Paulette Egan – Sports Yoga
Transcriptionist Kristan H.
You are listening to Rowing Down the River, where you will hear about nutrition, rowing tips, technique improvements, equipment, bio-hacks, and become the beast where you have the edge in any competition. Here is your host, Aron O’Dowd.
Aron: Hello and welcome. You’re listening to Rowing Down the River. On today’s show, we have Paulette Egan. She is a SportsYoga therapist. She works with many athletes in different sports. She does some work with rowers, and on today’s show, we’re going to talk about rowing, SportsYoga, flexibility, and everything that enhances the athlete’s performance through yoga. Hello, and welcome to the show, Paulette. How are you doing today?
Paulette: Fine, thank you.
Aron: I like to start off with, how did you discover SportsYoga?
Paulette: Five years ago, I came up with the concept of sports and yoga. I have always been a fanatic of sports, and I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty-five years. I used to work with athletes, and I decided that there is a void there in sport that there is something that I could do through yoga to help their performance. Five years ago, I decided that I was putting both together, as in SportsYoga. Now at this stage, it’s become a very international name, I suppose, as more countries realizing that sports and yoga should be together.
The whole concept of SportsYoga is creating balance, basically in a person’s life. Number one, you need to be able to balance between training and lifestyle. You also, when you are training, you need to be able to balance between muscle balance, emotions, and how the person is feeling right now. Mindfulness, visualization, external factors. It’s not all just about physical training.
I have divided the SportsYoga program into different levels. My first one would be prevention of injury. Maybe just talking about the physical side of it for a moment.
Aron: You deal with physical, emotion, and let’s just say spiritual, for a moment.
Aron: How does it affect those individual segments or pieces with yoga?
Paulette: I think I might start with my first concept, would be Prevention of Injury. I’m going to talk just for a few moments about the physical aspect of SportsYoga.
Number one, I think that a lot of people, and rowers included, they train, it’s all very one-dimensional. They’re training in one way, they’re moving their bodies even though they do have a variety of different physical activities involved in their sport, but to actually get the benefit out of it, you do need to be able to move with awareness. This is where the yoga comes into it. Yoga is about moving with awareness.
Starting your program by becoming totally centered, and then moving from there into whatever stretching program that you’re moving into, as long as you are including breathing. That’s what makes a difference in a yoga class compared to, say, a workout in the gym? Is that you’re tuning in to your body. Once you tune in to your body, the important thing is that you’re aware of if you’ve got any … aches or pains that you may not have had before. This is where you work into and you realize “Okay, I can actually work around this,” or, you’re more aware of how the body is working. You only go so far and you will not push your body over the limit.
The program would include a full range of movement for the body. It’s not just any particular strengthening or speed or agility, it’s an overall balance in an athlete’s training. That would be the first, would be prevention of injury.
The second would be the awareness, and how somebody can be totally aware when they’re in their sport. In rowing, this would be of very much interest to a rower. A lot of rowing can be very mindful. When you are in your boat, it’s important that you can become totally in your zone, and that you’re not getting distracted by, say, for example, external factors. Like you just don’t know, you could become distracted and lose the race by just simply not focusing on the job at hand at that very moment.
Would you agree with me there, Aron?
Aron: I would, yeah. How can we become, like you said, flexibility, or how … you talk about “In the zone.” Is it through testing, how can you indicate the athlete, if they’re in that flexibility zone?
Paulette: When I speak about the zone, I probably had moved on from the flexibility. The flexibility would come more into, creating the balance in an athlete’s regime. As in, number one, you need balance between flexibility, mobility; between strength, and between, like strengthening different areas of the body. The core, of course, is a very important part of the program. Also, just creating the balance between lengthening and strengthening, and that’s a lot.
I would do a lot of that in my classes, in the sense that bringing the awareness. You would only create length in a muscle when you’re aware, without forcing it. It cannot be forced. It cannot be pounding the road, or doing a 10K race or something. It’s got to be you’re on your yoga mat, and your awareness, if you’re working into the calf muscle, your awareness is there. Okay?
