How are Driving and Yoga Alike? Two Disciplines and The Principles that Bind Them

December 26, 2013 by V.R.M. - No Comments

Admit it: when you think of yoga, you envision a tie-dye wearing yogi who sits in lotus pose, eats organic food, and rides his or her bike as often as possible to reduce the carbon footprint. And when you consider a car lover — a petrol head — the opposite comes to mind and your mental image shifts to a baseball-cap wearing, horsepower-loving, high-octane gas loving character more worried about the car’s engine running lean than the ozone layer. How could the worlds of yoga and car racing possibly intersect in any way? Turns out, they do. (And no, not all yogis wear tie-dye and not all petrol heads feel no remorse over the use of high octane).

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on weekend adventures separately: he to Virginia International Raceway (VIR) for the 13 Hours of VIR and I to Troy, Michigan for Seane Corn’s 2-day “detox” yoga retreat.  As the weekend wore on and we checked in with eachother (I during breaks from the relentless yoga practice and informative lectures and he as he completed each stint behind the wheel), I was reminded that yoga and driving a race car are, indeed, very alike.

Seane Corn leading yoga practice. (Image courtesy of

Seane Corn leading yoga practice. (Image courtesy of

I won’t try to explain yoga in depth here (many books have been written about the practice, and I am far from an expert on the subject), but in very basic terms, yoga consists of sequences of ancient movements which are beneficial for the mind and body. The purpose of yoga is to help the practitioner stay in the present moment. As yoga poses, which are coordinated with the practitioner’s breath, become increasingly challenging, the practitioner  must stay in the moment to practice successfully. As a practitioner becomes more proficient at both the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga, he or she also becomes more physically able to maintain poses of increasing difficulty, attains a calmer and clearer mind.

At first, the similarities between driving and yoga may not be obvious. Yoga is generally assumed to be concerned with the spiritual, whereas driving a race car is rooted in the tangible and mechanical. But, as it turns out, both disciplines move between these two worlds quite often.

Let’s look  beyond the stereotypes and to the fine nuances of each discipline to find out just what driving and yoga do, indeed, have in common…

Race cars are cramped, uncomfortable and ready to teach you great lessons about focus.

Race cars are cramped, uncomfortable and ready to teach you great lessons about focus. (photo (c) Steve Romine)

Driving and yoga demand focus. In yoga, one of the goals of the practice is to help the practitioner stay in the moment as each pose is executed. This discipline is meant to enrich the practitioner’s life by encouraging him or her to live in the present instead of being focused on past events or what the future may bring. In Buddhism, staying in the moment is considered one of the surest paths to true happiness.

In a race car, focus — being “in the moment” – is essential not just for accuracy, but for safety. If distracted driving is dangerous on the open road, on a race track it could be catastrophic. On-track driving demands focus and rewards it with better performance. If the driver’s mind is elsewhere, it is unlikely that the lap will go well.

Challenge is the ever-present motivator. In yoga, as in life, and even behind the wheel, it is possible to become complacent and comfortable. Nothing wrong with comfort, of course. But there is something magical about challenge — it builds a fire in us, wakes up our cells, and makes us more alive. A challenging yoga practice, if you let it, can stoke your fire and energize you. No matter how adept the practitioner has become in his or her yoga practice, yoga always has more challenge to offer both the body and the mind.

Challenge is why many of us drive. Ask some of the world’s best professional drivers whether they still feel challenged behind the wheel, they will surely tell you: yes.  No matter how talented and able a driver is, there is always more to learn. The elusive perfect lap sometimes happens, but most of the time, the driver is dealing with challenges: traffic, various car issues and even physical challenges. Challenge keeps us coming back to the yoga mat and the race car. Relish the challenge and appreciate what it is teaching you.

All focus, no force: note Seane's big smile as she holds a challenging pose.

All focus, no force: note Seane’s big smile as she holds a challenging pose. (Image courtesy of

Force never leads to success.  So many times we want something so badly, we force our will on our bodies or an inanimate object. In yoga, we twist ourselves into poses, willing our bodies to do what they do not want to do. The result is often frustration and injury. Moving smoothly and working with the signals your body gives you tends to produce wonderful and surprising results for the practitioner. Just recently, in a joy-filled vinyasa yoga class, I was cajoled into an inversion which has always intimidated me by a smiling and friendly instructor. I had always imagined that I would approach inversions with a somber and focused attitude, not mid-laughter…but there I was, upside down, cracking up, unafraid.

