The Injured Athlete’s Guide to Meditation

About three weeks ago, I woke up and thought I was having a heart attack. I was pouring sweat. I was extremely disoriented. I had my fiance call 911. I have a pulseox beside the bed (I’m always curious about my heart rate), my heart rate was 120. The room was spinning. I was freaking out. Medics came, turns out I wasn’t actively dying. “We can take you to the ER if you want.” they said. “No thanks.” I replied. I wasn’t about to wait 6 hours in an ER if I wasn’t dying, I hadn’t been to the doctor in 20 years. Long story short, I have some friends that are doctors and after a bit of convincing from them I went to a general physician, who sent me to the ER anyway. A few MRIs later, it doesn’t seem like I had a stroke. Turns out, after nearly half a lifetime in contact sports,  I got a concussion. In fact, probably a couple close together after lengthy discussions (I was laugh-crying regularly at movies and shows on TV, and kept training anyway).

I thought I had to be knocked out to get a concussion but neurologists say 80% of concussions are just a quick change in acceleration/deceleration. Of all sports, not something I expected to happen in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We don’t get punched in the head. We don’t run into each other head on.

In any case, when you’re an athlete and you’re injured, it’s tortuous. After all, you’re the type of person who stays busy, obsessed with improvement, with the hope of accomplishing goals. Your body atrophies and you lose your cardiovascular ability. And most of all, you’re pissed off because of it.

So what can you do when you’re injured? Do you desperately attempt to simulate some abbreviated version of any relatable activity to your sport? Do you watch as much footage as possible so that you return with a new and better strategy?

Maybe. But you know what you should do? Meditate.

It sounds ridiculous. And really it is. Our modern world has made it all but impossible to do. But research shows that meditation unlocks parts of your brain untapped during any other activity. Regular practice builds new neural networks that result in a multitude of benefits. One of which I’ve discussed before: breath control. Controlling your breathing helps adjust to the stressors of competition, and breath holding practice can even increase your cardiovascular ability by increasing CO2 thresholds and O2 use efficiency. Another benefit is simply mastering your mind.

I’m no stranger to meditation. In high school, like many of us, I wanted to “be like water” and as an extension, like Bruce Lee. I figured everyone was working on the mastery of the one-inch punch, so I turned to controlling my mind, seeing if I could “be empty” and just react to my surroundings. I read a bunch of books on Zen Buddhism. And I found at the time that Wrestling (and laster) Jiu Jitsu at their purest level, embody this idea of reaction and are in fact themselves forms of moving meditation.


Bruce Lee’s famous 1-inch punch.

But it was hard as hell to clear my head. Every time I would focus on just breathing my mind would wander and I’d start thinking “How long have I been doing this?” Oh you know, about 5 minutes. But with practice I got better. In fact, I meditated regularly for a few years, and like most activities in our lives that are secondary or tertiary passions, I’ve cycled back to it over and over.

A few things I’ve learned over the years when you give it a go.

1.Don’t pick a simple meditation to start off with. If you’re just focusing on your breath or your heart rate, you’ll be distracted much too easily. Choose something complicated. One with four or five things to focus on. Or one that requires you to constantly maintain something, like a chant or sound. A few that I like are below. Chakra meditation is a great example. You don’t have to believe in the horseshit that is energy centers or qi/chi (although who know’s what’s going on in the world of particle physics and your body) to understand the benefit of visualization. Saying Ohm over and over is a pretty damn easy way to start off too.

This one is crazy long but you can do 15 minute segments. It give you a ton to think about (colors, sounds, chants, etc). One of my favs:

And if you’ve always wondered what Ohm was about:

2. Obviously start off with short bouts. If you can do 15 minutes then try 20 next time and so forth. Duh. If you ever pull off an hour, it’s a pretty damn crazy experience and when you’re done you’ll be disoriented (meditation turns off your thalamus which is responsible for orientation, don’t freak out if you feel funny when you’re done). BUT, if you pull that hour off you’ll feel like a MFing Airbender. It’s pretty rad. One of my favorite short ones:

Here’s a SUPER short one that I’ve been using for years. Not a lot going on, but with one of the less creepy non-noxious voices:

3. Face the fact that it’s gonna be weird. If you’ve never mediated before, you’re going to feel goofy, you’ll laugh at how silly you feel doing an activity that typically reserved for buddhist monks and crunchy vegan yoga instructors. The voices of the guided meditations sound like creepazoids. That’s okay. Just try it. Like 3 times. It will vastly improve your week, and you’ll be able to walk around secretly confident channeling the spirits of The Last Samurai.

When you’re finally given the go ahead to return to activity, go slow. Meditate on it. Be enlightened. Or at the very least, that you didn’t just sit there injured and depressed. Instead you had a vital role in the improvement of your suffering mind and/or injured body.


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