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On the Mat, Over the Board: Yoga & Chess Print E-mail
By Melinda J. Matthews   
March 29, 2014
When I first floated the idea of a chess and yoga piece to CLO editor Jennifer Shahade, I had no real idea about how I would pull it off, except I knew I should probably start by finding some technical data to support my vague theories.  As I searched for the connections between serious chess study and a strong yoga practice, I was surprised to learn that both disciplines have their roots in India (yes, I'll admit to being somewhat ignorant about chess history).  The game credited as chess' forerunner is called chaturanga.  Chaturanga also happens to be the name of a common yoga posture.  The shared element between the two is the word itself, which derives from the Sanskrit "chatur" (four) and "anga" (limbs).

In yoga, chaturanga translates to "four-limbed staff pose" and is basically what we know in the west as a push up.

Chaturanga, the yoga posture, Photo: Nerissa Sparkman

The game chaturanga is based upon the four divisions (limbs) of a Vedic army: elephants, chariots, horse cavalry, and foot soldiers.  The rules are very similar to modern chess. For details about how chaturanga is played, check out this description on the Ancient Chess website: http://www.chessvariants.org/historic.dir/chaturanga.html

Chaturanga, the game, Photo: http://allencentre.wikispaces.com/Chess

I also uncovered some interesting tales about chess players who practice(d) yoga.  Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) story belongs to Viktor Korchnoi. At the 1978 World Chess Championship, Korchnoi, the underdog against reigning champion Anatoly Karpov, was down 4-1 after 17 games (six games were needed to win; draws didn't count).  Mentally exhausted, Korchnoi left the site to recuperate; while away, he met two yoga practitioners who started him on a regular yoga and meditation practice (the yogis, it turned out, had shady pasts, but that's another story).  Renewed, Korchnoi embarked on an astonishing comeback over Karpov, winning one game, drawing eight, then winning three in a row.  Korchnoi credited his amazing streak to his new yoga regime (though eventually he lost after an exhausting 32 games).  He ended the tournament by demonstrating yoga postures to the press:

GM Viktor Korchnoi demonstrating Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana), Photo and more details on GM Kevin Spragget's blog. 
Rock star Sting is another outspoken yoga devotee and avid chess player who once participated in a televised simul against Garry Kasparov.  Kasparov defeated him and four of his band mates within 50 minutes.

Sting and Kasparov play while the press looks on, More details in chessninja
And Ylon Schwartz, Poker champion and FIDE Master, attends Bikram yoga classes regularly (Bikram's a hot yoga offshoot in which the room is heated up to 105 degrees).  He's stated that yoga helps keep him in strong mental and physical shape.

Finally, I discovered a former chess player, Swami Shankarananda, who became a meditation master and founder of the Shiva School of Meditation and Yoga (http://shivayoga.org/).

Swami Shankarananda

During his active chess-playing days, Swami Shankarananda competed on Columbia University's chess team, formed an unlikely friendship with Bobby Fischer, and faced a few grandmasters, notably Mikhail Tal, whom he defeated in a simul.  Although his life's path led him away from chess, in the mid-eighties he returned to competitive tournament play to see if his yoga and meditation practice would help him attain the Master title.  He was successful in his attempt and gives much of the credit to his practice.

But despite unearthing all sorts of interesting, informative tidbits, what I didn't uncover, truthfully, is a bounty of medical and statistical evidence directly linking yoga to chess.  Most of the connections between the two are anecdotal and based upon others' experiences.  However, studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can enhance and support many other disciplines, including chess.

Yoga for Chess Players - some mental benefits

Just as many labor under the misguided impression of chess players as esoteric geeks, others think of yoga only in physical terms.  The majority of inquires I receive about my yoga classes usually begin with the following phrase: "I'm interested, but I'm not at all flexible."

