It wasn’t until I starting caring for and accepting myself on the yoga mat that I started caring for and accepting myself on the trails.
“I really love to run.” I said. “How much is running going to affect my yoga practice?”
“Well,” said Ellie, my yoga teacher, “Running is a tightening activity. Yoga is an opening activity.”
“Do you think I can do both?” I asked.
She replied “Yes, but you’ll have to work really hard.”
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I clearly remember the moment I decided to get serious about yoga. Last summer I was deep in the midst of the most profound wave of anxiety and depression I had ever experienced and was seeking professional help for the first time. Looking back, I realize I had been dealing with these demons for much of my life, never knowing how to name them. After hearing my story of panic attacks, sleepless nights, inability to focus, and lack of interest in music, my therapist said, “You must do yoga every day. You must meditate every day. You must exercise every day. You must play the trombone every day. If you do all of those things with consistency and still don’t feel any better, then, and only then, can we talk about prescription drugs.”
I had come up against something in my life that was beyond my capacity to handle, so I promised myself that I would do exactly as she said. Sure enough, a (almost) daily yoga practice, along with consistent exercise, meditation, and music-making, began to alchemize the soreness in my body and the tempest in my mind. Yoga became a way to work backwards from my forward-racing mind, a way to work inwards to find my true self.
I also clearly remember the moment I decided to start running. I was sitting on my parents’ couch in our home in Birmingham, Alabama during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I looked up from whatever book I was reading, noticed the beautiful day outside and thought, “I’m overweight. I have to run.” I called a few of my friends and we headed down to a local trail to heave our pudgy, teenaged bodies across a couple of miles. It hurt.
Running continued to hurt for many years afterwards, but I still did it, because I knew it was good for me, but also because, in a way, I liked the idea of punishing myself. I thought that punishing my body would help me atone for what I ate, how I looked, and, ultimately, how I felt about myself. I pushed myself to go faster and farther in what was often an attempt to escape from the present moment. I continued to run in this way through college, through my move to Richmond, and through several relationships and breakups. It wasn’t until I starting caring for and accepting myself on the yoga mat that I started caring for and accepting myself on the trails. Running became a way to work backwards and inwards to my true self.
I’m not a trained runner in any sense of word. I was never on a track team, and I’ve only run a couple of organized races. At my personal peak, I would run 25-30 miles a week but have scaled that back to 10-15 to make way in my hamstrings for yoga. I’m not a yoga or meditation guru but I have been practicing consistently for nearly a year, under the instruction of Ellie Burke, and have witnessed profound changes in all parts of my life, even remarking to someone recently that there are no longer ‘parts’ of my life. How I run is how I eat is how I feel is how I love is how I practice yoga is how I play trombone is how I…
A good friend of mine recently tweeted that she was experiencing upper back pain after her runs. I flew to my computer and typed out what would become this article. While I can only speak to what has worked for me, I hope that the following can inspire others to learn to run and to live free from injury, carried along by limitless inspiration. The running techniques below have helped me to run with love and acceptance rather than from them, to work backwards towards my true self.
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The present moment
During my first vinyasa class with Ellie Burke, after some announcements, she invited us to begin the practice by centering.
“Find a comfortable seat on your mat or on a blanket, crossing your legs at the shins. It doesn’t matter what you look like. What matters is that you feel stable and supported. Bow the head and gently close the eyes. Bring your awareness to the sounds in the room or just outside of the room. Let them wash over you without judging them, without creating a story around them. Now become aware of sensation, of your feet against the floor, the support of your seat, your hands on your legs. Maintaining awareness of sound and sensation, bring your awareness to the breath without changing it. Even, steady inhale. Even, steady, exhale. The mind will wander, that is its nature. When the mind wanders you can always bring your awareness back to experience, back to sound, sensation and breath. Through experience we reconnect with our true nature, that which is perfect, whole, and complete.”
First, I humbly suggest that, when you go out to run, you leave the watch and the ipod at home and put away the scale. These are useful tools but they represent narratives of the mind, not awareness of the body. When we come into awareness of the physical body, how it feels instead of where and how fast it’s going, that awareness reveals new sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Meditators know that, in stillness, we can observe these phenomena. As runners, we can we can cultivate stillness as we move. Instead of focusing on pace, distance, and weight, let’s become aware of breath, sound, and sensation.
Late one October, I was lacing up to do a few laps around the track at Hanover High School. I work with the marching band there, and the band director and I had planned to run a couple of miles after rehearsal. I’d forgotten my running shoes but I did have a pair of Chinese volleyball shoes I bought in Qingdao while visiting my brother a couple of summers ago. With the legends of the Tarahumara runners racing through my head thanks to Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, I decided to give the minimal shoe thing a try.
Sure enough, running on the balls of my feet, necessitated by my shoe’s skinny, uniform sole, dropped me immediately into an intensely quiet experience. I spent the next mile running in a kind of trance, each sound and sensation echoing through me in slow motion. Feeling good, I listened to the voice of my old runner-self when it says “You should do another mile. Make sure you get your workout in.” Not being content in the present moment, I pushed through the extra mile and came to rest with a deeply knotted right calf. I had run a little too hard and in ways my muscles weren’t used to. Running quietly had expanded my awareness, but I had injured myself by placing my concern on the outcome of my experience, not on the experience itself.
