“Yoga does not transform the way we see things. It transforms the person who sees.” -B.K.S. Iyengar
With the 2019-2020 hockey season coming to such an abrupt end, I have had some time to reflect back upon experiences that I believe made a noticeable impact on my success this year. I was having a career year, so it’s even more upsetting that our team went without the chance to go through a playoff run and reach our ultimate goal of winning a championship. I was 22-4-0-4, with .928 SV%, 2.07 GAA, and 4 Shutouts, leading the league in most statistical categories and front runner for winning “Goalie of the Year.” Personal stats are never more important than team success, but with some time spent to really evaluate my performance, it’s a good indication that I was doing something right.
Yoga has been a part of my life for the past 5 or 6 years as a useful tool to de-stress and loosen up my body from time to time, but never in such a profound and meaningful way than this past summer. Due to my shortened 2019 summer from playing playoffs into early June, and then teaching camps through August, my body was more sore than usual. That, and the obvious fact I turned 31 when this season began, I was in need of a major shake up to my routine. I turned to yoga and relied on the help of my longtime teacher & mentor, Michael Liang, who has routinely assisted Midwest Goalie School during summer camps. I began taking any and every class of his I could (since he moved to a new studio, Grounded Wellness Center in Hoffman Estates, I was able to do more) and began searching for any content from a wide array of other teachers. More on those teachers later!
The search was on, and I was hooked, truly obsessed with the yoga practice and learning everything I could from Michael and other amazing teachers. Most importantly, learning everything I could about myself and developing a relationship with my muscles. Through it all, yoga gave me a sense of feeling grounded and calm, more accepting and grateful for the little things in life. I have detailed some ways yoga had a direct influence on me as a goalie and hope to inspire you, the goalie looking to get better, to discover your own practice.
“When the body has been tempered by asanas (yoga poses), when the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama (breath force) and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara (control of the senses), the sadhaka (journey towards a goal) reaches the sixth stage called dharana (concentration). Here he is concentrated wholly on a single point or on a task in which he is completely engrossed. The mind has to be stilled in order to achieve this state of complete absorption.” –Light on Yoga (p.48)
Although I am not an expert by any means, the idea of practicing with this intention (sankalpa) helped me build a connection between the body and mind in a way that transformed my outlook on life . While on the mat, all other thoughts and realities disappear. A class isn’t just about moving your body, it’s a meditative experience that links every fiber of your body to the breath and evokes self confidence I wasn’t getting with any other form of working out. It challenges you to remain focused and notice when the mind begins to drift, to bring it back.
This engagement carried onto the ice in that I became aware of what I was doing, where I was, and had little to no “clutter” in my head. Clutter is often self created and destructive. It’s quite a simple sounding concept, but playing and being in the moment is such an ultra difficult thing to consistently do. The goaltending position is isolating and it’s easy to get distracted with our own thoughts. The goalie who can best maintain focus and confidence has the best chance to survive.
When experiencing difficulty playing in-the-moment, I’d be thinking about what happens if I lose this game or perform poorly (will my playing time get cut, will I be traded or cut, etc). Maybe I’d be thinking my opponent is so good, that I have to be superhuman and have a 50 save shutout to win. Maybe I just gave up a bad goal and am having trouble not replaying in my head over and over what I could have done differently, becoming more frustrated at myself. Perhaps I had some personal issues that were taking center stage in my head and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t separate the thoughts in my head.
Part of having awareness on the mat is being in tune with what’s going on inside and allow it to step aside to create room for your body to move. When you’re performing a twist, the idea is to inhale to lengthen and exhale to open and find more space for the body to rotate. In reality, what you’re doing is creating more space in your mind to think with clarity and precision.
For years, I tried so hard to FIGHT the feelings of inability, weakness, and fear of failure as a goalie. Even though I’ve been super successful throughout my career as a whole, there are more times where I’ve failed and not lived up to my own expectations. I tried to pretend they didn’t exist, and suppress that looming darkness before games, afraid that if I had thoughts of failure they would manifest into my game. It wasn’t until I incorporated this yoga and meditation routine that I realized being aware of my thoughts and learning how to move them through my body provided me a sense of mental peace and relaxation. Almost as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders from having to be perfect. I needed to accept what my biggest fear was, and own the power I have to let it go. You can’t play in the moment if your mind is anywhere else.