Western notions of yoga have honed in on the physical, driven by the media-fueled fantasy of achieving a tight and toned yoga butt as the overriding goal.  But the real intent of asanas - the physical practice - is to prepare the body for quieting the mind, thereby allowing long and physically comfortable meditations.  Complicated poses were not created to show off flexibility; instead, they serve to still the mind by keeping you rooted in the moment.  After all, it's pretty hard to balance on one leg, limbs wrapped up in knots, when your mind is wandering to what's for dinner.  And cultivating a strong focus, perhaps, is one of the best reasons for serious chess players to pursue yoga as a complementary practice.

Many people - not just chess players - turn to yoga because they've heard it reduces stress.  Absolutely true!  In this case, quite a few scientific studies support this notion: it's been proven that yoga's emphasis on marrying breath to movement - taking those long, deep, full, mindful inhales and exhales - helps decrease the sympathetic nervous system's fight-or-flight response, thereby increasing relaxation. 

A very easy technique that provides almost instant stress relief is to simply breathe in and out through your nostrils mindfully.  Focus on the quality of your inhalations and exhalations, and see if you can match them in length and intensity.  For increased benefits, eventually lengthen your exhalation up to two times longer than your inhalation.  Try breathing this way the next time you're feeling pressure during a critical match and notice how your mind begins to settle down - internal calm amidst external chaos.

Calm amidst chaos, stillness amidst motion. (Photo: Nerissa Sparkman)



Yoga for Chess Players - a physical practice

Of course, practicing postures has its own benefits.  Increased flexibility allows for long stretches of sitting comfortably, something that players locked in a four- to six-hour game (or longer) can appreciate.  Of all my encroaching old-age ailments, a sore back or stiff neck and shoulders are not among them.  Flexing the spine regularly - forward bends, backbends, sun salutations, twists - keeps physical discomfort at bay.

Below are a few yoga postures that would be particularly suited to chess players.  To show how accessible yoga is to everyone, tournament director Michael Hutsko and fellow yogini Lisa Fuller joined my son, Nicky, and me to demonstrate these poses. 

Back Health.  For back flexibility, nothing beats spinal twists.  Twists help restore or maintain the spine's natural range of motion, which can easily be lost if you're sedentary (i.e., spending too much time sitting at the board!).  Twists also promote mental clarity by stimulating circulation.  The act of twisting is often likened to wringing out a sponge: Our organs are compressed during a twist, which squeezes out stale blood. When we release the twist, fresh, oxygen-rich blood flows in. 

As with almost every yoga posture, there are many variations on this theme, from a basic sitting posture and gentle twist of the torso to a complicated bind.  Here's one popular spinal twist, Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana):

Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana) Photo: Nerissa Sparkman

Tournament move.   During your next long match, try this easy twist when your brain begins to fog: simply grasp the back of your chair seat and start to turn in the direction of the hand behind you.  Make sure you keep your spine and head straight and your shoulders down.  Continue a steady rotation from your lower back (not your neck), visualizing a gentle wringing motion starting from the base of your spine.  Direct your gaze over your shoulder without craning your neck.  Remain in this position, allowing each exhale to twist you ever-so-slightly deeper, and slowly unwind whenever you're ready.  Repeat on the other side.

Chest Openers.  Long hours spent hunching over the board can cave the chest, creating tension in the shoulders and the back and making breathing shallower.  Chest openers counter the effects of slumping by creating space for the lungs to expand, sliding the shoulders back into place, and relieving upper back tension by stretching the front chest muscles.  These are just a few poses that help open the chest, starting with Camel (Ustrasana) to the more advanced Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana):

Camel (Ustrasana)  Photo: Nerissa Sparkman

Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) Photo: Nerissa Sparkman



Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana), Photo: Nerissa Sparkman

The Warriors I, II, and III series (Virabhadrasana) and Reverse Warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana) are multi-tasking poses that provide multiple benefits.  Warrior I and Reverse Warrior, in particular, are great chest openers.

