A short reflection on running and mindfulness today.
My first love is and always has been running – I’ve run consistently since I was a teenager and it’s been a kind of up-and-down relationship. Running when I’m angry, running on good days and holidays. I found my way to the yoga mat in a period when I “broke up” with running for a bit, frustrated with a hairline foot fracture. I feel like this is the beginning of a story we’ve heard many times: person has an injury, yoga saves their life. That is difference from my experience; I keep looking for ways to create balance between yoga and running. These nine-plus weeks in yoga teacher training (YTT) has given me a lot of time to reflect on my relationship with running and how my practice can complement it. In the last weeks, we’ve moved through many asana and the phrase that I keep coming back to, is “sthira sukham asanam” – that asana should be steady, stable and motionless, bringing comfort to the mind without swings or pain, pleasure or suffering. Is it possible to apply this to the act of running? To simply, naturally, be in the motion with no discomfort?
On the last few runs, I tried to bring my focusing to my breath and being present (and also not crashing into cyclists or lamposts!). It’s quite different from switching off from being numb or bored after long distances. It’s almost liberating, to find seconds and minutes of centred-ness in motion. Like mindfulness practice, I count the inhalations and exhalations while running, working to get my strides aligned with my breath. Cycles of 20. I’m currently working my way through a book “Still Running” by Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, a mindfulness practitioner and ultra-runner. Her book is helpful and enriching in many ways, but this section was particularly memorable. In “Abdominal Breathing” she writes:
“Begin by establishing a running pace that you can maintain for the duration of your run… Using the hara as ground or ‘seat’ of your awareness, focus all your attention on your breath as you run. Notice how your abdomen naturally expands as your inhale, then contracts as you exhale. Breathe easily and evenly, placing slightly more attention on the exhale as you let your body inhale by itself…. Anchor your mind in it. Let every cell in your body, every thought in your mind, be nothing but breath.When you become distracted, see the thought, set it aside and come back. Keep running until you feel you are well grounded in the breath.”
Here I’m thinking – that’s it! Mindfulness as applied to running. Metre to kilometre, seeing the thought and setting it aside. Focus on the breath. I’m going to do this with my runs and see where this takes me, internally.
The first day Satya arrived. I had been going along quite happy with my practice, staying focused and breathing my way through the sore muscles, endless sweat dripping and lots and lots of pushups. I felt I was getting stronger and more flexible with each day. Until now.
What makes it possible to do the asanas one day and not be able to achieve that the next. I had gone through all the same steps and done all the same movements but my concentration was distracted. There was something inside me that wanted to get out.
I have a knee that is recovering from a reconstruction. I know that I have limits from this but I also know this has allowed me opportunity for huge improvement. I normally feel determined this will not stop me in my practice, it will only make me stronger.
Today my mind used my knee as an excuse. The day before we did the active meditation, where you run on the spot for 15min. I have been running on my knee since the operation so I decided this activity would be fine. We did the exercise then an hour and a half practice. My knee was a little tight but overall not too bad. The next day I went to practice and started out fine. As I got further into the asanas my body was giving me little hints something was out of balance. One side was compensating and my muscles were not as relaxed as usual. Thoughts started to creep into my mind about my injury. Should I be doing this or that and why does it hurt today and it didn’t yesterday. This was enough to take my concentration away from my breath and let frustration creep in. Then I started thinking you should listen to your body and maybe not push it too hard if it is injured. But how do you know if it is too hard or if it is just your mind trying to control you. I find it more challenging to take a step back and sit out than push on and find out.
We also had the distraction of having a different teacher, my boyfriend was arriving at that time and another student had to leave unexpectedly for singapore. I was not conscious of all of these distractions at the time but looking back I am sure they somehow played a part.
My emotions were coming to the surface and my practice was going downhill. My breath was all over the place along with my body and my mind. I noticed I had started breathing through my mouth. This bought my awareness back to my breath.
I kept going and struggling with frustration until I found my breath again .The Ujjayi breathing got me back in the room and in touch with the asanas. I focused my thoughts on my breath and breathed my way through the rest of practice. The last part was salvaged. I did feel drained but I felt I had achieved something as I was able to regain my focus which also reinforced the lesson of the power of the breath.