Aron: Okay. The muscle group in a rower is shoulders, hips, legs, and arms. Are those the main areas you focus on, or is it the whole body?
Paulette: It would depend on what sport. Sometimes I work with people and their one-sided sport. For example, you might apply tennis players, or golfers. They would be using one side of their body all the time. My job is to create a balance between the right and the left side of the body, so that they sit evenly, and that it’s not all that you might get repetitive tear, repetitive injury from using one side of the body all the time.
For a rower, of course it is mainly the shoulders and the hips, and the core. You need to get the balance right. You need to be able to count on the power in the shoulders, which we know, that’s not what rowing is all about. Rowing is about being able to get the body into the perfect position, and to be able to move. To be able to move, I would call it gracefully, in the boat, rather than one part of the body moving at one time, and then … you’ve got to get the whole body moving together.
This is where the mindfulness really comes in to when I work with rowers, is that they can get into their zone. It’s not about any particular flexibility, mobility, Of course, this is all done in the pre-season training coming up to a race. I’m just wondering, Aron, are we talking about a race now, or are we talking about the preseason?
Aron: The whole season.
Paulette: The whole season, okay.
Aron: I know, it’s big, but it’s the texture of … and athlete knows the preseason and racing season, but they don’t know how to mix the two of them together, you know?
Paulette: Right. Safe stretching would be a big part of what I do in my SportsYoga program. Some people that I work with, they might be elite athletes, but they’ve never really thought about moving the body with awareness. I’m coming back to this awareness all the time, that once you tune in to your body, then you build a strong, healthy, balanced body. Okay? I’m talking about balancing all the groups, so you will be listening for early signs of fatigue, or you might be having a bad day.
That’s where the awareness in the SportsYoga comes back into improving your overall body strength and improving your muscle endurance, just by easing off, coming back to it, going that extra little bit, easing off, but creating a program that we get that person’s body ready for whatever sport that they’re playing.
That’s just the physical side of it. The other side of it would be, of course, the breathing. I’m introducing another program that I’ve written, it’s called The SportsYoga VO2 Max Program. This program, it’s all about how to breathe properly, and how to improve your sport by using your breath. Have you ever done anything in the line of breathing techniques to improve your performance, Aron?
Aron: No, and that was my next question. Rowing is very aerobic, and aerobic sport. How do you get the breathing in line with those elements?
Paulette: The first part would be that most competitive sports would require a high level of aerobic performance. This would be over an extended period of time. A lot of people will take, we would all take our breathing for granted. Many coaches, they don’t include any form of breathing techniques at all, for strengthening the lungs and for most importantly, maximizing lunch capacity. This would be a huge part of what I do, is preparing the lungs. I’m talking about actually conditioning the respiratory, the respiratory system.
Aron: How do you do that?
Paulette: It’s one of my many secrets that I have. Everything in yoga is associated back to your breathing. Number one, you would learn how to use your lungs more effectively. You would start by conditioning the respiratory system, which is starting at your diaphragm. Most people will shallow breathe from the upper chest, whereas when you start breathing from using the diaphragm, which means that when you inhale, the diaphragm moves down, okay? The diaphragm would be the number one muscle for your breathing.
Then the diaphragm is connected into the lats, into the upper chest, the upper back. I think breathing is nearly a forgotten part of an athlete’s program. They just think, “Okay, I’m breathing, and I’m fine.” What happens is they’re only shallow breathing, so you need to be able to work into all the muscles. It’s not just about breathing in and out, it’s about being aware that you’re breathing in, out, sides are moving out, expansion, the upper back is moving, the entire torso is actually moving so that the lungs can expand. Also, bringing the awareness of an athlete down into the lower lungs. This is the important part, that they’re aware, “Oh! Suddenly, now I’m beginning to breathe deeper, and I’m becoming aware.” When you begin to breathe deeper, you’re actually switching on your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming part of the nervous system.
Aron: Do you have a measurement or identification as the client or athlete’s lungs, or test methods that you use?
