The One Thing Yogis and All Olympic Gold Medalists Have in Common

If you’re anything like me, you watched the Summer Olympics in Rio with awe. How could such a tiny powerhouse like Simone Biles pack routines with almost superhero-like strength and yet gracefully float around the floor with a fairy-like presence? It was enough to win her five medals and dominate the field.
How could formerly retired Olympian Michael Phelps, one of the oldest swimmers in the field, show up to the pool and dominate his younger opponents time and time again? Truth be told, doubters questioned whether Phelps even had the firepower to win any medal again, much less gold, but he proved us wrong – six times over!
So, what was it about Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, and the other athletic powerhouses in the Summer Olympics? Was it their raw talent that left our jaws hanging? Without a doubt. Was it their devotion to the sport? Of course.
But, what separates these athletes from other Olympians? What make them gold medal winners many times over?
Their bodies are no doubt fine-tuned like Greek gods and goddesses, but I think it’s something more – something in the mind.
In yoga, we call it sthira sukham asanam. You may have heard your teacher mention this phrase before, or maybe you’ve heard the English translation of steadiness and ease.
Yogi sage Patanjali said in the Yoga Sutra 2.46 (http://youaligned.com/om/20-yoga-sutras-translated-and-explained/) that one of the foundational goals in a yoga pose is to find stability and comfort in the shape.

Essentially, sthira sukham asanam means finding a balance of body, mind, and breath, so that the yoga pose is firm, strong, and absolute while also filled with calmness and equanimity.

This is exactly what we find with Olympians like Biles and Phelps. If you’ve watched their faces right before the big routine or event, you’ve seen the steady intensity with the twinkle of ease in their eyes, knowing that they’re prepared and ready to face any challenge.
The natural question you might be wondering is, How do I find my steadiness and ease in my yoga practice?
Here are 5 ways to find your steadiness and ease to activate your full potential on and off the mat:

1. Gaze Steady

That piercing stare of Michael Phelp’s that you’ve seen before his races isn’t unplanned – it’s an intentional, focused gaze, much like a yoga drishti. His eyes are fixed on the prize, knowing what it takes to win.
A popular meme during the Olympics showed Michael Phelps in first place with his eyes focused on the finish line, while his nearest opponent Chad le Clos, stared intently at Michael. Not surprisingly, Michael went on to win the race, not le Clos.
You can find your gaze in your yoga practice by finding one point to fixate the eyes on as you move through and settle into poses.
Before I complete most tasks, whether on or off the mat, I ask myself, “Can I focus more clearly on the task at hand? Am I distracted by what’s around me? How can I reduce my desire to multitask and instead focus on monotasking – doing one thing with a calm, intense focus?” Consider asking yourself these questions too.

2. Find Your Flow

One of the things Simone Biles and Michael Phelps do best is find their “flow.” They get into a zone that no one else can break. The hoots and hollers and horns that fill the arenas could easily break anyone’s concentration, especially on an event like the balance beam where only four inches separate you from a four-foot fall.
Yet Biles and Phelps dismiss the distractions and push forward like no one else is around.
If you are interested in bringing more ‘flow’ (and less rigidity) to your practice, recognize that the teacher’s calls are just invitations. You get to decide your pace, based on the depth and length of your own breaths. You also get to decide where to place your mat, what props you want, and which classes and teachers you connect with.

3. Honor Your Boundaries

The body is so wise. It gives us unmistakable signals when it’s stable and happy and when it’s ailing and poisoned. This includes listening to the upper and lower thresholds of what your body and mind can tolerate on a given day.
For example, I have hypermobility in my wrists and shoulders which can lead to long-term chronic pain if I don’t watch my practice carefully and honor what it needs, whether that’s setting clear limits or making sure I practice from a place of self-care and not ego.
Get to know your own boundaries. Ask yourself, “Where am I at today? What tightness or twinges can I feel in my body? What places feel open and wanting more? Where do I need to back off and be kind?”


4. Observe Your Mind, Body, and Breath

Be the great observer and witness of yourself. Be willing to see yourself from the bird’s eye view to notice when the ego pushes you too far or allows you to skip by without a challenge.
Revisit the boundaries you set in #3. If you’ve contorted yourself into a new pose because you saw the gal next to you do it, step outside yourself to say, “Am I ready for this pose? Does it give me steadiness and ease? Or am I acting from my need to compare and compete?”
If you’ve ever made excuses and told yourself that you’re not capable of certain poses, take notice. Consider the mental patterns you have that allow you to write stories of failure before you’ve ever tried.

5. Practice Truly is Everything

Every Olympic athlete showed up to practice and train over and over again. Their committed practice targeted all parts of themselves – body, mind, and breath work.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to show up to yoga class 365 days a year. This can simply mean sitting in quiet for a few minutes. This can mean choosing a more peaceful path when someone cuts you off at an intersection and finding your breath when your heart starts racing.
Ask yourself questions like, “What can I do to bring more balance into my life today? No matter how big or small, how can I bring yoga into my life today?” There are endless opportunities every day to simply show up, so just do it! Why wait?
Sthira sukham asanam doesn’t come easily for any of us. We’re humans with plenty of flaws and ‘monkey’ minds that love to jump from limb to limb. It takes time to build up strength of mind. Olympic gold medalists Simone Biles and Michael Phelps work on it every day, practicing hard to find that perfect balance.
Although you or I may never win a gold medal in the Olympics, we can work to find sthira sukham asanam in our everyday lives. It’s worth the try, and yields incredible results both on and off the mat. Namaste, yogis!
Featured image: Erick Robinson Photography

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Meredith DeCosta

Meredith DeCosta, PhD, RYT is an academic by day, yogi for life. She is a university teacher, researcher, and writer. When she's not at the university, she is practicing or teaching yoga, specializing in vinyasa flow and power classes. Meredith playfully blends a deep knowledge of asana with an infectious energy that encourages her students to feel lighter and brighter. Join her tribe of positivity.

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