From Competitive Swimming to Yoga: Finding Joy in Practise
Sarah Eaglesham is a highly successful former international swimmer and Scottish record holder. But it turns out, Sarah didn't enjoy competing. In this article she shares her journey to finding Yoga practice and how this has affected her life for the better post-competing.
At the ripe old age of 20 l stepped away from the world of competitive swimming. There was nothing spectacular about my retirement. It was more of a slow fizzle. No toe-curling injury, or catastrophic performances. I had simply reached the stage where the emotional lows were by far outweighing the highs. I loved to train hard, to work hard, and I loved my team - but I was no longer happy.
Without going in to too many details - my lows got pretty low. My decision to retire eventually became less of a choice than a necessity. With the abundant time I now had on my hands I continued to study, I got a small job, and eventually... Found yoga. I found it gradually, over time. I borrowed an old mat that had belonged to my mum and I practiced in my front room. The power of YouTube.
I practiced under the instruction of YouTube guru Lesley Fightmaster. If you’re looking for a place to start, she is amazing! Lesley broadened my limited knowledge of the physical practice, but also introduced me to the spiritual side of the yoga. She spoke of intentions and gratitude, and the more I heard, the more I wanted to know.
Personal fulfilment comes first
The concept of intentionality really struck a chord with me. It evoked a whole number of questions; why am I doing this? What do I want to achieve? What am I going to focus on (or ignore) in this moment? I found this interesting and fun to practice and soon, somewhat by accident, I started drawing parallels with my swimming career. My real a-ha moment took place on my tattered, sweat-soaked yoga mat, as my heart pounded amidst another silent savasana (for any total non-yogis, this is the final resting pose of a yoga class and it is just beautiful).
It came down to this: I did not like competing. I was not excited by the idea, and the drive to win at all costs just never really seemed to manifest inside of me, as much as I wished it had. Interestingly though I absolutely loved to train, to work hard, to bond with my friends and teammates over a particularly grueling week. I didn’t really ever consider the lifestyle that much of a “sacrifice”, and I loved the satisfaction of improving. Not for anyone else’s benefit, but for me, for my own fulfillment.
When I looked back I realized these two conflicting mindsets were bound to collide and blow up at some point. It didn’t matter that I loved train, to try to improve myself as an athlete every day, to work with nutritionists and physiotherapists to improve my diet and body respectively - I dreaded the competition at the end of it all, and was ultimately unhappy as a result. I was completely torn between what I thought should bring me joy, and what actually did.
Yoga: a Moving Meditation
For me, this has been the biggest lesson that I have taken away from my yoga journey so far. I have been practicing the physical side of yoga for the best part of 3 years, but over the last 12 months my practice has become more of a daily habit, and my mind has really woken up to the practice. In that time, I have come to realize a few things. For instance, who bloody cares if you can handstand, who cares if you can front split, and who cares if you can wrap both legs around your head.
The physical side of yoga is a fun bonus that satisfies the part of myself, and many others, that crave hard work and challenge - but first and foremost, it is a vessel for an even more valuable practice. It is a moving meditation. A yoga teacher of mine summed it up wonderfully. “Everything you need is inside of you”. As soon as you realize this, you will feel the trappings of external gratifications disappear. A favourite analogy of mine is this: we should work out and eat well to be healthy and strong; not because personal happiness can only be achieved when you have obtained some magical “goal weight”. Believing you need X,Y or Z to be happy, isn’t doing yourself any justice AT ALL. I am all that I need, and you are all that you need. Happiness is actually pretty simple.
Enjoy the process
If I had come to realize this earlier in my swimming career, perhaps my life would have taken a different path. Had my happiness not hung so delicately on the attainment of personal bests, qualifying times, or meeting my own physical ideals of an athlete, I am sure my journey through the sport might have been very different. I would love to see young, upcoming athletes start to realize this sooner. To learn to enjoy the process, to enjoy the ride - and most importantly, not to feel emotionally dependent on the instant gratification of results. To see that life is so much bigger than that, and that our sporting successes are really just a particularly juicy cherry on the cake.
I could probably write (and definitely talk) about the benefits of Yoga all day. But I believe the biggest take-home is this: in a time when the yoga industry is booming, remember that the benefits of the practice go way beyond the body sculpting, the injury prevention, or newly accomplished kick-ass yoga poses. If we learn to enjoy the process of life, show gratitude for what we already have, and take a moment to rest in our own bodies, we might all learn to see the beauty that exists around us here. Right now, today, instead of longing for what may or may not exist tomorrow.
Yoga: a Daily Reminder to make the right choices
I know what you’re thinking - this is not news, and it’s certainly not rocket science. We all know what makes us feel happy and alive or sluggish and depressed. And likewise, we all think we know exactly what it takes to be fit and healthy. But it’s not quite that easy. We forget. I forget! All the time. And for me, like many, yoga is a beautiful daily reminder of the lifestyle choices that are best for me.
All that said- I should come clean… because I’m no authority on this matter, and I definitely haven’t reached a mystical yogic level of happiness (I pretty regularly have to remind myself to practice what I preach). But that’s the whole point. It’s aPractice!! It takes work. Of course it does- everything worthwhile will. But for me, the idea of becoming completely at ease with myself is worth the hours and the commitment. It will always keep me coming back to my mat.
I’m going to finish by sharing what I’m grateful for right now. Today I am grateful for you, for reading this (thank you so much if you got this far!). And for Joe Welstead (co-founder of Motion Nutrition - and one of the many wonderful people I was lucky to meet during my time as a swimmer) who has given me this opportunity to write about my experiences.