Paulette: No, I’m still working on that, Aron. I do have, over the years, I’ve worked with some Olympians, I’ve worked with some Irish mountaineers, and including many different sports. I have yet to actually work with somebody that I can, I suppose, prove that what I’m doing is making a difference. That is something that I would like to do.
To get back to the breathing, for example, the breath can be used for many aspects in your training. It can be used to release tight muscles, to increase lung capacity, and also to improve your mental focus. It’s not about just the breath that you take in, but it’s about you being aware. There’s many different breathing techniques that I would use. I suppose I have over the last few years, but I would have, I would have realized for myself is, number one, you can reduce your breathing rate, which includes increase with your oxygen. This therefor would increase the blood circulation to all the vital organs. It would increase your lung capacity, so you’re using your lungs effectively. Also, what you’re doing is you are strengthening the respiratory condition.
Overall, it would optimize your speed, your vitality, and your endurance. The specific breathing techniques, there’s ninety different breathing techniques that I use. They naturally increase the red blood cells in the body. You would have a higher degree of concentration, mental focus, and have clear, controlled mind at a crucial point, or a crucial part in your race, by breathing.
Aron, you asked me there earlier how I could help somebody, say, through the breathing, how you can get somebody to, for example, like yourself, a rower. How I could get somebody to row, gliding along. It’s all down to do with your breathing. You could have a breathing technique that you’re focused on the breath, and that you could use the breath nearly like a mantra, if there was more than one of you in the boat. Even just one person in the boat on their own, it’d be like their mindfulness moment. They’re breathing, they’re aware of the breath moving in and out through the nose.
Aron: You mentioned mindfulness throughout your answers. Explain how that word identifies in the sport and athlete.
Paulette: Mindfulness, years ago, it would never have probably even been a mention in relation to sport. People are beginning to realize now that to excel in your sport, you need to be mindful. You need to be mindful of what the body is doing. You also need to be mindful of being able to switch on, nearly going into a meditative state of mind, before your race or before your game.
It’s all got to do with, for example, if you’re going racing, Aron, how would you center yourself? What do you do at the beginning of your race?
Aron: It would be a warm up, warm down, race.
Paulette: Is that it?
Aron: No, but that’s the general gist of how you would prepare for a race.
Paulette: Would you ever do anything like being aware? Like, sit quietly, being aware of your breathing, or how do you actually get into a clear mind, yourself, when you’re racing?
Aron: I would think it’d be more about the race than about the other side. The race would be more important than doing the other things. I don’t know if that makes sense or not.
Paulette: Yeah, no, it does make sense. The goal that I said to you, if I said to you, “Okay. I want you to become more centered before your race.” Do you know what centered means?
Aron: I do, yes, but can you explain it to the listeners about what centered is?
Paulette: Yes, of course I can. Centered, or grounding, it’s called, means that … you can use different techniques, for example, your five senses. You can use your five senses to become grounded. Means that if you’re either sitting in your boat, or you’re standing, you become aware of number one, your surroundings. You’re just aware, everything that’s around you. You become aware of what you see, what you smell, what you taste, how do you feel?
Then you take your awareness into the soles of your feet, and you become aware that you are standing on solid ground. You’re aware that the feet, the feet are quite happy to be basically standing. This can be done in the boat as well. Once you align your body right, the breath will actually work through the body. Everything is all aligned on top of each other, so you’ve got the body standing, in a very safe, stable position. The awareness of you being aware of your five senses: this is was brings you into your body. Now you’re coming into your zone.
Aron: Okay, I see.
Paulette: This would be number one. Number two would be, and back to the mindfulness word again: being mindful of when you’re in your boat, getting into the boat, how do you feel? Putting on, strapping on shoes, getting your oars, how does it feel to have your hands on the oars? How does it feel when you push the boat out, are you stable? Are you balanced? Do you feel? How do you feel in your own body? Is it that, “Oh, this is it. I’m about to race!” Or, if you practice some mindfulness, is it that you can actually be “This is my time. I am so focused on what I am doing that this is where I am.” It’s really being in your zone.