From left to right:

Melinda in Reverse Warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana), Mike in Warrior I, Nicky in Warrior II, Lisa in Warrior III (Virabhadrasanas I, II, and III) Photo: Nerissa Sparkman

Tournament move. You can do this chest opener from your chair: clasp your hands behind your back, palms facing up. Rotate your shoulders up, roll them back and down, then drop your shoulder blades down your back (imagine the points of two pizza slices sliding down and locking into place).  If this feels comfortable, open up a little more - squeeze those pizza slices together while expanding through your upper chest - and lift your gaze to the ceiling without hyper-extending your neck.

Balance and Focus.  Balance poses demand our full, immediate, and concentrated attention in ways other poses may not. The instant our minds shift away, even slightly, we lose the pose.  And so, in order to achieve balance, we are forced to drop all extraneous thoughts to focus solely on the task at hand.  Many report that this "fluid stability" imparts deep, focused calm and serenity.  Mentally, balance poses help us realize that fear of falling (or failing) is simply a product of our own egos:  We feel out of control when we lose our balance, and our egos hate losing control.

L to R: Lisa in Dancer (Natarajasana), Nicky in Eagle (Garudasana), Mike in Tree (Vrksasana), and Melinda in Extended Hand to Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana) Photo Nerissa Sparkman
The well-known Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) is another pose that examines a balanced push-pull dynamic: movement in one direction is offset and enhanced by an action in the opposite direction. In this posture, you are simultaneously creating strength and flexibility, extension and stability.  Philosophically and spiritually, this corresponds to the meaning of hatha yoga as the union of the sun and moon, the masculine and feminine.
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) Photo: Nerissa Sparkman


Tournament move.   While you can't pull off most balance poses without standing up (thereby calling attention to yourself), they're an excellent way to re-engage a mind that may be losing focus.  So if you don't mind looking a little odd, try this relatively inconspicuous pose:  Stand with your spine straight, keeping your head and neck aligned (imagine a string being pulled up your back, through your neck and head, straight out of your crown).  Keep your feet parallel and close to each other (touching if that works for you), legs straight but not clenched.  Roll your shoulders and shoulder blades back and down (remember that pizza?), allowing your hands to fall alongside your hips, palms facing forward.  Seems simple so far, right?  Now close your eyes.  Focus on your breath, notice your body's subtle waves and micro-movements, and try to still them.

Stress relief.  To counteract the effects of a long, concentrated match, nothing beats knowing how to fully relax.  Corpse (Savasana) can move you into a deep state of conscious relaxation that helps dissolve stress and tension from your mind and body.  This yoga posture seems deceptively simple, but, as in every yoga pose, correct alignment and positioning are key.   In the beginning, you may have difficulty quieting your spinning "monkey mind," especially if you're a Type A personality, but with time and practice, eventually you'll reap enormous benefits from this highly-healing posture.

Corpse (Savasana) Photo: Nerissa Sparkman
Tournament move.  Resting in Savasana isn't particularly appropriate during a match, but breathing is! Whenever stress begins to overtake you, revert to the breathing technique outlined earlier in this article.  Close your eyes to further blot out distractions. 

These are just a few out of hundreds of yoga postures; it's clear from even these simple descriptions that their benefits overlap into each other.  A caveat: if you're a novice, don't attempt the postures in the photographs without receiving more detailed instruction about getting into and coming out of the poses. And if you're interested in learning more about yoga, you're always welcome to contact me and let's get your practice started!  I'm also happy to teach a complimentary group class during any tournament that I attend with Nicky.  Just let me know where and when and I'll be there, mat in hand.  (Melinda plans to be at CLO editor Jennifer Shahade's seminar at the SuperNationals V on popularizing chess. US Chess Scoop also plans to capture Melinda on camera regarding chess and yoga-ED.)

Chess and Yoga: Complementary Disciplines
As a yoga devotee, of course I could ramble on and on endlessly about yoga's benefits, but instead I will enumerate the similarities between chess and yoga.  I hereby offer my by-no-means-comprehensive-or-scientific list outlining just a few connections between chess and yoga.

