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.
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.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Teachers Share Works - They Read at the End of Class
Shine by Andrea Gibson
Calm Amid The Storm
Physician and yoga therapist Ingrid Yang has been serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic since it began. Her preferred prescription? Pranayama
Serving up JOY
Ayurvedic ambassador and plant-based chef Radhi Devlukia-Shetty on her constant pursuit of a purposeful life.
Lose Weight, Feel Great
Nutrition expert’s advise on how to lose weight with a healthy shake
How Learning Bharatanatyam Classical Dance Helped Expand My Understanding of Yoga
Before last spring, I had a well-established yoga routine: my own daily practice, teaching three classes a week at a nearby community center, and a volunteer gig teaching inmates at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.
I Measured My Brain Performance. Here's Why You Might Do the Same.
I'm sitting on a leather couch in an unassuming warehouse in Denver. There's a Ping-Pong table behind me, but I'm not at a party—I'm having my brain scanned.
STRETCHING TOWARD GOLD
How Olympians Turn to Yoga to Benefit Their Minds and Bodies
Avidya: The Absence of Right Knowledge
I was recently watching a TV sitcom where a character had been deeply offended by her friend. After a full day of nursing her resentment, the character realized the rude event never happened—she had only dreamed that it had
Free Your Pelvis to Find Your Best Twist
One day when I was practicing Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), I stretched to one side. I firmly anchored my pelvis, keeping my sitting bones on the floor, then I twisted toward my left leg and reached for my left foot with both hands.
Dancing with Fire: Flow through Pitta Season's Heat with Ease
According to Ayurveda, we're in pitta season, which brings warmth and activity. The summer's fiery energy fuels your desire to get out there and do things—like picnics, camping, and pool parties.
‘I Should Have Quit Way Before Tokyo'
For SIMONE BILES, walking away was an act of self-reclamation.
Tomorrow: David Wallace-Wells
Recalculating Risk In the breakthrough era, age matters as much as vaccination status.A
The Group Portrait: P.S. 705's Welcome Committee
The teachers who turned the school-drop-off line into a shindig.
Not a Safe Space
Sanctuary City is an undocumented immigration story that takes a sharp turn.
Jasper and Me
The artist who invented contemporary art also changed my life.
When you see what you expect to see
Every Woman for Herself
In this horror story, the oppression is coming from inside the house.
Segment your departure and climb for safety.
The Amant arts center faces the city with severity but aims to cosset visitors within.
Steve Jobs and the GTN
Why the ubiquitous works