Ujjayi Breathing is something that remains consistent throughout yoga as it is a way to create heat within the body, helps to calm the mind during challenging poses, and reinvigorates a meditative process while flowing on your mat. You close the lips, breathe in through your nose, breathe out through the nose while passing the breath through the back of the throat to make a sound like you’re gently fogging up a mirror or ocean waves. The goal is to create equal breath in and out, giving the body a metronome type of reference to rely upon during practice. It’s harder than it sounds, but again, nothing in yoga is perfect and the mere practice of this type of breathwork gives the student a lot to carry with them.
For me, learning to simply take even length breaths in and out (through the nose only) gave my mind a lot of freedom to dial in and remain focused. It doesn’t sound like much, but try doing an entire class with a lot of movement, balancing and core, and you’ll see how choppy the breath can get when unregulated. It’s one of those skills I found the more you practice, the longer you can do it. The simple fact of noticing the breath becoming choppy is active awareness and will help you level it out.
When effectively used, breathing in helps to create length and space in the body, while exhaling allows for a deeper stretch, bend, twist, or movement. This routine can help strengthen self confidence and learn to trust that when you think you can’t go further. The breath allows for that little extra push. On the ice, if you think you’re getting overwhelmed (mentally or physically), rely on your breath to find a little extra space to work within. A good cue to activate a short breathing exercise comes on the faceoff right before a power play. It’s always in your zone and usually, you’ll see sustained action and face scoring chances, so it’s a great time to take a moment to re balance your breath. In for 4, hold for 4, out for 4.
Using the time between whistles or in between periods can be so important to avoid the roller coaster type spike in heart rate that facilitates sporadic breath to body connection. If the mind is quiet, the body is receptive to listen. Find ways to connect your breath with movement during pre game stretching routines and it will become a more natural rhythm when you’re on the ice. More on that later
Specifically in the yoga practice, learning to trust the breath and deepen into long holding postures like pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) or wide legged forward fold (Prasarita Padottanasana) can drastically intensify the stretch and allow you to expand your “edge” where you think you have no more room to fold, there is always more. Maybe not today, but with practice there is more. Learning to be comfortable in “intense” poses that challenge the limits of my flexibility range was crucial in my ability to replicate them on the ice when I’m in a pure “reactionary” mode.
-Increased Mobility & Range of Motion
One of my favorite newly discovered teachers, Matt Phippen, has some INCREDIBLY detailed yoga classes that work the hip muscles in a unique way. Actively stretching while in flexion or tension, that is to say-while you’re lengthening the muscle, you’re simultaneously using resistance to strengthen a specific muscle group. This will help to provide neural feedback to your brain that makes your body more comfortable while in highly intensive positions….I wonder what highly intensive positions goalies put their bodies in? Can you think of any? Would you want your hips to be not only strong and protect you from injury while also giving you more length and range of motion?
*you’ll need a yoga strap and block
Subscribe to Matt’s Channel for more yoga videos that can help YOU dominate the crease
Not everybody has the same intentions when it comes to a yoga practice, and one of the truly remarkable benefits is that no matter what you’re trying to accomplish, yoga has an answer. If it’s some form of developing as a person and achieving a sense of self enlightenment, yoga is there for you. If you are a goalie looking to gain flexibility and increase length in your body, yoga is there for you! If you’re super stressed and need an effective way to wind down at night to help with more restful sleep, yin yoga is there for you. Whether it’s a complex pose working with a bind and back bend, or simply standing in Mountain Pose (tadasana) and observing, yoga speaks.
My hips felt more open and groins were stronger the more I flowed with vinyasa classes, as a result I was able to kick my pad out while in the butterfly with more ease and precision. That not only helped my coverage zone, it gave me stronger and more controlled pushes while down, enhancing my ability to scramble in tight for rebound saves. There’s a quote that says“moving from pose to pose artfully is yoga.” While on the mat, if I move with the intention of having control and flow, that carries over to how I move in my gear.
Michael Liang’s Yin Flow —> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2o2srx4maxg
Subscribe to Michael’s Channel for more yoga videos coming in the near future
Imagine making a save off the shoulder and the rebound lands in front of you to the left. The player comes to take a shot and you know that there isn’t time to get to your feet, so you have to slide and extend the arm. If you just push and extend the arm down, that’s good coverage but not optimal. In order to gain more length and tighten up the space between the ribs and elbow, the chest must also slightly lean into the save giving the body more room to adjust and find the puck. In yoga, the intention is to move with a strong core and body alignment BETWEEN the poses that trains the connection between extension and control.
My lateral movement became more adaptive and I wasn’t getting so “locked” with one side. If a 2 on 1 pass across the “royal rode” forces a goaltender to slide, so much of the potential save begins with the ability to rotate quickly and with precision. First, the head must snap to allow the eyes to gain visual perspective, the lead hip should rotate open and gain a strong edge from the back leg, then the upper body opens up to attack the puck with active hands and ideally, minimize body holes. When plays happen fast, it’s easy to panic and just throw the body over and hope for the best (sometimes necessary).