Close your eyes. Let the sounds inside and outside of the room wash over you and through you, without grabbing at them or creating a story around them. Check in with your body and notice if you feel more centered and present. Now close your eyes and repeat the process. How do you feel?
Perhaps the greatest external indicator of running ease and efficiency is sound. Check in with the sound created by your feet striking the ground. The heel, since it contains little to no natural shock absorption transforms a significant amount of its striking energy into sound. Take your shoes off and run around for a minute or two. Notice how your foot meets the ground. Striking at the mid-foot or on the ball mounds allows the structure of the foot to absorb and dissipate the impact. It should be noted that any change in footwear or switch from heel-strike to toe-strike while running should be done gradually.
Using your current technique, but without focusing too intently on exactly how you are doing it, just try to run more quietly and see if that improves how you feel in the rest of the body. Run in such a way that your footfalls integrate with the ambient noise around you rather than block it out. On symbolic level, a loud, stomping footfall resists the support that the ground has to offer, while a soft footfall accepts that support. Acceptance of support empowers us.
I took a run after completing the first draft of this very article. I could feel that I hadn’t run in a week or so–my yoga-stretched hips and hamstrings struggled to remember this way of moving. I headed west on Monument on an unseasonably warm February day, and as I turned south on Malvern, I felt a slight tweak in my left foot, something at the top of my arch. I didn’t feel pain there, but rather, discomfort and similar sensations radiating through my upper back. I brought my awareness directly to my left arch, telling myself that I’ll stop if this discomfort becomes pain. The tweak remained even after my left turn onto Grove, but as I crossed over Thompson into the home stretch, it disappeared. Almost at the same moment, my hips and legs engaged and any trace of tension disappeared from my face, neck, and upper back. I ran the final mile and a half feeling euphoric.
Scan the body for places where you might be holding tension. Let the muscles of the face relax. Drop the tongue to the bottom of the mouth. Relax the jaw. Let the shoulders glide down the back. Sit with a tall spine, without rounding in the lower back. Check in with the body. Repeat this process with the eyes closed. How do you feel?
An awareness of the sound of our feet leads to the awareness of the sensation in our feet. Awareness of sensation can then pervade the rest of the body and we then discover the places where we hold unnecessary tension. This tension is a sign of avoidance of the present moment, of sending energy to parts of the body not engaged with the task at hand. As you run, relax the muscles in the face, neck, and upper back, allowing the energy of movement and contact to radiate through the body instead of resisting this energy. Notice how this release of tension affects your breathing and the way your feet strike the ground. Run while occasionally checking in with and releasing the tension in the body. Notice if, after your run, you feel less pain, discomfort and soreness. You might even notice a shift in your inner dialogue, replacing “at least running doesn’t hurt anymore” to “running feels good.”
On a late summer day, I ran one of my favorite Richmond routes–one that I call The Beast. It begins at my apartment and heads west through The Fan, turning south through Byrd Park before crossing the Nickel Bridge onto the southside Buttermilk trail. Swinging east, I navigated the ups and downs of the path as it wound through the trees along the river and then crossed Belle Isle. I maintained an even breath-to-step pace but my mind looked ahead to the steep ascent to Oregon Hill on the other side of the river. I reminded myself that the best preparation I could make for this hill is to run efficiently and with awareness. As I emerged from the trees and out into the field beneath the overpass, the sun hit my face and wiped out my anxiety about the approaching climb. I felt a profound sense of joy and contentment in the present moment, in just breathing and moving. When I reached the final climb, I ran straight up, without needing to rest at the top. I ran another mile through Oregon Hill and came to rest on my front porch in the The Fan, feeling as though I could run forever. It was the first time I had completed The Beast without a rest stop in years.
Inhale while slowly counting to four internally. Exhale while slowly counting to four internally. Practice this pattern for a few inhale/exhale cycles. When you have finished, check in with your body. How do you feel?
Start running. Inhale slowly through the nose for as many steps as is comfortable. Exhale through the nose for the same number of steps. As your heart rate increases, gradually work the ratio down to 4/4 or whatever is comfortable, and continue at that pace. Instead of adapting your breathing to your running, adapt your running to your breathing–never running faster or for longer than you can while maintaining that breath pace.
Continue to breathe through the nose for the duration of your run. Of course, if you start feeling light-headed or are receiving other panic signals from the body, do what you need to do to return to equilibrium. Breath-focus has been at the center of meditation disciplines for thousands of years but can also be a powerful tool for runners. When you feel the mind start to wander away from the experience of running, return your awareness to the breath and see how that centering affects the body. I have experienced some of the most profoundly euphoric moments of my life while running with breath-focus, but I have also experienced some of the most emotionally challenging moments in this way. Focusing on the breath opens us to the present moment and whatever it has to offer.
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When we bring our awareness to sound, sensation, and breath, we begin to observe the mind, which is perhaps the greatest obstacle to joyful, loving running. Through awareness, we teach the mind the difference between pain and discomfort. Pain is a signal of impending injury. Discomfort is often the signal of impending discovery. Experiencing this difference has a profound impact on our running and on our lives.
Through awareness, we release ourselves from our attachment to the outcomes of our running: distance, speed, and weight-loss. These measurements are only narratives created by the mind. Sound, sensation, and breath are not parts of a narrative but rather they are parts of our raw experience. Take a few weeks, or just one day a week, to run with awareness and see how you feel. When you feel good, you can go farther and faster than you ever thought possible.