12 minute read

How Yoga Can Help Coaches During COVID

By Sarah Neal

I came to yoga at one of the darkest chapters of my life. I had been in an emotionally abusive relationship on and off for over 15 years, and when I finally cut that tie for good, I met a great partner who was everything I wanted at the time—employed, kind, attentive, responsible, relatable, steady as a rock, and shared my love of cooking (he was a chef). Then, two years later, that relationship ended almost as abruptly as it began. Around the same time, I experienced some very difficult situations in skating and was struggling to process them. I sought advice in both matters from the wrong people who only ended up making me feel worse about myself.

Years before, when I first moved home to Louisville after coaching in Arizona and Spain, I coached with a former childhood skating friend who practiced yoga at a local non-profit yoga school. I admired her grace and poise and was intrigued by her dedicated yoga practice. I had dabbled in yoga before with classes at the YMCA and on DVD’s, but had never found a teacher or community that kept me going back. When I was searching for activities to help me heal and rediscover myself, I remembered that friend and where she practiced, so I decided to try it. I immediately loved the feeling that yoga gave me. In fact, my body still remembers setting the same intention of letting go at the start of every class for months, while I peeked out the studio window at the catering business across the breezeway. Little by little, I was distracted less by the caterers, less focused on my troubles, and more focused on the mat.

The year 2020, with all its chaos, calamity, and uncertainty, reminds me a lot of that period when I first began a regular yoga practice.

In 2013 it was just my world, but in 2020 the entire world seems to have shattered. But no worries, right? Coaches are examples of perseverance and will get up again. Indeed, right after rinks closed, coaches across the country pivoted and started off-ice program and classes and apps to stay employed and keep serving their skaters. Then, after the novelty wore off, uncertainty became the new normal, our families needed us in new ways, and we grew weary. The world has forced us to take our resilience up 100 notches, and even though we are tired, our competitive instincts stress us out about this year’s “results”. In addition, our controlling, overachieving natures make us also stress over toilet paper, home projects, and virtual education on top of the pandemic and the state of the world. If you thought coaching was stressful before COVID, now there’s absolutely no doubt.

Tree pose

Tree pose

You may have read or heard about the term “surge capacity”. Surge capacity, as defined by Dr. Ann Masten, is “a collection of mental and physical adaptive systems that humans tap into for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.” 1 In early humans, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system functioned to help us escape real, immediate dangers, such as predators. When we tap into these reactions for long periods of time, though, as we have done since March, the body and mind can suffer greatly. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “those same lifesaving reactions in the body can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability. Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.” 2

2020 so far has been difficult, to say the least, and we are most likely looking ahead at a very long stretch of challenging times. In fact, just this morning my doctor told me, “The second wave is here. We survived the first. We will see if we survive the second.” How’s that for adding stress to the day? In reality, skaters are used to handling stress—every competition and sometimes every practice is a stressful event. This stress is short term, though, usually peaking right before a test session, show, or competition, and always with a deadline.

But the COVID-19 kind of stress is long-term, damaging, and worldwide. We are in the midst of a months-long performance with no audience, no breaks, and no end in sight.

While facing economic uncertainty, medical insecurity, careers on pause, and caring for our families, coaches must also attempt to remain steady, calm, kind, and productive for our skaters. We are trained to “fix” things, but we can’t fix a pandemic. Rather, we can only fix our response to it.

Wide-legged forward fold

Wide-legged forward fold

As we know, there are multiple ways to work on our reaction to stressful situations. Activities such as meditation, prayer, journaling, reading, baking, gardening, napping, and other hobbies can help us cope, but in my experience, nothing is as powerful a stress reliever as a regular yoga practice of postures, meditation, and breathwork. Many other forms of exercise also help lower anxiety by removing excess cortisol and adrenaline from the bloodstream, but as yoga teacher Eddie Stern explains in his book titled One Simple Thing, yoga is especially effective: “Yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration. There is also evidence that yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly.” 3 Stern goes on to say this is because yoga “has the added benefit of allowing us to access our nervous system…through our breathing and direct it toward perceiving balance, safety, and steadiness.” 4 Don’t just take our word for it—study after study has shown that yoga helps reduce anxiety and regulate stress. For a list of some of these studies compiled by Denise Rankin-Box, Editor-inChief of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, visit https://www. elsevier.com/connect/the-science-ofyoga-what-new-research-reveals. So, not only does yoga provide us an opportunity to relax, it literally has the power to alter the body’s stress response, which boosts immunity and improves health and overall well-being. Sounds like just what the doctor ordered for COVID times.

Easy pose

Easy pose

How does yoga do this? It’s very simple. Yoga begins by calming the breath, because it is much easier to calm the breath than the mind. Stern says, “If stress levels are high, yoga practice will down-regulate, particularly through breathing, the parts of the brain and endocrine system that are responsible for hormonal release of adrenaline and cortisol... (Yoga) restores the functions that are out of alignment toward a state of balance.”5 In fact, the name Hatha yoga itself refers to the union of the sun and the moon, heating energy and cooling energy, or the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In fact, the two parts of a physical asana practice—activity and stillness—directly correspond to the two nervous systems.6

Because of its impact on the nervous system, yoga brings deep mental and emotional benefits beyond stress relief. Articles and reports in recent years have revealed that many professional athletes have noticed the impact of yoga on their games. Professional teams such as the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, among others, have mandatory team yoga practice.

