Yoga Yields Big Benefits to Gymnasts, Says Two-Time Olympian Molnar

Written by John Crumlish for International Gymnast Online

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Two-time Hungarian Olympian Andrea Molnar is on a personal and professional mission to endorse the physical and psychological benefits that the ancient art of yoga can have on contemporary gymnasts and coaches who perhaps view it with skepticism.

Molnar’s evolution from world-class gymnast to yoga instructor, entrepreneur and gymnastics choreographer has been transcontinental. Born March 3, 1975, in Budapest, Molnar was a formidable force for Hungarian gymnastics in two Olympic cycles. Her best results included first place on floor exercise and fifth all-around at the 1993 European Cup, 11th all-around at the 1993 World Championships in Birmingham, 13th all-around at the 1994 Worlds in Brisbane and 15th all-around at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Following her retirement from competition, Molnar coached gymnastics for several years in California and New York. She met her American husband, Jim McKay, while coaching in New York 14 years ago. Professional gymnastics coaching opportunities encouraged the couple to relocate to Oslo, Norway, where Molnar now runs her businesses and McKay coaches the Norwegian Special Olympics men’s gymnastics team.

In this International Gymnast Online interview, Molnar reveals how she believes yoga can enrich current gymnasts’ training and performances through its various if yet unfamiliar physical and mental advantages.

IG: What do you feel are the hidden or unknown benefits that yoga can provide to today’s gymnasts?

AM: Yoga has the potential to help gymnasts with injury prevention, body posture and awareness, stress relief and better focus. It also increases athletes’ strength and flexibility. Every day there are many different exercises such as heavy jumps, landings and conditioning that pound on the joints and muscles. The dynamic nature of gymnastics creates imbalance in the body. Often there are muscle groups that are trained much harder than others, causing an imbalance which can lead weaker muscles to overcompensate when they are needed. This also occurs in flexibility training with more focus being put on stretching splits and backs to achieve higher-difficulty skills, while other parts are simply forgotten about. Since everything is connected, it is only logical to bring those parts into the mix and find balance through the practice of yoga. Practicing yoga helps to strengthen weak spots and open tight areas, in turn helping to stabilize the joints and increase body awareness.

IG: How can gymnasts and their coaches come to appreciate the benefits of yoga, which could be viewed as a challenging contrast to the high energy level and often times quick movements required in gymnastics?

AM: When I started practicing yoga, the challenge was to slow down and focus on the breathing technique. With time and consistent practice I started to feel the benefits of my dedication, which included the release of muscles that had been tight for years, as well as a sense of calm and balance emotionally that came in a time when I was under some personal stress. Gymnastics coaches and athletes already know and respect the benefits of consistency and the rewards it can bring.

Besides the obvious contrasts of movement there are some social stigmas related to yoga and those that practice it. Many people think that yoga is too religious and those that practice it are overly spiritual, or that you have to be incredibly flexible to even begin trying it. As a society we often tend to judge things before we even take a taste or second glance. The reality is that there are many different styles and approaches to yoga, and it is up to the practitioner to pick and choose what works for them. During my competitive years I needed regular massage therapy to help me cope with the muscle tension associated with regular training, and I believe that I could have avoided much of this pain through the implementation of appropriate yoga sequences.

IG: How much yoga per week do you feel is enough to benefit a gymnast, and which yoga exercise exercises do you feel are most likely to improve a gymnast?

AM: I would say 10-15 minutes, two or three times a week, can be beneficial for gymnasts. You can add 10 minutes of yoga sequences to your daily warm-up or for your injury prevention time. Another option could be to do two times a week of 10-15 minutes of yoga during warm-up and make a longer yoga session on Saturday, about 30 minutes or longer. For example, if you are doing yoga on a daily basis, each day you should focus on different body parts. If you have longer sessions you can mix it — two or three hip opener exercises, two or three shoulder exercises and so on. The most important thing in yoga is to breathe. 

There are so many yoga sequences and poses. Here are a few I recommend; you can just Google these poses: sun salutation A and B which is a flow sequence; for hip: pigeon pose, lizard pose which stretches hamstrings and quadriceps, shoelace pose, double pigeon and garland pose; for shoulder/neck: thread the needle, eagle arms and prone shoulder roll; for back: reclining twist, happy baby, cat and cow, and child pose which is a relaxation pose for stress and anxiety; for hamstrings: downward facing dog, triangle pose and side lunge.

Andrea Molnar with husband Jim McKay

IG: As an Olympian, you not only reached the top physical level of the sport, but were able to cope with the demanding psychological demands and pressures unique to gymnastics. In which ways do you feel yoga can psychologically benefit gymnasts?

AM: Gymnastics requires a lot of concentration, focus and stamina. The highly competitive environment creates a high level of stress during competition season. Unfortunately, back in the late 1990s, we didn’t think about yoga or meditation, and I don’t think there were many yoga studios or teachers in Hungary. The only resource available to us at the time was a psychologist at the sports hospital. Luckily we have many options available to us that we can take advantage of. I started doing meditation with our gymnasts right before the start of competition warm-up by asking them to sit in a cross-seated position, close their eyes and just try to breathe and relax for a few minutes. The girls loved it and said they felt less anxious than before. We have some girls that get very nervous before competing on beam, so I asked a few of them to stand in the tree pose, a balancing exercise, and just focus on their breathing. Of course they could just close their eyes and breathe without a tree pose. This small exercise seemed to really help the girls to stay calm.

IG: Gymnastics has changed a lot since you last competed in the late 1990s. As a choreographer, how do you meet the challenges of making a routine artistic and full of meaningful dance movements, whereas the push for difficulty seems to leave little time and room for artistry?

AM: Gymnastics has definitely changed a lot since I competed. At first it was a bit challenging to accept, but now I am used to it and have accepted most of the changes. Honestly I am not a fan of more tumbling, less dance and some of the music choices, maybe because I grew up with classical music. My mother was a pianist for the professional ballet school, so I spent some time in the opera house. We also had classical ballet lessons several times a week. I prefer to choreograph something pretty, using classical or traditional ethnic music, but of course I can work with any style. I feel like, in the past few years, the choreography scene has gotten more creative. For example, the style of the team from the Netherlands. I went to Stuttgart for the World Championships last year and I was really impressed with the creativity of the floor routines. I felt like more countries are focusing on artistry again.

I choreograph here in Norway but I usually go back to the U.S. every summer to work there. Last year I choreographed in Florida, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island. I really enjoyed it, and I met with so many wonderful children and amazing coaches. Unfortunately this summer I won’t be back because of the pandemic but am planning to offer some choreography on Zoom.

IG: You hail from Hungary, you worked in the U.S., you married an American and you run your own businesses in Norway. What makes you so adaptable?

AM: As a professional gymnast I always enjoyed traveling the world and experiencing different cultures. For some people, change can be very scary, but I have always seen it as an opportunity to learn through new opinions and relationships. Luckily I met an American (McKay) who shares these ideals. Now that he has experienced life in a different country, he truly understands the benefits of it. We like to think of ourselves as citizens of Planet Earth. I am coaching at Moss Gymnastics here in Norway, but I always like to keep my own side businesses going, as well, wherever I am. I have many different interests, and I enjoy sharing them with people. 

For more on Andrea Molnar:

Website: andreamolnaryoga.com

Facebook: Andrea Molnar Yoga

Instagram: andreamolnaryogaoslo

Youtube: Andrea Molnar Yoga/gymnastics

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