Something else that I suppose, and one thing I’ve got to mention there is, if you can row with a clear, controlled mind, that’s giving you an advantage over somebody who maybe can be distracted. There are many, many distractions in sport, as you know. Mindfulness brings me on to meditation and visualization.
The meditation, you would work on during your training, before your race. It’s quite easy to meditate. I suppose it’s like any sport, it’s a skill, so you need to be able to learn how to quieten your mind. Once you can quieten your mind, it’s like dropping into a completely different level. That’s where great athletes would really excel. They have learned how to drop in to a particular space where nothing else is going on in their mind, only the one thing. That is moving down that river at the best of their ability.
Aron: Fantastic. An athlete comes into you for the first time. How do you test their flexibility? How do you know what to work with?
Paulette: Right. I’ve been doing yoga for a long, long time. I’m a yoga therapist. Somebody comes in to work that I want to work with, I will have them standing on their mat. There is one simple technique that I use, it’s called the Surya Namaskar, which is the Sun Salutation. I see, the Sun Salutation works into every part of the body. I get them to do with me one round, and see how, where they’re going wrong. Are they able to step forward, step back, which I can guarantee to you, they are not … the more elite athletes that I’ve worked with, the more inflexible and lack of mobility that they actually have.
I work out a program, then. We start, basically at the very very beginning. They learn how to breathe properly. This is number one, how to breathe properly. Then, you move your body with you breathing. That is number two. Over a period of time, I give them a simple little workout to do to start with, or even sometimes if I work with athletes that are injured, it’s quite good to get them to start. Give them something very, maybe half an hour of a program to work with, and then work on it from there.
I work it out for them, record a particular program for them, so that then they have it and they can listen to it on their everyday, every day they need to listen to it. The reason for that is that people like yourself, you don’t have time for including something else into your training, because you’re so busy, you’ve got so much on. Wouldn’t that be right, Aron?
Aron: That would be, yeah. It would.
Paulette: Even for me talking to you know, it’s daunting to think “Oh, how am I ever going to include yoga? Where would I need it?” You do need, yoga is probably the only form of movement that would create a complete, overall balance in your body.
Aron: I see. After the program, weeks later do you come back and asses, or is that …?
Paulette: Yes. Normally what happens, people, I would give them two weeks. I’ll say “I need you to practice this every day for two weeks.” Now, I’ll always keep it to half an hour, because half an hour, that is enough time for them to … they can fit that into their busy schedule. When they come back, then, two weeks later, then I give them, we increase a little bit more. I might do another breathing technique. For example, I worked with an Olympian race walker, and there’s different, just different, they’re called mudras that you do, different energy circuits that you can use. Hold your hands in a certain way, or, a mantra. Mantras are very good as well for long distant, either rowing or running.
There’s a lot going on. Where yoga comes into it, is that yoga is just what exactly is missing in sport today. That’s right across the board, from kickers in rugby, to [freetickers 00:22:55 ], to swimmers, to rowers. The people who have all that, the mental focus, the perfect mobility, the flexibility, the strength, and the balance in their muscle groups, they are the people who are going to succeed.
I really do think that if you haven’t got the mind/body connection, well then you’re losing out in a huge part of your program, You have physically, people are powerful, and they’re strong, but do you have it at that crucial moment? Do they have it mentally to actually get over the line first or not.
Aron: I see, okay. Do you think this is the missing link, and why?
Paulette: Yes, I definitely think it’s the missing link. Before I actually called, I did a side project, going to call my whole theory of what I do between SportsYoga. I was going to call it The Missing Link. So I was, and I thought, “No, maybe that’s going to be too extreme,” that I just didn’t want to call it The Missing Link Program, so I called it SportsYoga.ie.
One part that I’ve left out is visualization of your sport. This is something that I work on, as well. There’s another part of yoga which is yoga nidra, it’s called, and it means that at the end of when I work with an individual, I get them to lie down flat on the floor. They’re all wrapped up in blankets, and I take them through a yoga nidra script, basically. Where you allow your body to completely switch off. The body is switching off, but the mind stays alert. Some people they like a visualization included in their yoga nidra. When the body is switched off, if you need healing, or if there’s any aches and pains in the body, the body starts to heal itself, right there and then, when the body is switched off, okay?
