yoga for sports: Adam Burgess on yoga + canoe slalom

If you have never heard of canoe slalom before, picture ski slalom. Except the water isn’t frozen. It’s moving. Fast. Being out there on the water, in control, harnessing that power. That to me is the closest thing to flying, and I fell in love with it aged 10 on the River Trent in Stone.

Fast-forward 16 years. I’m fortunate to pursue my passion every day. Full-time at the Lee Valley White Water Centre, home of Canoe Slalom for the London 2012 Olympic Games. I paddle white-water up to nine times a week, lift weights up to five times (and yoga on top of that.) My discipline is C1M. Men’s Canoe singles. Kneeling in the boat using a single-bladed paddle to propel myself. Think ‘virasana’ (or ‘supta virasana’ when I’m sticking my head out to stay between the poles!).

Whilst so far I’ve picked up the U23 World Championship title, Vice-European Champion, and third at the World Cup, I am committed to my mantra ‘good person first, athlete second’. Aspiring to be ‘frustratingly unlabelable’. Music, coffee, plants, minimalism, books, yoga… I have a passion for life which I hope is infectious. This is what I try to express through my sport. To inspire others to put ‘a piece of themselves into their pursuits’ too. Meraki.

Breath brought me to the mat. I was injured and bad breathing could have contributed. My mum suggested I visit her yoga teacher for help. The start of a journey that continues to add to my sporting performance as well as life away from the arena. I learned belly breathing, three-part breath, and ujjayi in that first session. Breath continues to be one of the things that fascinates me most about yoga. How through manipulation I can alter my energy levels, body temperature, focus etc. Breath holds form a part of my race day routine and I use controlled breathing to practise cold exposure training in the lake after my white-water sessions during the winter months.

Shortly after that first experience I was getting into regular practice. Elodie Frati (triyoga teacher in Ealing) taught myself and two teammates at our office in Lee Valley. We benefitted from being a small group as classes could be tailored to address the inevitable issues caused by sport specialisation. I’ve always been interested in bodyweight training so I wasn’t bad on my hands already. I really enjoyed a high-energy flowy practice and made strides with my mobility which I was reaping the rewards for on the water! In 2017, the ‘yoga group’ won the only medals at international competition for GBR. Elodie helped me branch out, experience more classes in London and we still train together when I can.

Now I spend most weekends (and the occasional rest afternoon) at triyoga ‘repairing’ the damage done in training. I roll out my mat almost every day though in some form or another. Either in preparation for or recovery from training. Still a big fan of hard, flowy classes. Vinyasa Flow, Rocket, Jivamukti. Anything with fun transitions on my hands, legs working hard, and a decent core / bandhas workout. Yin is another of my favourite styles to practise. Particularly with recovery from training and increasing mobility in mind.

From the breath, to the body movements, to drishti – where my intention predominantly focuses now. 2019 is a very important year for me as I race selection for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Only one athlete per nation can compete and I face some of the toughest competition in the world to get selected. The common opinion is that any of the three of us who formed the British team for the last four years are capable of winning an Olympic medal. We’re not the only nation with this problem though, it’s just a shame that that is the nature of Canoe Slalom.

Through close collaboration with my coach and sport psychologist we have developed a new approach to my racing. How we plan and ‘cue’ performances. We concluded that I had sometimes over-planned which made it difficult to get out of trouble when things didn’t quite go as expected, and sometimes made my paddling look a bit ‘mechanical’. Now I only cue where to look. We discuss the technical detail of course, but in the moment, all I have to focus on is where to look. This brings out the best in me! In yoga, we use this ‘concentrated intention’ to improve alignment. In slalom, it helps me stay aligned to the racing line (or bring myself back when I have strayed off).

On the mat we use the tip of our nose, fingertips and toes. On the water my ‘drishtis’ are the space between the poles, peaks of waves or the feeling of pushing through my feet. It’s been a really exciting project and I feel like it has brought an extra edge to my racing this year. I’m enjoying have less to think about, it’s much less stressful! I’m much more reactive too and getting myself out of trouble sometimes without realising.

I also feel a lot of community by practising yoga. Elite sport can be a bit of a bubble, so it’s awesome to have a change from time to time. I often say that winning medals is my sporting goal but ‘community’ is my life’s goal. It’s making me really happy to spend more time at triyoga studios now, meeting and getting to know more teachers and like-minded students. If you are interested, you can follow my journey on Instagram @slalom_burgess or my website www.adam-burgess.com or the old fashioned way of just saying hello if you see me at a studio, I always love to chat!

If you’re looking for a yoga class to support your sport, we have a wide range of styles to choose from. We also have a specific “yoga for sports” class to help improve your performance. Click here for details. 

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