Yoga Meets Figure Skating: Yoga provides healing and refuge for figure skaters both current and past

by Morgan Matthews Pennington

Figure skating is a sport that requires mastery of both mind and body. Similarly, yoga is a practice aimed at harmonizing the mind and body. A once esoteric practice, yoga has gained popularity among athletes across many sports, including figure skating, as a way to improve mental focus, ease performance anxiety, improve flexibility, and both heal and prevent injury. However, yoga is rarely recommended by coaches as part of a figure skater’s training regimen. Nevertheless, many figure skaters have stumbled upon yoga at low moments in their careers and found a practice that helped them overcome challenges both on and off the ice. For them, yoga has become a lifetime practice that has carried them through their competitive and professional careers and beyond. 

My yoga journey began when I was 18 years old. X-ray and MRI images had just shown that I had multiple fractures in my spine that caused my vertebrae to slip back and forth when I arched my back. The technical term for this injury is Spondylolisthesis. Doctors prescribed me steroids for inflammation and muscle relaxers since the spasms in my back muscles were so tight and intense that I could barely move. After a prescribed two week rest period my back still felt extremely tight and painful. I was desperate for relief and badly wanted, and felt pressured by my coaches, to return to practice. A friend had been suggesting that I try hot yoga for a while and I decided to go with her to a class. I figured that I could just sit in the warm room and try to relax, even if I couldn’t move. 

In my first hot yoga class the instructor encouraged me to move at my own pace and only take poses as far as my body would allow. These were not the kind of instructions that I, as an elite ice dancer, was used to hearing. Prior to my injury I would have brushed off the instructor’s gentle remarks as weak assurances aimed at amateurs. But my injury had humbled me. My poses in that first yoga class were barely poses at all, but the instructor applauded my attention to detail and the care I showed to my body by not going any further than my body allowed on that day. He explained that each day, when we come to practice yoga, we must work with our bodies in the state that they are in on that particular day. Rather than focus on what my body could do in the future or what it did in the past, the practice of yoga guided me to work with my body in the present moment. In my first class, and many yoga classes to come during the nearly twenty years that I’ve been practicing yoga now, I learned the importance of living in the present moment both in mind and body. 

My yoga practice has evolved over the past two decades to fit my changing needs. Practicing hot yoga in my late teens miraculously healed my back injury and allowed me to return to practice and competition. It later provided me with a respite when the pressures of training and competition left me anxious, exhausted, and injured again. After retirement, vinyasa yoga provided me with an outlet for the pent-up physical energy I experienced when I stopped training 6-8 hours a day. During college, yin yoga helped ease my mental and physical tension brought on by long hours of studying and exams. During the COVID-19 pandemic I found Inner Dimension TV, which is a yoga streaming platform that includes high quality yoga class videos that made me feel as if I were practicing in a studio with other students. And when I became a mother I switched to Find What Feels Good Yoga with Adriene Mishler, an online yoga offering that includes short, gentle yoga classes that fit well into my busy schedule as a mom. 

Like myself, Andrea Aggeler Worthington, certified yoga instructor, figure skating coach, 1998 National Junior silver medalist, and longtime professional show skater, has also seen her yoga practice evolve along with her life stages.

For the majority of my life on the ice, I practiced a version of yoga and also did regular stretching. I enjoyed the benefits of doing so without even realizing the many positive side effects. After I had my daughter in 2017, I stopped moving daily for a while and as my hormones dropped off after her birth, I became really tight and sore and I felt all kinds of aches and pains. I decided to get back to yoga to help ease these symptoms and it was only then I saw and connected the value (of yoga). It was the movement that had always kept my body agile and pain free; it was mobile joints, exercised joints that made me feel strong and in control. I had this sudden and immense appreciation for the medicinal benefits of movement. A few years later, during the pandemic, I got certified (as a yoga instructor) and I’m so grateful to help people of all levels and ages – prior experience or not – improve their quality of life the way I felt yoga helped me to do.”

Yoga has helped Andrea find her strength both on and off the ice. According to Andrea, yoga has unique benefits for skaters that other forms of off-ice training might miss.