When it comes to visualization, I will include in a certain part in that yoga nidra script, I would include a visualization of where they would like to see themselves. They’ve already told me different words and I would include that all in their visualization. When it comes to visualization and sport, you can have it clear in your mind where you are going, before the game even begins. Again, it’s back to the five senses, where you’re totally aware of your pre-race routine, who you are, what you’re doing. No, there is no doubt in your mind because you have already visualized exactly how long the race is, exactly the water … you know, you’re just so aware of which part of the river that you’re rowing in, where you’re rowing, what the opposition is. Visualization is so much a part of sport.
Even, if you take a group, like say four people, four people rowing together. If you can get all of them being mindful, breathing together, and visualizing the exact same movement, well then how could you really go around, Aron? How does that sound?
Aron: Wow, it’s amazing to think that those elements are missing in sport.
Paulette: I think so. To this day and age, I just think that, really, what I can do for athletes is just to bring them from where they are to a whole different new level. I suppose that’s why my slogan is “Take your sport to another level with SportsYoga.ie.”
Aron: Wow, and the athletes you’ve worked with through the system, have you and them seen huge changes in their performance and other aspects?
Paulette: Yes, I have. I worked with one particular Irish mountaineer, he was going to climb Mount Everest. It was Paul Devaney from Irish Seven Summit, so he was climbing seven summits in seven years. We worked for about four months on a visualization of he’s climbing Mount Everest now. We went through every single stage that are part of the whole Mount Everest. The strange thing was, because I had actually done the visualization with him so many times, that when it came to the time … do you remember last year when there was an ice fall, and it was actually canceled? That is something you just cannot, you can’t prepare for something that is like a natural disaster.
The minute that I heard it on the radio, it was like as if somebody had hit me with a stick, because it was like “Oh my god, it had to be the Khumbu icefall!” I knew the exact area where the ice fall was, just because we had gone through this visualization so many times of him going across this area, which was going to be a really dangerous area, and that this was the area that there are icefalls. I actually found myself, my reaction to what I heard on the radio was like, “Oh, I know exactly where that was!” I was quite pleased that my reaction to that was, this is real. Visualization is just so real.
I also worked with a rugby player two years ago who thought that he had finished, that his career was over. He actually had a doubt, he really doubted, because he had a very severe injury. We worked together and I just said to him, “Listen, what do you want? Do you want to go back playing your sport, or have you decided that you’re finished?” He decided “You know what, I really want, I really want to go back and play my rugby.”
I wrote him out a visualization, working with words that he wanted to hear. Like, he wanted to be part of the team. He had his own little routine that he would do before, like pre, on the pitch before the match. He would do his own thing back into the dressing room. I suppose it gets me very involved as well in the sense that he had all the nicknames of all the players, his teammates. It’s like they’re one, big family in the dressing room. You smell the [depete 00:29:24 ], you hear the banter. You’re aware of it all, but then you bring your awareness back into you breathing.
It’s about breathing. All, to do, everything, is to do with breathing. Whatever it is in life that you need to either perfect or to change, once you’re aware that you have correct breathing techniques, everything changes.
Paulette: What do you think of that?
Aron: It’s just shows you how like you said, it’s the missing link. My next question is, as an athlete with an injury, can you work with increasing the muscle that’s broken, or how does yoga fit in?
Paulette: Yes. I work … many people that have had severe injuries. Starting point with somebody who is injured, it’s no physical movement. Zero. What you do is, you start, do you remember I mentioned about the yoga nidra?
Aron: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Paulette: Starting point would be, you lie them down. You wrap them up in blankets, and you talk them through a yoga nidra. When the body goes into such a perfect state of relaxation, everything changes. You start creating space in your body. Once you start creating space in your body, your body realizes “Okay, there is no pressure being put on my body,” and the body actually starts to heal by being aware. Creating space in that particular area.
