Are we all just Messi on the mat?


World Cup 2014 ends on Sunday. When it started, I thought for sure that I’d be a soccer widow, losing my husband to a month’s worth of matches. But as I wrote in this guest column in a local publication, I decided to get into the game myself — and in short order, I’ve become quite the fan.

A year or so before the World Cup started, actually, I had decided that I would be an occasional FC Barcelona fan because of one man — Lionel Messi — who happens to be the best futbol player on the planet. (Sorry, Ronaldo fans!) Here’s a video of some of Messi’s best goals, if you’ve never seen him in action.

In any case, a piece in Slate that promised to explore how “Lionel Messi has figured out how to win matches by moving less than everyone else” recently caught my eye because — you guessed it — it reminded me of lessons learned on the mat:

FIFA’s post-match data confirmed the impression that Messi had expended less energy to exert more influence than anyone else on the field. He moved 10.7 kms in 130 minutes of game time, meaning he covered less ground than any other outfield player who completed the match. He also spent less time engaged in medium- and high-intensity activity than any other outfielder. And his 31 sprints were fewer than any other outfielder who completed the match except Federico Fernández and Fabian Schär, who are both central defenders.

No doubt Messi’s economy of effort was part of the reason why he had the strength, in the 118th minute, to accelerate beyond the exhausted challenge of Schär and roll that precise assist into the path of di María. Messi’s run to set up the goal was clocked at 27.58 km/hr, and it was the fastest he had moved in the match.

To say that Messi limits his running because he wants to save his energy for when he really needs it is probably true, but misses a larger point. Lots of players know how to pace themselves. Only Messi has figured out how to win matches by moving less than everyone else.

Do you remember first learning sun salutations? For most of us, they seemed hard — total work. Over time, though, through consistent practice, we start to learn the energetic dance. We are given tristhana, the three places of attention, which includes a sequence stunningly choreographed to work with our nervous system. We learn how our bodies and our minds move. And we start to flow. We start to find movement with less effort, less resistance and more focus.

In short, what Messi makes look so natural on the field with the ball, we start to find as well in the form of flickers of flowing with our physical body, our energy body, and maybe even other sheaths.

If I’m sounding awfully poetic about this, I would have to admit that it’s not necessarily my practice that inspired this feeling. It’s been the honor and privilege of watching the progression of students’ practice by serving as an Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor apprentice for the past two years and teaching led ashtanga classes at Hilltop Yoga in Lansing for four years now.

When I see someone like Messi on the field, as inspiring as his brilliance and athleticism are, an undercurrent of what strikes me is how that aspect of being at one with something — a soccer ball, a field of players, whatever — can be achieved each time we’re on the mat. Unlike sports, of course, ashtanga is not about competition and winning — and certainly, no cheering crowds or titles await. The progress might not even be evident on the outside.

But the achievement? Who’s to say it’s any less magnificent to witness?

(Photo credit: Via

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