Enhancing Athletic Performance with Ayurveda
Performance, we could argue, is in fact life itself. At some level, we’re always performing—whether as a pro athlete trying to make a game winning shot before the buzzer, or as a loving parent balancing precariously on a step ladder to pull down a storage bin . Not to mention singing your favorite song in the shower, although I’m not entirely sure that qualifies as athletic. As human beings, we conduct a myriad of tasks every day that require a symphony of movements to be properly harmonized using the exquisite equipment of our mind and body.
These movements are no more crucial or less scrutinized than in the field of professional sports. I’ve had the pleasure of consulting with professional athletes for over a decade and the principles of Ayurveda continue to prove to be powerful in the way they affect the mind and body, regardless of the person I’m helping or their level of prowess. Although there are many deep levels of understanding covered in this beautiful science, here are some of the broader insights about the three main qualities of energy (doshas) we distinguish in Ayurveda that I hope will help enhance your inner athlete, regardless of your level of proficiency.
Vata is predominantly made up of air and is known as the king dosha, as it governs all movement—clearly a major factor in any athletic endeavor. When out of balance, vata can cause havoc and turn a world-class athlete into a quivering mess. Having a strong influence on the central nervous system, excess vata can physically throw off timing and mentally create anxiety and the all too common monkey mind! We’ve all seen talented athletes “choke” just at that moment of truth. Although the root cause of this usually lies in deeper subconscious belief structures, vata’s distracting vacillations in the mind can nonetheless take an athlete from being in the zone to being a zombie. If I had a buck for every time I’ve heard an athlete say “if I could only get out of my own way” I’d be…well you get the point. So what do they mean? What athletes (and anyone for that matter) are referring to is mainly getting out of the way of the negative dialogue (NOISE!) in their head that interrupts and often sabotages performance. The incessant diatribe of “don’t miss,” “don’t mess this up,” “what will they think of me,” “what happens if … (fill in the negative outcome),” and so forth. Although this is all an intrinsic part of the human ego, when vata is out of whack, all this mental chatter gets exacerbated. So the number one place to start enhancing your performance is to bring down vata so you can stay calm, focused, and most importantly PRESENT.
Signs that your athletic performance is being affected by vata:
You’re thinking about the results too much (getting ahead of yourself), your timing is off, everything seems to be moving quickly, you feel nervous or anxious, you feel dizzy or light-headed, you’ve lost consistency, you’re experiencing degenerative issues—aches and pains, loss of strength, stability, and stamina.
Things to avoid that will increase vata:
Lack of sleep, irregularity in meal, sleep, or training times and so forth, dehydration, stimulants (for example, caffeine ), dry/cold foods (like crackers or salads), excess travel, excess talking, overuse of the senses (smart phone and social media addiction), resisting natural urges, exposure to cold, over exertion, multitasking, excess sex (sorry, I promise I’m trying to help!).
Things to encourage that will decrease vata:
Quality rest, good routine (sleep, meals, regular bowel movements!), meditation, time in mother nature, oil massage, eating fresh, warm, nourishing foods (soups and stews), proper hydration, good friends and loving community. Breeeeaaaaaathe and SLOW DOWN.
Pitta is made up predominantly of fire. Have you ever seen an athlete get upset?? Or dare I ask, someone in your own house? Never, right?!! Welcome to pitta! Just like any dosha, pitta has its plusses and minuses and is an intrinsic part of athletic performance. Although a generalization, most athletes are pitta dominant. Pitta gives us the quality of drive and that competitive spirit—the desire to bury your best friend on a tennis court or achieve bragging rights in a “friendly” game of HORSE. Its tenacity can drive athletes to the top but its potency can equally lead to their demise. Pitta “burns”—not only your opponent but also yourself if not kept in check. In the world of athletic performance, pitta oscillates between the victor and the self-saboteur. The trick, as with anything in Ayurveda is…balance. Driven and yet not maniacal, competitive but not tyrannical, focused but not obsessed. Pitta can give you that winning edge, but it can also cut you in the process if you get too intense.
Signs that your athletic performance is being affected by pitta:
You’re getting angry at virtually anything, your performance is never perfect enough, you’re obsessing over your activity and working too hard, you feel frustrated and are about to break something (assuming you haven’t already!), you’re experiencing inflammation—mentally and physically.
Things to avoid that will increase pitta:
Too much heat (hot weather, hot yoga, too much computer work, and so forth), late nights, alcohol, excess work, stress, skipping meals, hot spicy foods, fermented foods, and pressure situations.
Things to encourage that will decrease pitta:
CHILLAXING, cool weather, cool/cold showers or swimming, cool/soothing foods, meditation, anything to inspire calmness, moonlit walks, earthing (standing barefoot in good quality damp soil—I know that might sound whacky but you pittas out there, try it…you’re welcome!), good hydration, loving relationships, fresh organic clean foods, and soothing music.
Ah, sweet, sweet kapha. Where would we be without you? A ball of swirling flames!! Kapha is that grounding and soothing force in our lives. Think of that nurturing friend of yours who is always there for you, invariably with a cup of tea and some fattening treats! Kapha is nourishing, lubricating, rejuvenating, and replenishing. It heals us after our athletic endeavors. Kapha gives stability and endurance to our body and steadiness to our mind. Kapha athletes tend to be consistent. Trouble is they can be consistently bad or good! It takes work to move kapha as it is the heaviest of the doshas. For that reason, kapha athletes equally tend to be bigger and slower, but also much stronger and with greater stamina than their fellow dosha counterparts. Think of the 300lb+ line backer versus the more speedy and nimble vata/pitta wide-receiver. But regardless of your dosha, kapha is crucial for enhancing performance by providing routine, a strong foundation, and the fortitude to deal with adversity and losses.
Signs that your athletic performance is being affected by kapha:
Er, when you don’t even have any athletic performance (because you’re too lazy to bother!), you feel lethargic and don’t want to train; your mind feels cloudy, you’re getting depressed about your results, eating and drinking seem way more appealing than competing.
Things to avoid that will increase kapha:
Stagnation, laziness, lethargy, cold heavy foods (dairy), cold damp weather, sweet foods, overeating, over-drinking, and excess sleep.
Things to encourage that will decrease kapha:
Activity and exercise (get moving!), getting up at sunrise, eating light, hot, spicy foods, getting out and about, taking supportive herbs for energy, and finding variety in life.