Lifelong athlete and Olympic medalist Elise Ray knows a thing or two about hard work. The road to her 2000 Olympic bronze medal-winning performance in gymnastics was paved with grueling practices, steely determination and tireless perseverance. But while competition always came naturally to the 30-year-old champ (who has three uneven bar skills officially named after her, natch), embracing proper recovery wasn’t innate. It was only when Elise retired as an elite gymnast did she realize the healing impact that yoga could have on her body as well as her mind, and she hasn’t looked back since.
The former Olympian and current assistant coach of the University of Washington’s gymnastics team chatted with Jasyoga about her journey from the balance beam to the yoga mat, her team’s work with Jasyoga, and why yoga for athletes is less boring and more important than it seems.
What motivated you to try yoga for the first time?
Yoga was something I only got into after the Olympics. At the time, I was hesitant about it and didn’t really think I had the time and extra energy to dedicate. If I knew then what I know now about the way it makes me feel, I would have introduced it to my training routine sooner! It was only when my career as an elite athlete ended, did I really start getting into yoga as a way to heal my body. I also ended up really falling in love with the flow of it, which probably stems from my dance and gymnastics background. I just find it very meditative and energizing at the same time — a perfect combination.
Why the initial hesitation?
When I was training for the games, my whole life was centered around athletics and extreme training. I didn’t have the room or time for anything other than the 40 hours of intense training I was already putting in every week. Competition was really all I knew and yoga is the opposite of that — it’s very different from almost everything athletes are taught in sports — so adopting it was almost deconditioning that mentality a little bit. It took some getting used to, but it was well worth it. Though it seemed boring at first, the more I stuck with it, the more I realized that finding calm amidst all the stress and anxiety I was feeling at the time was a critical part to being in the right frame of mind to perform my best.
Now that your Olympic days are behind you, how has yoga helped you recover from your career?
My body has been through a lot for being 30 years old — it hurts and it aches and I have a lot of nagging little things leftover from my career, but yoga just seems to fix them. When I can’t make it to a class for a week or so, I definitely feel the difference. I make myself go two to three times a week because I feel so renewed after a class. Now that I’m hooked, I’m trying to get all my old Olympic buddies to get into it, too.
What advice would you give to an athlete considering adding Jasyoga to their training routine?
Try to have an open and clear mind when approaching your first few classes… accept that it will be very different than the intensity you’re used to, but what a welcomed change! Listen to the instructor’s voice and your internal voice, drift away, and know that once you start, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
What is your favorite pose and why?
Forward fold. I hold so much tension in my neck and shoulders so this pose is simply bliss for me. Every class I attend, when we do a forward fold, the instructor says something similar to “let your stresses roll off your shoulders as you hang, and become present in this moment.” I think of those words every time I do this pose so not only does it feel physically blissful, but is very meditative, and mentally blissful, too. Plus, it can be done anywhere!
You are now bringing your extensive gymnastics expertise to UW Gymnastics, how do you feel your team has benefited from Jasyoga training?
I couldn’t be happier that Jasyoga is involved with my team. I see a lot of the girls doing Jasyoga stretches on their own, and it is encouraging to know that they are now able to use yoga to hit all their sore spots. Another thing that has really helped them is learning the deep breathing techniques. They do that quite often during competitions to calm them down and the takeaway is huge. Gymnastics is so mental, I don’t think people realize that the mental aspect of it is as important, if not more important, than the physical side. It’s great to know that the girls now have this incredibly valuable tool that they can do anytime and anywhere to calm them down and get focused.
Now for the fun stuff! Other than yoga, how else do you relax and blow off steam?
Hanging with my goofy, loving friends, getting lost in an arty/crafty project, taking dance classes, and FaceTiming with my family back in Maryland.
Favorite post-workout snack?
A protein smoothie! Which usually consists of whatever I have in the fridge and freezer. It’s refreshing and (usually) delicious.
Favorite pump-up song?
“Just Dance” by Lady GaGa.
Fill in the blank: “When I’m on the gym mat, I feel _____”
(Now, as a coach)… in my element.
(When I competed)… unique and confident.
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