-A Refined Pregame Routine
“The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness” -Sakayong Mipham
Developing consistency in your preparation will help any goalie deliver more consistent performance on the ice. This is an area of my game I’ve always treated very seriously and tried to develop what I thought was the best method for me specifically. It’s changed a lot from my days in Juniors or College, but then again, I’ve changed a lot as a goalie so it’s not surprising. At the heart of the question, what’s the best way to prepare for games?” experience has taught me to become more responsive and adaptive to the situation and not try so hard. My downfall was I would overthink and overdue my regimen and ended up raising my stress levels and felt too jittery for game time. When games feel like an emotional roller coaster, it’s not sustainable. For me, learning to keep the train moving at the same speed in a controlled direction helped to narrow my focus and enhance concentration. After the greatest save of my life or worst goal I’ve given up, it’s about managing emotions and keeping the breath smooth because the most important save is always THE NEXT ONE.
What didn’t necessarily work for me was relying on repeating the same type of stretching or warm up exercises and paying attention to specific order. I tried specific movements like biking, dynamic movement, quick feet drills, static and dynamic stretches, hand eye drills, mental visualization, two-touch with the team, etc. On their own, they were effective and good vehicles, but trying to replicate a routine that put me in the same mental and physical state of preparedness proved difficult. Sometimes depending on where you are, what equipment you have access to, and how much time you have are all fluid, meaning they can change from game to game, so you as an athlete have to learn to adjust.
This season is when I was able to blend the physical demand of getting properly stretched out to make saves while practicing breathing control which allowed me to anticipate and see the game slower. A goalie must at the same time play fast, reactive and intense while projecting a sense of calm and collected presence. In yoga, you work towards a discipline of using strength with meditation, movement with control, breath with life, and I was able to harness that mindset within my pre game routine to steady my play.
My Pre Game Warm Up Routine For Success
- 5 min legs up the wall (restorative pose)
- 5 min bike warm up (steady pace, not too hard, not too easy)
- 30 min custom yoga flow & stretches
- 12 minute meditation (clear my head of any distracting thoughts & become more open)
- Keep things loose in the room after. Be a Warrior not a Worrier
Why I feel comfortable on the mat
The solidarity of the crease is not unlike that of a yoga mat. The confined space may appear small and limiting, but what a person goes through and learns while on the yoga mat can have deep rooted lessons attached to it. Yoga is a constant battle between pushing the limits of what one can do while learning to accept who you are. There’s a quote that goes, “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self”-The Bhagavad Gita.
I find it profoundly similar to the journey of being a goalie because there’s so much struggle, self doubt, anxiety, and comparing your path to another that it’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening around you and forgetting to pay attention to what’s inside of you. The true secret is accepting who is on the mat and loving the journey it takes you on. Every body shape and composition is unique and needs its own special attention. Nobody knows your body better than YOU. Listen to it and show it love, it will return the favor.
I find so many parallels between being a goalie and the yoga practice because there is no true end point, no time in which total perfection is reached and the challenge is lost. There’s always the opportunity to become better, no matter how little or small the feat is, and every time development happens, it motivates you to continue along. The small victories of improvement motivate me to continue with the practice. Just as small improvements keep me going as a goalie.
You learn to focus on the good and block out the negativity. If you failed, at least you tried and what matters more is showing up on your mat for the next class. When you think it’s a game of physical capabilities, you realize it’s more a test of mental strength. The more you work at it, the better you get. It’s called a practice after all, right!
Some of my favorite Channels & Teacher Info
Michael Liang (@Michael.liang.yoga)
Online Teaching Schedule (Via Grounded Wellness- $8 per class): https://groundedwellnesscenter.com/virtual-yoga-classes
Subscribe to YouTube Channel: Michael Liang Yoga
Yin Flow Class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2o2srx4maxg&t=3s
Adam Husler (@Adamusler)
Subscribe Adam Husler
20 min hip opening class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udAsPA1DNRk
15 min Strength & Flow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvezYulDKLc
Matt Phippen (@mattphippen)
Subscribe to YouTube matt phippen
30 min hip class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0KnNFFZUOw&t=837s
30 min shoulder class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chv5TyqxMI4
Breath & Flow (@breathandflow)
Channel: Breathe and Flow
Gentle class: Gentle Yoga Class | Yoga for Beginners and Athletes