Yesterday I had a track session of 5x1000's early in the day. For anyone who's done track workouts, you know its a hurt like few others. Track workouts are fast, turbulent, physically demanding, and can be incredibly challenging mentally even if for a few seconds or minutes at a time. Then in the evening I had a swim workout, which was one of my best swims I've had in a long time because it was the complete opposite of the track work. It was an incredible contrast. That swim was a calm, focused, graceful, and balanced, but it still provided me with a challenge. It struck me how much it was like doing yoga.
Preparing for a triathlon, even more so for an Ironman, is an incredibly demanding endeavor. The numbers range, but training can easily add anywhere from 5-15 hours of commitment to an age grouper's already busy schedule of work, family, and friends. The tendency when you try to juggle all your commitments is to allow one thing to creep into another. So when you're training you start to think about work, and when you're at work you're thinking about making dinner for the family, and when you're with your family you're thinking about the training you might have missed earlier in the week, and so on.
What yoga provides is a sense of mental focus that is difficult to find elsewhere. I find that one of yoga's greatest benefits is simply from the feel you get when you walk into class, the feel of the outside world being left behind at the door, a sensation some of us are challenged to duplicate in other circumstances. Just as track sessions should be used to improve top end speed even for long distance runners, yoga should be used to improve mental focus for endurance athletes. Its a fact that many athletes who practice yoga regularly are able to stay focused and relaxed even during high-intensity games or races.
In endurance events like Ironman, your coach will tell you straight up that when you get out of the water and get on the bike, if it feels like you're racing, then you're going too fast. I've had coaches tell me about how in the frantic chaos of transition they've had they're athletes leave transition with their helmets on backwards, I've seen people fall off their bike when they're barely on it, and I've had far too many fellow racers push too hard on the bike only to blow up on the run be it in a sprint triathlon or an Ironman. In each of those examples what is chronically absent is the focus and calm that should prevail on a day where you need to be in absolute control of your mind and body. I used to climb quite a bit and one thing I always said to newcomers was that "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast". There is nothing fast about a lack of focus.
Savasana, where you lie down for 10-15 minutes at the end of class while your brain calms, your body relaxes, tissues and organs repair themselves, and you release any mental tension you may have built up. I find that calmness feel great and it usually sticks with me into my next few training sessions until my next yoga tune-up.
Here's a great example of how yoga helped athletes in another sport focus and keep cool when it came down to gut check time. During the Chicago Bulls' 1997-1998 preseason training camp, the basketball players had scheduled yoga workouts every day after regular practice. Their yoga instructor's goal was to not only improve their physical capabilities, but also achieve a more relaxed mental state. According to the Yoga Journal website, the instructor's hard work seemed to pay off. After losing the first game of the championship series that year, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls seemed relatively unconcerned. When asked about his calm demeanor, he responded, "I just decided to use a little bit of Zen Buddhism and relax; instead of being frustrated, I just smiled, channeled my thoughts and let the game flow." (reference, Livestrong- The Best Yoga for Athletes).