Both develop your focus.  It's common to see world-class chess players staring intently at the board for an hour or more.  Obviously, the ability to focus is an essential element of chess. Mencius, a teacher of Confucianism, wrote, "Now chess-playing is but a small art, but without his whole mind being given, and his will bent to it, a man cannot succeed at it," meaning that a less-intelligent person with strong concentration skills will do better at chess (or anything else) than the more-intelligent player whose mind wanders.  In his message to me, Swami Shankarananda wrote: "Chess is dharana or concentration. It builds strength of mind."  Being able to fully concentrate on the board - or engage in a "deep think" - seems to be a crucial element that eventually separates the superstars from the good-but-not-great players.

Attaining stillness in certain yoga postures and meditation is very similar to the "deep think" experience. You are not "tuning out" the world when you meditate; there's simply a heightened awareness of everything that is happening - from the breath to physical sensations to mental clarity.  The main difference is that in a yogic meditation, the mind is focused on the inner self, whereas in chess, the focus is on the board.  Pantanjali, in his seminal book, The Yoga Sutras, summed it up simply and globally, "If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience Yoga."  That sort of mind steadiness applies whether meditating or considering your position.

A modern view was developed by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who theorized that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow - such complete absorption in an activity or situation that nothing else seems to matter.  Csíkszentmihályi described flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."  More mainstream terms for this state might be in the zone or in the groove. 

A true meditative state (or a "deep think") keeps you absolutely rooted in what could easily be described as flow.  My personal all-time meditation high occurred in a South Korean temple.  I don't know what I was expecting, exactly, but something about the energy of the temple, and possibly my own lack of expectation, took me outside of time and body for over an hour.  The memory of that extraordinary sensation - being so hyper-aware that I felt suspended in time - is one lure that draws me to my mat over and over again.  And I suspect the similar high of suddenly untangling a complicated position after a long, concentrated "think" - that flash where it all makes sense - is what keeps many chess players coming back to the board. 

Tuning out to tune in. Photo: Nerissa Sparkman

 Both help you cultivate (and listen to) that inner voice.  When you comb through the biographies of the top chess players, almost every one of them mentions that player's particular style or known favorite openings.  Obviously, these players have capitalized upon and polished the methods, ideas, and strategies that work for them.  Similarly, Nicky tells me that even when he starts out playing one way, at some point, in some way, he often converts into an attacking game - the type of play that resonates with him.  And he claims his best games occur when he is true to himself and his style.

In his interview with Jeremy Silman, Swami Shankarananda clarified the importance of listening to that inner voice: "In my later games of chess, after I had studied meditation, I began to ask different kinds of questions at the board and look for positions that made me feel harmonious and peaceful. Sometimes the objectively best move is not right for your style of play. By studying your inner process during play, you will discover under what emotional conditions you play the best."

Found within the pages of the ancient Hindu text, the Upanishads, is the "yoga" variation on the same theme: Understanding without practice is better than practice without understanding. Understanding with practice is better than understanding without practice. Residing in your true nature is better than understanding or practice.

In yoga classes, we remind our students to honor their bodies: some days you can touch your toes; some days you can barely touch your knees. It's important not to fight against what your body is telling you.  Heeding your inner voice means understanding where you are in that moment and gracefully accepting your strengths and limitations.  It doesn't mean you shouldn't continually press to improve and push to your edge.  It just means you should stay honest about what feels right to you and discard what doesn't serve you, whether you're in the middle of a complicated game or hanging onto a challenging yoga posture or trying to determine your life's direction. 

Both help you find balance and understand imbalance.  I read an interesting article about balance while researching this piece, which I hope I'm interpreting correctly here (if not, I'm sure I will hear about it!). The article discussed Steinitz's theory of perfect play, which basically states that all chess games begin in balance. If balance can be maintained, the game ends in a draw.  However, if balance is lost, the theory posits that it's the loser who determined the game's outcome by creating the imbalance (meaning, by making a mistake).

