Exclusive: Lina Nielsen on yoga in India, visiting Sudan and the road to Tokyo 2020

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Great Britain's Lina Nielsen has accumulated as many miles in contrails as she has metres on the track in 2019.

Nielsen will be the first person to admit that her display at the 2019 British Athletics Championships fell short of expectations, but that seventh-place finish has since brought more positives than negatives. In its wake, that anomalously sunny weekend in Birmingham has peeled away for trips to Sudan, Thailand and - perhaps most crucially - India.

The world's second most populous nation might not sound like the most obvious choice for a post-season detox, but away from the metropolises of Mumbai and New Delhi are great histories and expanses of spirituality. In Nielsen's case specifically, it hosted a course in yoga that could play a role of untold importance as Tokyo 2020 peers over the horizon.

I met Nielsen in a coffee shop just a stone's throw away from the Tower of London this month, and yoga, which she now runs classes for in the capital, was top of our agenda. The 23-year-old disclaimed that she had practised the discipline before, but that her spontaneous trip to Asia cemented its important to her and potentially British Athletics as a whole.

"My goal was to miss athletics so much that I wanted to come back," Nielsen explained word-perfectly. "After the British Championships, I wasn't in a very good place at all. I couldn't find the energy to go to the track, I couldn't find the drive to go to the track. So, I think it was about 3am and I was wide awake on my laptop, looking for places to go on holiday by myself.

Yoga in India

"Then the idea just popped into my head: 'why don't I do my yoga training this year?'. I could go somewhere far away and recover at the same time. So, I booked my flights and when I saw my sister the next morning, I blurted out that I was going to India. It was an impulse decision, but it was the best decision that I've made in a very long time. 

"I think athletes should be practising [yoga] at least once a week, maybe twice or three times, but no more than three. The list of benefits is endless. Physically, it increases circulation, it improves respiration systems, but also mentally, it lets you calm down and find some time to relax. It's really important for mind-body awareness."

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Experiencing meditation

Meditation also took centre stage during Nielsen's Asian excursion. Like many, she admitted that the thought of spending more than two minutes in silence and stasis brought great skepticism. It's more than understandable when her timetable listed a 6am start, 9pm finish and meditation sessions building up to a full two hours. Seriously.

Nielsen joked on reflection: "When I saw the programme, I was like: 'what have I signed up for!?' I was trying to find ways to pull out, I was so scared. They told us that you can't clear your thoughts. That's impossible, unless you're the Dalai Lama! The goal is to observe your thoughts. They made us sit still for five minutes, my back was so sore and I found it really uncomfortable.

"The next day was 10 minutes and then the next day was 15 minutes. By the end of the whole 28-day programme, I had sat there for an hour completely still. After about six or seven days of meditating, I found a way to settle my mind. It's almost like jumping into water and you quickly find that stillness. I would recommend it to anybody." 

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Shifting sands in Sudan

But before the Indian ink had time to dry in her passport, Nielsen was back in the air once again, this time on a trip with her twin sister, Laviai, to visit relatives in northeastern Africa. Sudan is a nation that made headlines in 2019 for, well, not making many headlines. The unrest in Khartoum seemed to stealthily slide between the column inches and attracted attention on social media instead.

You might be familiar with the #BlueForSudan campaign that spread across Instagram, for example. Therefore, Nielsen's first trip to Africa's third largest nation in almost a decade was incredibly enlightening. I was fascinated to hear how positive motifs for change were present throughout the capital and in particular, how attitudes towards women have evolved with the times.

"When I was younger, it was frowned upon for women to wear trousers in Sudan," Nielsen recounted. "It was seen as men's clothing, but a lot of the revolution has been run by young women between the ages of 18 and 21, so they were suddenly taking control of how they thought the country should be ran. So now, they're starting to wear trousers both physically and metaphorically.

"We saw a few marches when we were there. There was graffiti on different buildings, but not like vandalism, it was like the Berlin Wall's sort of graffiti. It was very much like: #Revolution and #WeWantFreedom. It was really interesting to see, in such a small amount of time, how different Sudan had become and we suddenly became very proud of coming from the country."

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All eyes on Tokyo 2020

But what of athletics, the sport which Nielsen will forever hold dear? Now that the post-trials blues have been wiped away, the 400-metre hurdler has detailed decisions for the blank canvas of 2020. After all, the New Year is both the turn of a new decade as well as a year and the world is Nielsen's oyster when the prior ten years saw her rise from a kit-carrier to GB representative.

That very journey started at London 2012 - her sister was famously stood behind Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill - and could soon come full circle at Tokyo 2020. "I'd be an idiot to not try and make that Olympic team," Nielsen told me. "That's always been my dream since I was a kit-carrier in 2012, all those years ago in Stratford.

"Even though I'm a little far off, I don't think it's impossible. So the goal is to make the Olympics, maybe in the 4x400m relay, but that team changes so much. In terms of the 2020s, I just want to see how long I can keep going for. I just want to keep enjoying track and field, that's the main goal. Just enjoying what I'm doing, that's the main focus, because I wasn't doing that last year."

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Nielsen's fresh outlook

All eyes are now on those five technicolour rings. Call it realistic or not, Nielsen is hurtling towards the New Year feeling fitter than ever and with a new mental outlook which is arguably most important. While it would be hyperbole to brand her 2019 travels as some sort of Eureka moment, there can be no doubting that it's paved her future path with greater illumination.

Whether that be profiting from the benefits of yoga or finding solace in meditation, Nielsen has wired a fresh mentality that seems conducive with nothing but success. Besides, the key to success in athletics doesn't lie between the white lines of the track, but behind the whites of the eyes. 

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