I worked with another rugby player, and it was a huge championship game, it was the Heineken Cup, or was a big game for him anyway. He had a groin injury. He came up to me, he had been totally dismissed from the team because he was unfit to play, but he wanted to play. I worked with him for maybe two or three times only, and all I did was, it was no movement, only him lying there, totally secure in his blankets, and I, talking awareness through his body. As in, “Take your awareness into the right side of your body. Be aware that you are creating space where the injury is.”
Your mind is thinking, “Okay, I’m going down to where the injury is, and I’m just breathing, and I’m creating space.” He went on to play in that game that he, even the manager of the time was quite amazed. He was like “This, we don’t know how he got better in such a short time.” Normally it would be like four weeks to recover. It’s really all about being prepared to let go. Your physical body, we’re only an energy anyway, so it’s good to be able not to think “My physical body is inside of my shell.” It’s good to be able to expand the awareness.
That goes for everything that you do, including … imagine being able to expand your awareness when you’re out rowing. You’re just part of this whole wonderful energy of rowing down the river. Being relaxed. This is where I’m coming from, is that if you can get into a state of equilibrium, it’s called, where you’ve got the perfect balance between that little bit of stress and that no stress, you’ve got to get the equilibrium right there, between the two. That’s where you should be before any game. Golfers or anybody, if they could include that, even part of what I do, it could be the mindfulness, it could be the VO2 Max, whatever they need, I do think that the SportsYoga, there is a part there for everybody.
Aron: And your yoga sutra, does that have the same effect when you go to sleep at night, or is it different?
Paulette: The yoga nidra, is it?
Paulette: The yoga nidra, I don’t only work with athletes, I also work with everybody, from insomnia, to … there are just different ways, different breathing techniques that I can show people that, if you can’t sleep at night, there are ways of focusing your mind on nothing. You have to blank out. Our minds are just so much chitter chatter going on, and it’s really all got to do with your forehead. Just behind the forehead, you’ve got what is called the prefrontal cortex. This would be the part of the brain that is active and chitter chatter and always getting doubts into your mind and always saying “Yeah, well, I know I can do this but, not sure.” There’ll be a doubt.
If you can actually work, again back to the meditation, on quieting this part of the brain, you’re sorted. It’s the part of the brain that never stops thinking. You’ve got all these thoughts coming into your mind, in and out. You’ve got to let the thought come in, you’ve got to let it go. Another thought would come in. Eventually you’d be able to quieten, and that is down to meditation.
Aron: You talked about the process of how it works for an injured athlete. Do sleep do the same process or is it just different?
Paulette: Everybody needs, I supposed, a minimum seven hours sleep. If you had one hour of yoga nidra, is equal to four hours of normal sleeping, because the yoga nidra, it’s a profound relaxation technique. It’s probably the most profound relaxation that you would ever find. It’s all done so naturally. It’s all done like in a particular routine. There’s a certain way that you would do it every single time. Number one, you let go of all parts of your body. Then you start focusing on the breathing. There’s extra breathing techniques and if there’s a visualization, then you include your visualization.
Yeah, I do think that … I personally think that in sports in general, that they have gone too far in the one direction. As in, this crazy building of muscle and just over-the-top without ever thinking “You know what, after my career as an athlete, I need my body for probably another sixty years! So I need to be able to look after it and not have it overworked.” I have worked with many athletes that, they might only be twenty-eight, and they had to retire because of injury. It’s all got to do with just not thinking. Just too much of physical and then not just stepping back and thinking “Oh, I’m only twenty-eight now, I’m forced to retire, and I have broken my neck, I have a bulging disc, I have arthritis in my left knee,” all because they didn’t listen and tune in to their body.
So, Aron, how was that?
Paulette: Aron, really! I think it actually went quite well!
Aron: I would like to thank Paulette Egan for this interview on Rowing Down the River. You can find her at SportsYoga.ie. That’s s-p-o-r-t-s-y-o-g-a dot I-e. SportsYoga.ie.
Speaker 1: For more on the vigorous life, go to rowingdowntheriver.com. That’s r-o-w-I-n-g-d-o-w-n-t-h-e-r-I-v-e-r dot com. Thanks for listening.