Lebron James, arguably one of the best basketball players of all times, has famously said, “Yoga isn’t just about the body, it’s also about the mind, and it’s a technique that has really helped me.” 7

If some of the best pros find it helpful mentally, skating coaches should take note. Some of yoga’s other positive mental effects that can be helpful to coaches include:

• Presence of Mind—The first step for a dedicated practice of any activity is to arrive, clear the mind, and set a goal or a plan. The ritual of arriving to the mat, sitting in quiet, and just breathing is sacred in yoga. Learning this ritual can help us shut out the noise and stay focused on the task at hand when our world feels chaotic and we feel pulled in 1000 directions.

• Steadiness—By focusing on the breath through the asanas and trying to balance effort and relaxation, the yoga practitioner learns to stay calm and smile through the challenges. According to B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation and commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sutra II.46 says “whatever asana is performed should be done with a feeling of firmness, steadiness and endurance in the body, goodwill in the intelligence of the head, and awareness and delight in the intelligence of the heart.”8 How does one accomplish this? By becoming grounded in the practice of the principles of yoga. Iyengar explains this in his commentary of Sutra 1.13 “Practice is the steadfast effort to still [the] fluctuations… in the consciousness and then to move towards silencing it: to attain a constant, steady, tranquil state of mind.” 9 Indeed, this would be of great benefit to all of us who are stressing out.

Eagle pose

Eagle pose

• Resilience—We have all heard the phrase “slow and steady wins the race,” and in most cases, that is certainly true, even in skating, and especially now. In coaching, I focus on the long-term goals of lifelong enjoyment of sport and the individual paths of each skater. The number of challenges facing some of us right now is mind-boggling. Yoga can help coaches weather the challenges of life towards the proverbial finish line. As Stern says, “The ability to stick with something that is difficult, and to do it with a calm mind, is one of the primary principles of yoga practice. Through gradual mastery we develop an ease of effort, and by keeping the mind focused in a relaxed way on the breath in difficult postures, we learn to bear difficulty…. (by practicing the postures), we will be able to withstand the ups and downs of life with a calm mind and fortitude.” 10

Gratitude—If one of our goals in practicing yoga is to lower anxiety and boost our mood, then we must not forget the importance of incorporating gratitude into the yoga practice. Science overwhelmingly states that practicing gratitude can have numerous physical, psychological and social benefits. In a white paper written for the John Templeton Foundation, Dr. Deborah Allen states that practicing gratitude can lead to better health, healthier habits, higher levels of satisfaction with personal, social, and school life among adolescents, less chance of burnout, better overall mood, and stronger relationships. For a more extensive look at the science reviewed by Dr. Allen, click here. Patanjali stresses gratitude as one of the foundations of yoga in sutra 2.42: “From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness”. 11 Or, in layman’s terms, “happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you have.” Many yoga teachers end class with a saying or mantra that reminds students of the importance of looking inward and expressing gratitude for the practice, the teachers, and everything that allows us to practice. Since yoga itself is rooted in gratitude, it stands to say that with an experienced and thoughtful teacher, practicing yoga can help skaters reap many of the benefits of gratitude studied by Dr. Allen.

While the traditional yoga of the past encouraged hours of daily practice, one does not need to practice and meditate for hours on end to reap the benefits of the yoga systems.

In fact, most yoga teachers agree that it is better to practice for a shorter time every day than just one longer weekly session. As discussed here, there are countless physical and mental benefits for those who maintain even a short yoga practice grounded in postures, meditation, and the breath. With the impact yoga has on the nervous system, practitioners can learn to self-regulate, leading to lower anxiety and overall better health. By forgetting the stress of COVID briefly and focusing on the yoga postures and the breath, we can work to breathe through the challenges.

Extended triangle pose

Extended triangle pose

I encourage every coach to do a bit of yoga every day. Even just five minutes of sitting with your breath (I like doing this with The Breathing App) is a perfect place to start. No flexibility, specific body type, or age is required. Yoga is absolutely for everyone, but coaches should be aware that not all yoga is created equal. Practices that focus more on extreme flexibility or pushing oneself to the limit are not the same as practices designed to focus on the breath and meet you where the body happens to be at that moment. Skaters and former skaters who struggle with eating disorders can be especially vulnerable when drawn to studios that talk about burning calories and detox or that emphasize a certain look in postures. For this reason, it is important to do a little research when choosing where to practice, and coaches may need to try a few teachers to see what clicks. Also, please be advised that while yoga has been shown to help with anxiety and depression, it is not a replacement for treatment from a medical or mental health professional. If you are experiencing severe depression or have any health concerns, please seek advice from a health care professional.


1. https://elemental.medium.com/your-surgecapacity-is-depleted-it-s-why-you-feel-awfulde285d542f4c

2. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml

3. Stern, E. (2019). One simple thing: a new look at the science of yoga and how it can transform your life. New York: North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. p. 85.

4. Stern, p. 85.

5. Stern, p. 97.

6. Stern, p. 201.

7. Mahoney, Rob. (2014). LeBron James credits yoga class for helping alleviate cramping issues in Game 2. Retrieved from https://www. si.com/nba/point-forward/2014/06/09/lebronjames-yoga-class-cramping-heat-nba-finals

8. Iyengar, B.K.S. (2002). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. London: Thorsons, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. P.157

9. Iyengar, p.63

10. Stern, p. 63.

11.Iyengar, p.155

Sarah Neal, M.A., MM, MG, CFS, CD, RYT-200, is a coach and Learn-to-Skate Director at Louisville Skating Academy in Louisville, KY. She enjoys sharing the benefits of yoga with skaters and fellow coaches of all levels through her online yoga platform called The Skating Yogi. To learn more, visit Sarah on IG @the_skating_yogi or e-mail sarah@theskatingyogi.com