Yoga for Athletes: Winning the Mind Games

posted by Jennifer Wilford

Yoga began as an exercise for me. Nothing more.

But only seeing the physical benefits of yoga is like going to Baskin Robbins and getting chocolate ice cream every single visit. My son does this, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. But yoga is 32 flavors and then some, and if you only pay attention to the physical yumminess it has to offer, you’re missing out on a lot, especially if you are an athlete.

For me, bringing yoga beyond the physical realm started with breathing in and out through my nose, Darth Vader like. Teachers cued it as “Ujjayi breath” (pronounced oo-JAH-yee), and while I couldn’t spell it, I loved its meaning – victorious breath. As an athlete, it sounded as if the goddess Nike was in my corner providing the literal wind beneath my wings. All accomplished by tapping into the simple act of inhaling and exhaling.

555248_10200438981481794_940862816_nMost of us breathe between 17,000-30,000 times a day. And as I started paying attention to my breath, my exercise on the mat became a practice in awareness. As an athlete, there’s a difference between running aimlessly minus a plan and actually training. The same is true in yoga — you put some intention behind what you do and things start to happen.

By paying attention to something as simple as breathing, I found myself tethered to the present moment, which was new territory for me. And that was bigger than anything stretching or strengthening I did on the mat. So often we are either stuck in a swamp of what would have, could have, should have happened, or we greet the day filled to the brim with anxiety over what hasn’t even happened.

So thanks to yoga, yes, I got more flexible in my hamstrings, but I also made space in the grey matter of my head. That perhaps was the biggest victory of all.

On Sunday, I’ll be teaching Part II of my Yoga for Athletes series. We’ll get on our mats, but also into our heads, explore the power of the many mental tools yoga offers, including that victorious breath allowing you to embrace your potential in your sport and in your life!

See you there!



Jennifer regularly puts her students at ease understanding what it's like to the be least flexible person in a yoga class. That's where she was at the start of her yoga journey in 2011 as a Boston marathon runner with snappy tight hamstrings and hips. Her competitive nature initially wanted to better her physical practice, but it was her curiosity about attentiveness and connection, not poses, that led her to teacher training, which she completed in 2013 through the Inspire School of Yoga. She greatly enjoys teaching Renew classes at Inspire and gives back with open community-based classes at Luke's Locker where she leads her students in deliberate stretching laced with humor and genuine understanding that simple yoga poses may not be easy. She also has taught yoga classes to teams and individuals with sport-specific needs. Jennifer currently is pursuing additional certification teaching Yoga to Athletes with Sage Rountree in addition to 300 additional hours of training through Inspire. Jennifer graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri (go Tigers) and lives in Flower Mound with her son, Dylan, and adopted dog Tori. When not teaching, she works as a certified running coach devising customized plans for all ability levels and does freelance writing. A cook and foodie, she believes meals are best shared with good friends, ideally over a cold IPA or fat zin, depending on her mood.

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