“Yoga has helped me as a skater and coach to improve control and reduce the likelihood of injury. Essentially between your point of flexibility and your point of mobility lies a window of space where you have no control. In other words, how high you can hold your leg up with your muscles (no assistance from gravity or say your hand) versus how high you can hold it up while using a wall or your hands to pull your leg up, lies your window of zero control. The more I work to reduce that space the less likely I’ll be to tear, pull or strain my muscles in that range.”

Yoga helps skaters find their weaknesses, both mental and physical, without judgement or ridicule from instructors. Because yoga teaches practitioners to accept and embrace each part of themselves without labeling those parts as good or bad, skaters can find a safe space in yoga to explore their abilities in depth. 

Many figure skaters have found yoga when faced with challenges that the typical figure skating curriculum doesn’t provide answers to. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Maddison Hubbell practiced a lot of yoga to help cope with lockdowns that prevented her from training. In a 2020 article for U.S. Figure Skating FanZone, Madison described how yoga helped her approach her body with kindness in the unfamiliar circumstances brought on by lockdowns during the pandemic. According to Madison, yoga was, “one place that I could let my body move by itself and do whatever it could do that day but with no success or failure.” Competitive athletes like Maddison are rarely taught to view their body in such neutral terms. Doing so allowed Maddison to work through a hard time during lockdowns and learn new stretches and breathing techniques that helped her stay calm and focused in competition. 

Figure skaters, like Madison, who are lucky enough to find yoga while in their competitive years can utilize the lessons that yoga teaches to create a better, more grounded experience for themselves in a sport that has left many feeling anxious and lost. For former figure skaters who find yoga later in life, the practice can help heal old wounds inflicted by the sport. Yoga helped Sarah Neal of The Skating Yogi heal the mental wounds “caused by years of comparisons and toxic relationships” that she experienced as a figure skater and coach. Sarah started practicing yoga in 2013 and eventually became a yoga instructor with the initial intention of teaching yoga to figure skaters to help them with the struggles that she faced as an athlete and coach.

I initially decided to become a yoga teacher with the intention of only teaching skaters. I now teach yoga in other contexts, too, but at first, I only wanted to teach skaters. Skating is my first language, as it is for many of us. However, I completed my first yoga teacher training while going through an incredibly difficult time as a coach. I almost left the sport, but ultimately decided that skating folks could have a safer, more joyful journey if they learned to slow down and find peace in themselves. Switching my mindset to be more yoga-centric as a coach helped me continue coaching.”

Through yoga, Sarah learned a gentler approach to figure skating that she utilizes to guide her students both on the ice and on the mat. This gentler approach includes a consideration of both the physical and the mental challenges that figure skating presents.

Sarah explains, “Many studies have shown that a yoga practice that includes asana, meditation, and breathwork can lower anxiety and improve the body’s stress response. Also, specific breathing techniques, visualizations, and mantra meditations are great ways to exercise control of the mind. Finally, the nature of yoga itself invites skaters to tune into their bodies, either through body scans or just turning their awareness inward. When in an anxious situation, doing a quick body scan is a powerful way to bring awareness back into the body, so the mind and body can communicate more efficiently. Finally, when a yoga practice also incorporates the mindset and habit training found in the yamas and niyamas (the first two limbs of yoga), many skaters learn to adopt a more well-balanced outlook on life and skating.  I practice all of these with my students, so they can apply them in training and competition settings.”

In a sport where the body is often the primary consideration in the quest to improve a skater’s ability to train and perform, Sarah’s emphasis on the mental aspects of figure skating is refreshing. And it is rooted in a practice of harmonizing the body and mind that dates back thousands of years, much longer than the sport of figure skating has existed. Yoga is a practice that promotes wellbeing over physical perfection. 

A core tenet of yoga is non-harming. The sport of figure skating has not historically embraced this tenet when raising athletes. Sarah is hoping to change that.

Practicing yoga asana every day won’t make much of a difference if we don’t also practice adopting a better mindset and better habits.”

The first two limbs of yoga – the yamas and niyamas – form the foundation of my teaching because they are key to leading a meaningful, purposeful, and happy life: non-harming, honesty, non-stealing (abundance), intentionality, non-attachment, cleanliness, gratitude, drive, self-study, and surrender. They are also key to a sustainable, healthy, and joyful skating journey.”

