Most of Missoula was still asleep. The morning light, just creeping over Mount Jumbo’s broad back, was soft as I ran through the shadows along the creek. I slowly twisted north, first on road, then trail, crisscrossing between Ponderosa pines and tall grass still wet and heavy with dew. Once my stride settled, my breath followed. My heartbeat steadied. My mind fell into the moment. I was awake, alive, and strong.
This is why I love to run. It is the feeling that my lungs and legs could carry me forever. It is the freedom, rhythm, and grace—just as if I were floating from one yoga posture to another…
Yep, there’s that comparison again: Yoga and running. What an unexpected but wonderful pair!
Or so I thought, until a yoga teacher told me I wasn’t to mention my proclivity in front of her again. Running, she said, was the antithesis of yoga—it tightens and stresses the body; it is harsh and jarring; it is, for her long list of reasons, un-yogic. Yoga, she countered, strengthens the entire body; lubricates each joint; deepens and calms the breath; and, in addition to all the physical and emotional benefits, is a deeply spiritual practice that makes us more mindful and peaceful.
Resources for yogis, runners and even yogi-runners:
For runners looking for yoga postures that increase flexibility, build core strength and loosen over-worked, over-taut muscles and tendons, yoga teacher Lynn Burgess offers some instruction at RunnerGirl.com. Recommendations include: Downward-facing dog (to strength knees, lengthen hamstrings, elongate spine), Triangle Pose (stretch butt, lower back, open chest) and, among others, Tree Pose (open hips, strengthen legs, increase balance).
For yogis and/or runners interested in incorporating the smooth, rhythmic breath of their yoga practice into their cardiovascular activities, writer Susan Moran shares tips in “Going the Distance” (Yoga Journal, February 2007). Moran draws mostly on John Douillard’s book Body, Mind and Sport, which touts the benefits of deep nasal breathing during sports. Deep or diaphragmatic (as opposed to chest breathing) brings more oxygen deeper into the lungs, ultimately engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. When were are in “parasympathetic dominance,” she writes, the mind is calmer, the heart rate is slower, less stress hormones are produced, and perceived exertion decreases.
Also of interest, and also titled “Going the Distance”, (again in Yoga Journal, though this one is available to read online), Nancy Coulter-Parker writes about increasing athletic endurance—what she defines as “the ability to persevere”—with yoga.
Related Online Articles:
In short, yoga good, running bad. And despite the irony of judgment, I have since noticed the creeping shadow of my own ruling on running as … well … lesser than.
Also somewhat ironic, however, as my yoga practice deepens (and displaces many of those long runs), I realize how important it is to continue running. It may make me tight and a bit farther from my toes in head-to-knee pose (janu sirsasana) or hand-to-big toe pose (padangusthasana), but how can something so uplifting and magical be bad? Well it ain’t, say a good number of Missoulians and runners-slash-yogis that I know elsewhere. They love yoga and they love running, and they find that the two complement, not contradict, one another.
Jill Beauchesne is one such Missoulian. She is a yoga teacher and a three-time marathon runner.
Jill started running in college after she gained the dreaded “freshman 15.” She started small and slow with a 2.3-mile loop around her parents’ house. Gradually, she added little loops to the original until she was running five or six miles a couple times a week. Eventually, Jill ran everyday, and by her junior year, she decided to train for a 10-mile race.
“I started to think of myself as a runner,” she says, of the sense of self and pride that the sport lent. For Jill, though, being a runner—as is the case for many female athletes I know—was not just about being strong and fit. It was about being thin. During her last two years of college she struggled with anorexia. She woke up, ran six miles, ate a bowl of cereal, went to class, and by the end of the day dragged herself home. Though running didn’t cause her eating disorder, the manic, disciplined behavior she developed around the sport didn’t help, either.
When she was ready to heal, however, running did help. And not just the casual, couple-mile runs. It was training for—and more importantly, completing—her first marathon that helped Jill get and stay healthy.
“It was an amazing feeling, crossing that finish line,” she says. “I realized that I can be a runner and an athlete without starving myself and without looking a certain way. That was an important lesson for me.”
The other thing that helped her heal was yoga, which made her feel strong and capable. Through her asana practice she became intimate with her breath, and learned what pushing too hard sounds and feels like. Before yoga, says Jill, she felt like her body was an inanimate object outside of herself. Something that, for better or worse, hung dispassionately from her head. Yoga has and continues to reintroduce and reintegrate herself to herself.
“I remember when [a teacher] said ‘who you are on the mat is who you are,’” she says, which is strong and athletic despite not being model thin. “Yoga makes me feel good about how I feel in a pose, not how I look.”
And though running can slow her asana practice by tightening her muscles and limiting her flexibility, she will continue to run because she loves it—something she knows with her heart, body and mind thanks to yoga.
“For so many years I told myself what I could and could not do,” says Jill. “I am not going to do that anymore. I want to enjoy my body and life and part of that is being able to run up a hill.”
Laura Bender is a personal trainer in Missoula who integrates yoga into everyone of her clients’ program. In addition to what she calls the “standard” benefits of yoga—increased strength and flexibility; greater lung capacity; better joint mobility—she enjoys helping people “find their inner power.”
“Yoga helps athletes focus on what is going on inside the body. It is really good at honing that internal voice,” she says.
For really stressed-out clients, Laura recommends gentle and restorative yoga. For runners, who naturally gravitate towards more active and energetic endeavors (more masculine or “yang” activities), she is careful about the poses and practices that she incorporates.
Also, doing yoga in hot rooms can be dangerous, she says, especially for runners who are in the habit of pushing hard. She has seen people overstretch and hurt themselves.
Despite this, Laura runs and practices Ashtanga—a vigorous form of Hatha Yoga—almost daily. Her yoga practice is not just about stretching and balancing her body, though; it is about stretching and balancing her mind. And because Ashtanga is so physically challenging, she has been forced to cultivate the yogic practices of mindfulness, awareness and non-self.
“I remember the first yoga class I took, and [my teacher] said leave your ego at the door. But, for me, the whole class was about ego. My whole athletic career was about my ego, so this was a whole new experience for me,” she says.
Yoga is not an athletic endeavor, Laura says. It is much more, and in some ways, more difficult (much like the practice of maintaining self worth apart from achieving the full expression of a particular pose). So while runners should be mindful of the practice they choose, the lessons yoga has to teach any athlete are many.
To the extent that running and yoga are connected, I now defer to the marathon monks of Mount Hiei. Since 1885, 46 monks from a monastery on Japan’s Mount Hiei have completed 1,000 marathons-worth (and more than 27,000 miles) of running. Wearing white robes, straw sandals, and hats shaped like lotus flowers, the monks run almost continuously for seven years. They sleep, drink and eat little. In the fifth year, after 700 marathons, the gyoja (“spiritual athletes”) fast for nine days. In the 6th year, they run 37 miles each day. During the seventh year, they run 52 miles 200 different times. Each run is punctuated with as many as 270 stops at shrines and temples to pray and chant. The monks come close to death in order to know life. They run to realize yoga.
While you (and certainly not I) may not be willing to run 1,000 or even one marathon, the story supports yoga’s tradition of interconnectedness where all things—including running—are as divine (and yogic) as you let them be. So next time I get or give myself flak for running, I shall ring my internal bell of mindfulness. Running is yoga just as much (or only as much) as I let it be.
Check back each Friday for Yoga On & Off the Mat with Brooke Hewes. Bookmark www.newwest.net/yoga.