple asanas like shavasana or vajrasana become challenging for some of the high-end sportspersons. Apart from rectifying the posture imbalances, the research findings have proved that through asana, a fine-tuning of precise motor skills is achieved, the sense of balance and coordination is improved, and the risk of injuries is seriously reduced.

Next, of course, is pranayama. It has been found that a strong link exists between the breath, the physiological processes in the body, the state of mind and the level of performance. Synchronization of physical movement with the breath has become one of the cornerstones in the contemporary training of sportspersons. That is one of the basic rules of even asana practice as we know in yoga. In fact, the deeper we look into the modern sports research being conducted today, we find either classic yogic practices being implemented and called by their yogic names, or specialized techniques that are not named as yogic techniques but are very clearly rooted in the principles of classical yoga practices.

An example of a yogic technique being adopted for sports training is one termed 'Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique', or DBT. This is nothing but abdominal breathing, one of the first steps we use in learning yoga or teaching yoga to any student. A lot of research has already been done and is still ongoing in this field. The findings are that both the strength of the diaphragm, a principal breathing muscle that provides eighty percent of the efficiency of the breath, and the relaxed state of the diaphragm have serious and real implications in an improved performance of modern sportspersons. Research findings from different universities all over the world come to support these statements.

Apart from abdominal breathing, the yogic technique of bhastrika pranayama is found, again under another name, in the high-end contributions of scientific research on the training of sportspersons. It is called the 'Bellows Breathing Technique', and I will quote the definition of that technique: "Deep abdominal inhalations and exhalations equally emphasized in a smooth, fast and flowing rhythm." This is a very accurate description of the technique of bhastrika pranayama. It has been found that when this practice is done just prior to a competition or event, the results of the athlete are significantly improved.

Having an even bigger field within hatha yoga is kumbhaka, which definitely has an important role to play not only in modern sport development, but in the medical field as well. Usually we define it under the name of 'Interval Hypoxic Training', hypoxia being the state a practitioner enters after breathing air with less oxygen. The effect of that event is the reduction of the level of oxygen in the blood. Research in kumbhaka, the breath-retaining technique, brings us to the same conclusion where, when the breath is held in kumbhaka, two events happen: the level of oxygen in the blood is reduced, and at the same time, the level of carbon dioxide is built up. The most recent physiological statement is that the carbon dioxide will be reabsorbed by the tissues, leaving the end result of the practice to be deprivation of oxygen. This is the same state achieved by the so-called interval hypoxic training, which has been proved to have the effect of a real endurance exercise, and which considerably improves the physical performance of the sports person.

Raja yoga

While the physical aspects of hatha yoga in sport are well known, the field of raja yoga is now beginning to open up. We can see clear connections between the most modern sports psychology investigations and techniques devised by sports psychologists, and the classical practices of pratyahara.

The most intriguing area in this field is the state of being called 'the zone', 'the flow', 'the second wind', or 'the last burst'. It has been defined as an alternate state of being that sportspersons sometimes enter where previously unavailable resources of the body and the mind become available to them, and they go on to achieve high, and sometimes astonishing, results. That is the definition given by modern sports psychologists to this state of being. They describe it as the state of being in which action itself becomes the aim, where there is no consideration of rewards or achievements; the pleasure is purely derived from the action itself. They describe it also as an autotelic experience, from the Greek words 'auto', meaning self, and 'telic', meaning end – that experience which is an end in itself, which is gratifying intrinsically. From this description I think we can recognize that it is a yogic state of being which sportspersons are accessing. It would be a high objective for modern sports psychologists to better understand this state of being and devise techniques to help sportsmen enter this state at will.

There are certain techniques already being used in this field, and we will quickly go through them to recognize their yogic root from raja yoga. One of them is called 'centring' and what it implies, in a simplified manner, is abdominal breathing with a focus on the area just behind the navel. What we have here is abdominal breathing with awareness of the kshetram of manipura chakra, the seat of power, performance and dynamism. We can infer that by doing this practice of manipura shuddhi, in the long term, the effects would be much more stable and longer lasting.

Another method is called 'mental rehearsal', in which a mental blueprint of a successful performance is installed in the mind of the practitioner. The sports person visualizes the key aspects of the event that is going to come and participates in it mentally. It is required that all the five senses are included, and it is considered to be a cornerstone of success in modern sport. Here we can recognize the basic principles of visualization from yoga nidra, for example, clear images that are nested in the background of all the five senses, but done in a particular moment of pratyahara, after proper preparation of the body, mind and senses. The effects of this kind of yogic visualization will be deeper and more efficient.

Another technique is called 'error parking', implying the reality that when a sports person commits a mistake during a competition, he is sometimes thrown off balance irreparably and cannot regain his composure. So the technique they are taught is to wipe out that mistake by some ritualistic behaviour. We can sometimes observe, in a tennis match for example, some awkward movements performed by the players that can even look a bit childish, but it is most likely that they are employing the techniques taught to them by the sports psychologist. I would suggest that if they practised antar mouna and reached Stage 3, they would be able to wipe that mistake, the ache, the feeling created by the mistake off their minds without the ritualistic movements.

There are techniques that teach sportspersons to use, for example, a keyword to try and describe the quality they would like to exhibit during their competition. So swimmers 'glide', runners 'explode' and cyclists 'spin'. They repeat this command to themselves prior to the competition. We may infer that if they do a simple yoga nidra before the competition, in which they reach the visualization stage and invoke certain symbolic images that install these psychophysiological states of the quality of flow, spin or explode in the mind, they would achieve better results.

Another technique is called the 'pre-event routine' in which sports psychologists, as part of the team that prepares high-end sportspersons, insist that the player write down exactly what their routine will be on the day of an important competition. We may say that if this exercise is done as a real-time visualization of their upcoming timeline, again performed in one of the pratyahara practices like yoga nidra, then the images, the memory and the planning would be much deeper and more connected to the upcoming reality.


In conclusion, I would say that the human body has certain genetic evolutionary limitations, and that modern sportspersons are gradually reaching the physical pinnacle of these human body possibilities. It is becoming clear from the investigations into sports psychology that the future improvements of results lie in the investigation of the mind, and also in the application of the mind-improving techniques. In this context, I think we can understand sport as an example or paradigm of any other human activity, and the role yoga has in all of them.

I believe we can definitively say that yoga is a valid, efficient, simple and cheap addition to the development of athletes, or in any other field of human activity, and the yoga teacher in relation to sport must become a valuable member of the development team.

Address, 24 October 2013, Polo Ground, Munger