“I draw on all these concepts when deciding goals and training plans for my skaters, and we talk about them in our lessons. Are you speaking to yourself in helpful or harmful ways? Are you being honest about how much social media time you had yesterday? Did you come prepared with an intention for your session today? Are you practicing being a good sport, or are you letting jealousy rob you of the joy of your own experience? How can we balance drive and passion with contentment? What mental clutter can we ditch to help the good things flow more freely? What can you do in your downtime to rest and reflect? Do your skating goals align with your other goals and values? Is your training plan physically, emotionally, logistically, and financially sustainable for you and your family?”

Thankfully, many other coaches have begun to ask similar questions and ditch the toxic tactics of the past.  Society is tough, though, and it’s easy to get caught up in comparison, fear, and scarcity mindset, particularly in a competition-oriented sport.

Aside from the mental aspects of yoga, the physical practice of yoga can help skaters both prevent and heal injuries. Yoga helped me recover from spinal fractures and has helped me maintain a supple body while awaiting hip replacement surgery. But, as Sarah explains, the right approach is key when practicing yoga for injury prevention and treatment.

“While yoga is not the only off-ice training necessary for an athlete, it is an important piece of the puzzle. One of the main causes of injury is muscular imbalance. In yoga we work on balancing strength and flexibility, and we always practice poses on both sides. The turning inward of the attention to fine-tune even simple poses is a powerful way for skaters to connect to their bodies, notice difficult areas before they become injuries, tap into their voice, and gain confidence in their intuition.” 

“I had surgery for a gluteus medius repair last summer, and yoga has been an integral part of my long recovery. My practice for many months consisted of PT exercises and pose modifications practiced with a yogic mindset–curiosity, observation, dedication, grace, and gratitude.”

Sarah incorporates the knowledge she gained from decades of training as a figure skater and coach to build yoga sequences that fit the specific needs of a figure skater. There are hundreds of yoga poses with countless variations to source from, but Sarah favors a few for figure skaters.

“To improve carriage, hands down my favorite is Salamba Bhujangasana (Sphinx pose). For confidence building, my favorite is Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)–it’s just such a good power pose. For balance, I really like Ardha Chandrasana (half-moon pose) or Parivritta Hasta Padangustasana (Dancing Shiva) because they’re fun and feel good. For counterbalancing the heavy external rotation of skating, I like Virasana (hero’s pose) and Supta Virasana (reclined hero’s pose). A good hip stretch and twist rolled into one is Ardha Matseyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes), and finally, I love Viparita Karani or Legs up the Wall for recovery.”

Many skaters start ballet and gymnastics lessons from an early age to improve their posture and coordination. Yoga is not usually part of a beginner figure skater’s regimen, but Sarah thinks that should change.

“I start skaters quite young at our club–sometimes as young as 7. Any younger would require an age-specific class, which can be tough to schedule. A class for the youngest skaters looks different than a practice for 10-year-olds or 15-year-olds – it will be more play-based, faster-paced, and shorter. Meditations and breathwork involve age-appropriate imagery and examples. It’s great for young skaters to start practicing yoga… I want athletes of all ages to listen to their bodies, learn emotional regulation, manage anxiety, and be kind to themselves and others.”  

Yoga can help figure skaters at every stage of their life. And unlike some of the more rigorous forms of exercise that figure skaters partake in as part of their training regimens, yoga can be practiced well beyond their transition out of figure skating and into other endeavors. In this way, yoga provides continuity and a place of comfort for figure skaters when life takes them off the ice, either because of injury, a lockdown, or retirement. The younger that figure skaters start practicing yoga, the greater their sense of refuge while practicing yoga will be later in life. 

In a sport often marred by toxicity and harm, yoga can provide not only the healing that figure skaters and former figure skaters need but also help figure skaters and coaches to see the sport in a new light. The lessons of yoga can teach members of the figure skating community that the pursuit of excellence must be grounded in the realities of human existence. Skaters can only do as much as their bodies and minds can handle in the moment, on a daily basis. Competition should be more about victory over one’s mind than victory over others. And just as in medicine, non-harming should be at the center of every goal and pursuit that a figure skater and their training team takes on.