Anyone who has driven a race car knows that forcing a car never, ever leads to good things. Driving forcefully wears out anything from tires to brake pads to various car parts and generally leads to slower lap times. For a passenger, a car driven forcefully feels unbalanced, manhandled and unpredictable. Don’t get me wrong — there will be times when force is necessary behind the wheel. But if force is the default driving mode the result will probably be the same as forced yoga: frustration for the driver and injury to the car. Slow hands and a calm mind makes your car happier and you faster.

Discomfort and exhaustion build strength and endurance. Although yoga does indeed offer restorative practices, the deeper practices delve into both the physical and emotional realms and can challenge the practitioner with moments of physical and emotional exhaustion. In the Seane Corn workshop I mentioned above, the “detox” came not from eating a fad detox diet or drinking only juice; it came from a combination of vigorous 4-5 hours of yoga practice each day and the teachings of Seane, who encouraged the practitioners to work through a variety of difficult emotions we all experience in our lives and relationships. Seane’s  style is a self-described “Jersey” – straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is, joyful — just what modern-day, western folks need. She pushed us hard, made us sore, and sent us back to our lives stronger and more able to endure daily challenges.

Likewise, the discomfort and physical exhaustion a driver experiences while driving a race car is a wonderful tool that teaches endurance. At the 13 Hours of VIR, my husband spent 5-6 behind the wheel, driving 10/10ths, dealing with various cars, weather conditions and changing light. There was much discomfort and exhaustion, but his practice on the mat and behind the wheel paid off.  In the moments where he felt tired, he was able to soldier on, turning out consistent laps safely. Don’t be afraid to push yourself beyond your comfort zone in your daily “practice” — experiencing discomfort and difficult emotions and working through them teaches your body wonderful lessons and leaves you with the gift of endurance.


Repetition brings you great gifts: Car #75 on one of the hundreds of laps at the 2013 VIR 13-Hour. (photo (c) Steve Romine)

Repetition is meditation. Repetition helps build focus. In yoga, repeating a sun salutation  several times serves to both warm the body and focus the mind. Repeating a mantra (a set of words affirming a belief) while practicing also works to focus the mind on the breath or an intention.  By repeating sequences, practitioners improve their physical strength, breath control and focus.

Driving a race car, particularly on a road course, consists of a sequence of turns which the driver executes several times with  the aim of mastering trajectory, braking points, and the car’s limits. As the driver becomes more familiar with the car and the course, he or she is able to increase lap speeds, which increases the level of challenge. For the driver, consistent repetition reinforces proper driving technique (braking/accelerating, turning in, car control) and results in more accurate driving skills and faster lap  times.

Letting go is crucial. So often we live in the past — in our mistakes and our regrets.  Even the most advanced yogis will admit that at times, they experience suffering and regret over parts of their life which they cannot control or change. Letting go is such a difficult lesson to learn.  The secret to happiness, zen Buddhists say, is to let go of what we cannot change and believe that everything happens to make us better people.

In the yoga practice, a difficult pose comes along and all of a sudden we become frustrated with our body and its limitations. All the practitioner can think about is how hard the pose is and how he or she was unable to do it. Suddenly, all the other poses feel terrible, too.  The advanced yogi understands that all of yoga is a gift; some parts of the practice show  how strong the practitioner is, and others remind him or her that there are limitations. The practitioner who can let go of the one wrong pose and his or her preconceived idea of how their body should be reaps great rewards.

The whole point: drivers at the VIR 13-hour smile as they discuss post-practice data. (Image (c) Steve Romine)

The whole point: drivers at the VIR 13-hour smile as they discuss post-practice data. (Image (c) Steve Romine)

If you’ve driven on a racetrack, you know that every road course or autocross course has “that corner” which never quite feels right. No matter how hard you try, the corner slows you down, unsettles your car, and frustrates you. The more frustrated you are, the more you think about that corner — both before you arrive there, and after you leave. “Next time I will…” takes over. In the meantime, you are driving the other 10 corners poorly, or only half as well as you could drive them, because you are living in the one “bad” corner.

If the driver is at turn 3 but worried about turn 11, turns 4-10 will most likely not be executed properly. Racing demands that the driver stay in each moment and quickly move to the next. Living in the past in racing is not just unacceptable — it’s dangerous. By not letting go of each corner as you complete it, you are compromising the rest of your lap time. By not letting go of the bad moments in your life, you are compromising all the wonderful ones. Let the bad corners and bad moments go. It’s a wonderful life … it’s a wonderful lap!

Namaste. In saying “namaste” at the end of a yoga group practice, the practitioner is saying “the spirit within me salutes the spirit in you,” which could be interpreted to mean, “I respect myself for all I am, and I respect you for all you are.”

Today, in the spirit of the Holidays and the coming year, I say to you, namaste — the driver in me honors the driver in you. May you be safe and joyful behind the wheel and elsewhere in life.