STRETCHING TOWARD GOLD
Yoga Journal|July - August 2021
How Olympians Turn to Yoga to Benefit Their Minds and Bodies
IAN CENTRONE

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.

Lee Kiefer

For 27-year-old Lee Kiefer, fencing is a family affair. Her father, a neurosurgeon, was an avid fencer who competed in local tournaments around Kentucky and neighboring states. He was a captain of the men’s fencing team at Duke University.

Lee was seven years old when her father encouraged her and her siblings to embrace the sport. “ ” she remembers. “It was heavy, and the rules [of fencing] were confusing. My only strength at that point was my competitive spirit.” That energy eventually landed her at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games as one of the country’s top-ranked foil fencers.

She didn’t medal at either Olympics, but Kiefer has been using a new training technique in her quest for gold in the Summer Games in Tokyo: she added asana into her training regimen at the start of the pandemic as a way to boost her often-racing mind.

Being able to breathe and exist in the present is a challenge for me, she says. Yoga gives me the chance to slow down and feel in sync with my body.

When I am fencing my best, I have a feeling that combines trusting my training and past experiences on the [fencing] strip to give me a sense of control—where I am calm and explosive simultaneously. Yoga has played a role in my maturity to be able to tap into this more often, she says.

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