Regardless of one's understanding of chess theory, it's fairly obvious that balance is an important factor in chess. Consider, even, the chessboard and pieces: black and white, opposite colors, much like the now-ubiquitous yin-yang symbol.  You can't have darkness without light, resolution without conflict - and you can't find balance without experiencing some imbalance.  Swami Shankarananda spoke of a different kind of balance in his interview with Jeremy Silman: "The bliss of victory in chess is always accompanied by the pain of defeat on the part of the opponent. By the law of compensation in the universe, no one can always win."

Most yoga practitioners are locked in an ongoing quest for both physical and spiritual balance; it's often the main reason we came to the mat.  I'm no exception; I constantly struggle with finding and maintaining balance, not just in yoga, but in all areas of my life. I've finally learned to accept (though I rail against it at times) that finding true balance is all about learning to ride the waves of unpredictability and imbalance - in chess, in yoga, in life - and I thank my yoga practice for teaching me that lesson.

Warrior II: Finding balance through concentration and strength, Photo: Nerissa Sparkman
Both teach you to detach (in a healthy way).  My all-time favorite quote from the Bhagavad Gita states, ""You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions' fruits."    Mahatma Gandhi further elaborated upon this thought: "Detachment is not indifference.  It is the prerequisite for effective involvement."  In other words, detachment allows the experience to remain separate from the results.  So I try to practice detachment in many situations: for instance, whenever I find myself becoming too invested in my class' reactions, or whenever Nicky's playing a high-stakes round and I want to fret and pace.  It's the same detachment that I hope Nicky has learned to call upon whenever he's playing the match I'm (supposedly) not fretting about and not pacing over.  Detachment from outcome frees the mind to focus on the task at hand.  And when you're fully invested in the activity, undisturbed by "what ifs" - well, I'd call that living in the moment (back to that flow state!).  
Nicky practices detachment while Melinda does the Wild Thing (Camatkarasana)  Photo: Nerissa Sparkman

Both unleash creativity.  According to a recently-released book by William J. Broad, The Science of Yoga, the few documented scientific studies about yoga tend to focus on yoga and creativity.  Specifically, studies have examined the effect of yogic breathing on the brain and how it helps quiet the chattering of the everyday brain, which is dominated by the logical and practical left brain hemisphere.  When the din in the left brain is silenced, the right brain - which governs intuition, creativity, instincts, and spatial reasoning - activates.  The "deep think" - or concentrated focus on the chess board - might serve the same purpose by eventually shuttering the practical left brain's experience- and study-based analysis, thereby allowing the creative juices of the right brain to unleash their magic.

While the importance of creativity has been universally acknowledged, it's hard to quantify.  In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell discusses a "divergence test."  Unlike convergence tests, in which the test taker sorts through a list of possibilities and converges on the right answer (think multiple choice), a divergence test requires the test taker to consider as many different outcomes as possible.  Gladwell writes, "With a divergence test, obviously there isn't a single right answer. What the test giver is looking for are the number and uniqueness of your responses. And what the test is measuring isn't analytical intelligence but something profoundly different - something much closer to creativity."   

Although I don't have test results to verify Nicky's creativity, I'm positive chess has refined Nicky's ability to think independently and originally.  He's constantly surprising me with his inventive interpretations in what should be ordinary situations.  For example, I once instructed everyone in my yoga class, Nicky included, to lie on their mats in a comfortable position.  I assumed they understood I meant on their backs in savasana.  But Nicky completely disregarded what the rest of the class was doing and instead flopped happily onto his stomach, head aligned with everyone else's feet.  Technically, he obeyed my instructions to the letter.  But he didn't just blindly follow the crowd, either; he added his correct yet unique twist to my instructions - and I've heard he often has a similar unconventional outlook over the board, too.  And who knows?  Maybe his exposure to a yogic way of thinking has influenced the creative way he approaches chess (I'd like to think so!).

Yoga and Chess - our story

Naturally, my own thoughts about the connections - and similarities - between chess and yoga are derived from how they relate to Nicky and me. 

Photo: Nerissa Sparkman
Though I never really put it together formally, I often sensed there was a correlation between the two: the elements that attracted me to yoga were comparable to the elements that drew Nicky to the chess board. 

