Competitive athletes often talk about being “in the zone,” that state of perfect balance of instinct and response. Each movement, regardless of how challenging, is almost effortless. The body seems to know what to do without being told.
There are many elements to being in the zone. Of course, training is critically important. Through repetition, you teach the muscles how to perform specific movements – in the case of volleyball: serving, digging, blocking, and hitting. Muscle memory helps you translate that repetition into elite play. But as helpful as that is, sometimes your brain gets in the way. You overthink what you’re doing, try to anticipate a little too much, perhaps even allow a past failure to mar current performance. You just need to relax and let the muscles do what extensive training has taught them.
All in the Breath
Yoga and Tai Chi are meditative exercises that rely on structured motion, mental focus, and breathing. This combination is deeply relaxing and seems perfectly designed to help you enter the zone. Athletes often refer to a “runner’s high” that comes from endorphins being released after prolonged, strenuous exercise. However, those who practice yoga and Tai Chi seem to get the same effect very early in their practice. As it turns out, conscious, mindful breathing has a profound effect on the body and mind.
Deep breathing has another wonderful aspect: It stimulates energy production within your body’s cells, which translates into more physical energy, stamina, and vitality. This goes a long way in achieving that competitive edge. Your body relies on oxygen to produce energy, just as a flame requires air to burn. This is where the focused breathing of yoga and Tai Chi bring unforeseen benefits. Through deep, mindful breathing, you revitalize the tiny “batteries” inside cells and help them generate more power more efficiently. This results in greater and more sustained energy and vitality at every level.
Another way to increase your energy, and complement these exercises, is with functional foods. Medicinal mushrooms, particularly Cordyceps, also help increase oxygen levels and boost vitality. I recommend a daily mushroom formula called Ten Mushroom, which contains a powerful blend of 10 organic medicinal mushrooms to support energy, immunity, and overall wellness.
In any competitive endeavor, the brain may be the most important “muscle” of all. And, like other muscles, the brain can be exercised. One attribute that may need the most conditioning is calmness. This may seem quite abstract, as being calm seems more closely related to an absence of strong emotion. However, calm is its own innate condition.
Let’s circle back to the concept of being in the zone. When you’re there, the calm just comes naturally, the body reacts with singular fluidity, and the mind doesn’t seem to be involved at all.
One of the great benefits of ancient practices like yoga and Tai Chi is that they help provide a roadmap to calm. And once the brain knows how to get there, the path only gets easier.
There is probably no shortage of classes in your area, particularly in yoga. I recommend taking some instruction before going off on your own. That way, you can watch the instructor assume the various poses and learn the proper postures. However, there are a couple of very simple yoga poses that you can easily incorporate into your morning routine.
Sun salutations are a series of movements that are deceptively challenging, highly energizing, and ultimately calming. The routines exercise a wide range of muscle groups and can be repeated as many times as you like, though you may be hard-pressed to do more than a few to start off. Regardless, just five minutes of sun salutations each day will bring remarkable benefits.
Of the poses in sun salutations, the one I most recommend is downward facing dog. In this posture, you assume an inverted “V” position, which is very important. You want your weight evenly distributed between your arms and legs. If you are feeling too much strain on your wrists, redistribute your weight more towards the legs. Don’t worry if you cannot get your feet flat – these things take time. This posture works arms, legs (particularly the calves), and the core. It stretches the bladder channel, which according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the longest energy channel in the body with points affecting every organ and body system
In Tai Chi, you can do an entire routine or just a couple of movements. The combination of twisting and breathing works the spine and allows you to focus on your breath. You can do simple motions just by standing and moving side to side. One of the principles of Tai Chi is direction. Working up and down, right and left, and integrating it, together with breathing, produces greater core balance, overall strength, and a deep sense of calm.
Regardless of which discipline you adopt, it should only take a few minutes before you start to experience its profound benefits. And when you wake up the next morning, you may be surprised that your muscles are a little sore. Though these movements seem to lack intensity, they are actually quite rigorous and work the mind and body in unforeseen ways. The result is better performance and improved health on every level.
Originally published in January 2013