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Connecting mind and body: Is yoga the key to sporting success?

Posted on August 16 2016

Professional golfer Padraig Harrington does it; rugby great Paul O’Connell does it; GAA All-Star Michael Darragh MacAuley does it.

In fact, the entire Dublin GAA senior squad are advocates of yoga, along with the members of the Connacht senior rugby squad – and many more besides.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an athlete who is not sold on the benefits of incorporating yoga – or elements of it – into their training regime.

“I am actually considering increasing the amount of yoga in my training, especially as I get older and mobility is becoming more of a factor.

“I have used certain yoga techniques in my training programmes over the years, which have helped to enhance my core development and flexibility.

“The resulting improvements in both my stability and mobility, then leads to increased strength, power and endurance, all of which are key fundamentals to my golf swing,” he said.

“Golf and yoga are the perfect match,” says Anne-Marie Kennedy, of Sports Yoga Ireland.

The yoga instructor and sport psychologist at the Paddy Harrington Golf Scholarship in Maynooth was the first person to teach yoga specifically designed for golfers in Ireland after training with the founder of Yoga for Golfers Katherine Roberts in Arizona in 2010.

It’s been a runaway success, she says, because yoga not only helps players to improve their physical performance but it also improves mental focus, so vital in golf.

PGA professional Donal Scott agrees. After taking one of Kennedy’s courses, he assimilated yoga into his game and now draws on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation when working as a golf coach.

He has worked with every level of golfer – from tour professionals and national team members to ‘weekend warriors’ – and recommends yoga to all of them.

“There is often 10 or 15 minutes between shots. It’s crucial in golf to stay present and be in the moment. You have to play the shot in front of you, not to think about the next hole. Mindfulness and breathing help to bring you back to the moment.”

You’ll find that kind of enthusiasm for yoga – and all it has to offer – right across a spectrum of sports, from cycling and running to Gaelic football and rugby.

That’s a far cry from the early days of yoga.

When the ancient physical, mental and spiritual discipline was first introduced to the West from India, it was considered a practice for women and/or yummy mummies, or dismissed as something for the hippy, dippy set.

Not any more.

When the Dubs beat Mayo to win the All-Ireland football final in 2013, they attributed part of their success to a ‘secret weapon’: yoga.

Just before the 2013 Championship, the Dubs’ physical trainer Martin Kennedy also turned to Anne Marie Kennedy for help.

“He believed in developing the athletes holistically,” she tells Feelgood.

“There has been a real shift in mindset about yoga. Many of the world’s biggest teams – Manchester United, the New Zealand All-Blacks, the Chicago Bulls – are all engaging in yoga for its powerful benefits. Now that is happening here too.”

So why does yoga help?

Dublin senior footballer Michael Darragh MacAuley (below) says yoga has improved his flexibility and has helped him to recover more quickly from tough training sessions.

He also says he found it particularly good to loosen up his hip and back areas.

The Dublin team had absolutely no reservations about doing yoga, their instructor says.

“They loved it. The guys are intrinsically very motivated and they are happy to do whatever training will help improve their performance.”

And there is no shortage of evidence to show that yoga can help performance. Studies being carried out on elite athletes at the University of California suggest that yoga helps them to reach peak performance.

The Connacht Rugby squad was one of the first in the country to embrace that idea, though when Connacht rugby coach Eric Elwood (below) first enlisted the help of yoga instructor David Cunningham, the players were a little dubious.

But that changed quickly.

“I feel that Connacht are really ahead of the curve,” he says.

“We did yoga every week with the senior team and the Academy, which included young guys like Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin McKeon and Ultan Dillane. It was, and still is, great to get these guys doing yoga at 15.”

David Cunningham and his wife Laragh opened Yoga Shala in Galway 12 years ago to share the yoga expertise they had gained in Australia and India with the community in their home city.

As a former golfer for Ireland, David had a special interest in sport and, before long, he was teaching yoga to the Galway hurlers and Galway Utd too.

And as more and more high-profile sportspeople – Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Andy Murray – came out of the “yoga closet”, interest grew.

At the time, the big selling points were injury prevention, flexibility and strength, but all that has changed.

Laragh Cunningham explains: “We were doing strong yoga with them with lots of strong movements where you sweat it all out, but now I am doing totally the opposite. The focus is on recovery and restoration. That is my great passion.”

She decided to shift focus when she realised the senior rugby squad found it very difficult to lie still on their backs in the relaxation pose, shavasana.

“They work their bodies so hard in their training, so I gradually introduced relaxation. They fought it, but that was what they needed,” she says.

However, the younger players at Connacht Rugby Academy, with encouragement from manager Nigel Carolan, have taken to the new approach with gusto.

They enjoy Laragh’s weekly classes which include guided meditations, breathing exercises and at least 20 minutes – they demand that much – of deep relaxation (yoga nidra).

“It’s extremely therapeutic. It’s incredibly transformative what happens. We talk about respect and body awareness and understanding themselves physically and mentally,” she says.

Some of them tell her they haven’t slept for a long time because they are in such physical discomfort but they get a great night’s sleep after a session.

Senior player at Connacht Rugby Academy, Jack Dinneen (21) is also a fan. He first thought about doing yoga when he heard players, such as Paul O’Connell (who does hot yoga Bikram), talk about how it kept them limber and mobile.

The Connacht hooker thought he’d try it for himself and took his first class a year ago. He loved it.

He’s had calf trouble and says rugby training can be very demanding, particularly on the legs. Yoga, however, has helped a lot with lower-body mobility (quads, hips, groin, legs).

The biggest benefit, however, has been incorporating its breathing and relaxation techniques into training.

Speaking of Paul O’Connell, the retired rugby star – and yogi – is now advising the next generation of rugby players at the Greencore Munster Rugby Academy, but his new charges are already open to the idea of yoga.

While the Academy doesn’t have formal yoga sessions, training does incorporate some of yoga’s principles, lead strength and conditioning coach Joe McGinley tells Feelgood.

“A lot of people focus on flexibility and stretching, but the big benefit of yoga for me is the focus on good breathing and its role in muscular strengthening. Muscles can be conditioned through yoga practice,” he says.

He says people don’t realise that breathing is a great way to stablise the body’s core and that it can also help address posture issues in the upper body and shoulders.

“Learning to breathe properly can help your performance on the pitch,” he says, pointing out that breathing exercises rather than sit-ups are the best way to build up abdominal muscles.

After all, their primary function is to facilitate breathing.

Breathing exercises are used pre- and post-sessions at the Munster Academy.

Powerful exhalations pre-match can help to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is what you need when in a heightened fight-or-flight state on the pitch.

However, says McGinley, it’s also important to help the parasympathetic nervous system to rest and digest after the game.

“The best way of controlling that is through breathing,” he says.

Deep, slow inhalations and exhalations help players recover after a hard game.

The benefits of yoga

Psychological benefits:

Develops skills to cope with competitive and performance anxiety and stress.

Keeps the mind focused and free from internal and external distractions.

Increases self-awareness in all aspects of the athlete’s life.

Develops self-discipline and emotional control.

Reduces stress in the athlete’s life and promotes positive mental health.

Physical benefits:

Reduces risk of injury and helps injury rehabilitation.

Increases overall flexibility and increases joint mobility for a better range of motion.

Addresses imbalances created in the body due to the repetitive nature of certain sports.

Helps develop and support good posture, alignment and movement skills.

Increases body strength and endurance and increases core strength to support posture.

By Clodagh Finn

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