A regular yoga practice is highly personal and, in its purest moments, solitary, driven by where the practitioner "is" at that point in time - physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.  It is not competitive (or shouldn't be, at any rate), nor is there a straight, swift, sure route to the ultimate goal (which in yoga is samadhi, or bliss/enlightenment).  My own yoga journey had been (and still is) following a slow and meandering path, full of stops and starts and myriad distractions.  I am heading nowhere and everywhere in my own time and at my own pace, adjusting my course as my needs morph and transform, and I'm learning and having fun along the way. 

As I pondered over the best way to encourage Nicky through his chess development, it dawned on me that he was headed down a very similar path: like me, he was taking a highly personal journey defined by his unique style, what he was ready to learn, and when he was ready to learn it (emotionally and mentally).  As in yoga, there was no swift, sure race to the top; for Nicky, most of the fun and challenge was (and is) in reaching toward the next level.  My job was to simply step back and follow Nicky's lead.

I also realized that, unlike in yoga, the one constant for Nicky would be intense tournament competition.  So it seemed we had to develop a level-headed approach to competition (become more yogic?), because even though it can be healthy when channeled correctly, the after-effects are temporary and ephemeral, shifting with the next win or loss.  Therefore, any focus on titles, winning, and achieving ratings points needed to become interim and secondary, never superseding the main purpose of self-improvement and self-enjoyment.

Photo: Nerissa Sparkman
Overall, I like to believe that Nicky's chess life has been fairly balanced.  Sometimes I second-guess our approach to his chess development, especially when it seems others are moving at a faster pace than he is, but whenever that happens, I step back, take a breath, and watch Nicky as he plays.  The joy and intensity emanating from him are enough to convince me we're on the right track.

And finally....
Chess and yoga have lasted through the centuries for one very good reason: they answer a deep-seated call in us, firing up our synapses in a way that goes far beyond data collection and scientific studies (and overly-long articles about their similarities).  Chess' siren call was clearly evident during a break in the photo shoot, when Nicky and Mike sat down for a few blitz games.  Photographer Nerissa Sparkman immediately noticed their sudden high energy shift - how their body language transformed and how their faces lit up as they played.  So even though yoga doesn't speak to Nicky the way it does to me, his enjoyment of chess shines through him the way my passion for yoga radiates within me.  It's the same love taking different forms.

Ultimately, we press on through highs and lows, triumphs and trials, simply because we love what we do.  We thrive on the learning, the challenge, the mental engagement - and most of all, the joy our disciplines bring to us.  And therein lies the unarguable common bond between yoga practitioners and chess players: together, we've found our holy grail, our port in the storm, our inspiration - and for that, we rank among the lucky ones.

Let the games begin! Photo: Nerissa Sparkman


Namaste and good games!


Unlike my tournament reports, which tend to be solo ramblings, this article is the result of others' supportive efforts. 

My writing found its direction and sprang to life through the creative vision of talented photographer, Nerissa Sparkman, whose pictures give emphasis and tons of sparkle to a sometimes-dry subject. Check out her website at http://nerissasparkman.com/ for more of her fun, expressive, and funky photos.

Also thanks to our three patient and good-natured demonstrators: Michael Hutsko, tournament director, coach, and chess enthusiast, who helped us access the giant outdoor chess set at Miami Country Day School; beautiful yogini, Dr. Lisa Fuller, whose dedication to community yoga inspires me; and of course, Nicky, my surprising and wonderful son, whose love for chess has swept me down this joyful and unexpected road.

And a postscript: If you're interested in finding out more about yoga, email me at kimwolhee@rocketmail.com
or hit me up on Facebook: Melinda J Matthews.  And if you'd like to see more of our photo shoot, here's the public facebook link.

 Look for Melinda at CLO editor Jennifer Shahade's Friday, April 5th SuperNationals talk (more on seminars here) and keep an eye on the US Chess Federation channel for more on Melinda and yoga.