The Yogi who Runs (nothing special)
Let me start with a phrase from B. K. S. Iyengar, one of the great yoga teachers of our age who stated "Western minds and eastern thoughts" as a way of understanding the mutual strengths of both apparently opposing philosophies. When one thinks of running, I reckon most people think of a hard, rational training approach to their running development, this would include running training programmes, the science of running shoes, competitive running and the like. This, in my view, would be the western mind. When one thinks of yoga and other alternative forms of exercise I think most people view them as a soft option, holistic and soft and fluffy around the edges. A lack of impact in an exercise regime that needs a clear outcome. Sound familiar?
I am a yogi first and a runner second, I happen to be a chi running instructor , Iyengar yoga student with 15 years experience and a keen tour cyclist. I do 'stuff' to keep myself fit,mentally, as well as physically. I have, thanks to my PE and Maths teaching background, a lot of 'coaching awards'. So I understand about technique, drills and performance related targets. They do work but I believe there is a missing element when one only approaches exercise in this manner.
Let me first explain why I practice yoga. I will then briefly discuss how I changed my running programme to fit my overall well being philosophy. I can only give signposts here but I have recommendations for further reading at the end of this article.
When I first began yoga it was three weeks after we lost our first daughter to tragic circumstances. A friend recommended the class and to be honest I needed something after two years of all consuming care, hospitals and the ultimate decision any parent would wish to avoid. I was, in a sense, I believe ripe for re-scripting my views on exercise. I should explain that in my twenties I was somewhat of an exercise junkie, long distance swims, cycling, weights etc were all consumed with a desire and perhaps even a narcissistic passion.
My time in the armed forces demanded competition and physical exertion. Put these two together and you have a description of me of old. Attending yoga class for the first few times I focused on the territory I knew and could achieve. That being 'who is the bendiest, who can keep the pose for longest'. I attended with a group of three other men; we certainly enjoyed it but again the desire for fitness was all consuming.
To cut a long story very short, yoga is not about exercise. Yoga is about gaining an understanding that mind and body unite together through the asanas (poses) which are bonded by the breath ( the wind of the instrument). Over the years I have learnt to be compassionate and generous in practice. To still my mind and focus on the now, the moment. The outcome of yoga permeates life and as a result I have to come to terms with what mental and physical well being means. The problem with yoga is that benefits are not immediately apparent ( western minds again). We demand immediate results, the now and do not pay attention to the process. Yoga demands that we evolve in practice and grow mentally, becoming more resilient to what life can and does throw at us. I am not sure a pure exercise regime does that.
Now we come to running, as much as I love yoga I also love to run. The joy in simply being outside ( I stress here natural trails, beaches and mountains)is a real stimulus and gives further balance.
This was not always the case and even when practicing yoga I would run in a more muscle orientated manner. This was fine to about mile 15 but bad form would take it's toll and I would collapse with foot injuries, Achilles strains or muscle pain. What I did not realise but do now is that yoga is, of course, practised in bare feet. We focus on strong feet being the initiator of a good line through your body including your core. By strapping my feet to heavy trainers I lost my connection with my feet;my breath became ragged and I defaulted back to 'muscle man running'.
Understanding that minimalist/barefoot running is not a fad but about tuning into your environment in a more natural and instinctive manner. For example, your body makes micro adjustments when you run barefoot in the sand. I get most of my chi running students to do this exercise on my local beach. As a result of forming a running practice that focuses on good form ( chi running) then distance finally speed one recognises that fluency in running is achieved by practicing slowly, correctly and persistently this then is finally transformed to speed ( I must digress, Mozart is reputed to have said 'it is easier to play quickly and make mistakes, but is that music?).
Let me now share some thoughts from Shunryu Suzuki a Zen practitioner and master. The book is recommended for reading among others at the end of this article. I will take a few of his short article headers and amplify the point through to what I think about when I run. it may be challenging for some of you to see running in this way. I will be honest with you, it was for me but I had had enough of battling with time/speed and a former me that was no longer relevant.
In Japanese, the word "shoshin" means beginners mind. Approaching your pain-free running technique in a beginner's way every day means stripping bare all misconceptions, failures and successes. Practicing running means beginning again and focusing as you would as if you were learning fresh, from the beginning. Yes, learn from previous but do not cloud your mind in assumption of knowing.
Here I challenge you to observe every single breath when running. View your in breath as entering your inner world, the out breath as entering the outer world. Thin long breaths through your nose work so much better than through the mouth, if you are gasping for breath and breathing hard then you are past your edge, slow down and breath long and thin. When you observe your breath in this manner you are in tune with you, and interestingly tension in shoulders, legs and arms disappears. Even if you get a few seconds of this feeling you will understand its potential. Barefoot running or minimalist running heightens this sensation and, as I have found, my feet relax through this breath and I run quieter, more controlled and in tune with my surroundings.
Running is a simple practice, if you practice it everyday you will feel the power of attaining nothing special! The challenge here is to realise that yoga and running I believe give us humility in practice. When I finish a run or complete yoga practice I do not feel the need to speak. I am nothing. Our lives seem to about attaining things, wealth or stuff. Have you ever thought about attaining nothing. Run with no desire to attain. If you find this difficult run at least once a week with no Garmin, no landmarks, just you and your breath and observe the effects.
Of course I could go on and I will not attempt to replace thousands years of philosophy but I would like to leave you with a sentence or two from Erich Schiffman about effort and practice.
"The hallmark of practice is wholeness, wholeheartedness, not being in conflict ... it is not about pushing through the pain or overcoming pain, no pain no gain. If you are having to be brave and courageous in order to stoically withstand excessive intensity you are pushing too hard, you are fighting. Never fight yourself, yoga/running is not about fighting. Intensify when appropriate. Practice skilfully. The optimum degree of intensity is the amount that elicits your fullest attention."
I hope this article makes you reflect on what running and practising running can be about. It may challenge a few of you but I believe that is a good thing. Below is a brief bibliography of books that I have read and placed in order of 'flow'. Enjoy!
Chi Running 2009. Danny Dreyer
YOGA AND MINDFULNESS:
Yoga the spirit and practice of moving into stillness. Erich Schiffman
Light on Yoga. B K S Iyengar
Coming to our senses. Jon Kabat-Zinn
Buddhism without Beliefs. Stephen Batchelor
The art of Happiness. HH Dalai Lama
Healing Anger: The power of patience form a Buddhist perspective HH Dalai Lama
Zen Mind, beginners mind. Shunryu Suzuki
- armed forces